The bizzaro world of GNP

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, July/August 2013

Our standard measurement of economic success is at odds with most things we truly cherish.

Ah, the wily gross national product, the statistic that has government and commerce cheering each time it moves brightly upward like the fundraising barometers often seen around town. That’s the sign of a robust economy, and when the economy is healthy, so are we all, right?

Well, consider this sobering perspective from 1968: “Our gross national product is now over eight hundred billion dollars a year but [it] counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our roads of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads, and armoured cars for the police who fight the riots in our cities. It counts the television programs [that] glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”

That was Robert Kennedy delivering his first major campaign speech 45 years ago. Finally, it seemed, here was an influential visionary who could grasp that many threads keep a thriving society woven together, and that the snake-oil side of uncontested economic growth can rend huge holes in our social tapestry and then flourish trying to sew them up. Kennedy was probably not the first to warn against measuring ourselves by wealth alone, but his admonition was eloquent in its clarity and palpability. Surely society would take some heed.

But have we? Fast-forward to 2013 and the head office of Exxon-Mobil (easily the largest energy company in the world) where CEO Rex Tillerson addressed his shareholders just weeks ago. “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” he implored, dead earnest, just before they voted down a proposal that would have had the company take measures to finally begin shrinking its behemoth carbon footprint. What he was really saying is that the current corporate economic model is still—and ever more so—single-mindedly about business for maximum profit. But that’s okay, he adds, as long as it creates jobs and stuff to keep us from suffering. Apparently jobs and stuff are what we’re living for. Apparently we’d rather choose death—by extinction—than a scaled-down version of our jobs and stuff.

So much for a philosophical overhaul of the GNP. Big government and business mostly still prefer to keep stimulating the economy the old-fashioned way, which, for Exxon-Mobil, currently includes a mop-up operation in Arkansas where its 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline has ruptured and spilled an estimated 200,000 gallons of Alberta crude. Environmental spills are good for the economy. They generate jobs and revenue and boost the GNP.

So do casinos, divorce, earthquakes, “smart” meters, replacement bridges (whether needed or not), political gridlocks and a loaded ferry sinking in the dead of night.

So does the flooding of 5550 hectares of pristine northern wilderness to build a dam to generate electricity to frack natural gas (ruining still more habitat) to pipe to the coast to sell offshore. And so does the Northern Gateway project, temporarily simmering on the back burner while Premier Clark plays political hardball for a better share of royalties and profits. The premier has promised she’ll be busy generating jobs. Picture them now, first to get all the new mega-projects off the ground and later, to deal with inevitable ecological disaster(s). (Anyone who believes there’ll never be a mishap is probably also easily convinced that we can build an accident-free highway.)

In 2013 the GNP continues to be a frenzied accounting machine that tallies up every monetary transaction and assumes the total is directly correlated to a better life. Today, as in 1968, it favours the high cost of strife over the much lower cost of stability. As Kennedy said back then, it has yet to factor in “the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country…”

In other words, it measures little of what’s most important to us and keeps us blind to crucial truths. Some updated math is long overdue.

In September TDM will explore alternate instruments for measuring quality of life, and invites you to check out the Canadian Index of Wellbeing at https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing in the meantime.