Worship Not the GDP

In recent decades, as economists have gained a preponderant influence not just on economic matters, but also on political and social matters, a country’s GDP, or its per capita GDP, has become a simple numerical way of evaluating its standard of living, while allowing one to compare the standards of living of the inhabitants of different countries. Clearly there is a rough correlation between a country’s per capita GDP and how well off its inhabitants are, as measured by other statistics such as health, longevity, incidence of various diseases, education, literacy, equality, crime, and so forth. However, the belief that material wealth, which is the only thing that the GDP measures, is also an indication of human contentment, satisfaction, and happiness, is a very naive and simplistic belief that has been challenged by more and more writers, thinkers, and politicians. As I have pointed out in several other essays, this confusion is due to the economists’ substitution of their invented concept of “utility” in place of happiness, which they have then quantified in monetary terms. Because so many people have uncritically accepted this bit of economic sophistry, they have meekly accepted the debased coin of material wealth in place of the true coin of happiness.

The frenetic urge continually to increase the GDP every year means that we are never satisfied with what we have, while we are constantly urged by the wily, manipulative, and sometimes desperate producers, marketers, advertisers, and anyone else who is eager to make a profit from us, to spend our money and consume more and more things, such as clothes, food, alcohol, cigarettes, shoes, furniture, medicines, household appliances, electronic gadgets, cars, mechanical equipment, boats, planes, vacations, restaurant meals, excursions, adventures, books, bicycles, toys, tools, drugs, surgical procedures, jewellery, art, music, memorabilia, antiques, renovations, and swimming pools, not to mention larger and larger dwellings and containers to store all these things.

Due to their fixation on the GDP, economists have become the High Priests and Priestesses of the GDP, which it were better to call the “Great, Greedy, Global Demon of Production,” and which increasingly is enslaving more and more of the world’s human population to its very narrow conception of happiness and the meaning of life: to consume as much as possible and increase our consumption from year to year, while not caring at all about the very serious problems that this continually increasing consumption has on other human beings, including those who are not yet born, as well as on other living creatures and the natural environment on which we depend vitally for our existence.

It is entirely possible to lead a rich, meaningful, satisfying, productive, and purposeful life with a low income, just as it is possible to lead a selfish, wasteful, extravagant, vicious, environmentally destructive and harmful, and largely purposeless life while spending a very high income. With the inventions of photography, radio, cinema, television, and the Internet, the plethora of images and models of behaviour one sees in these mediums of mass communication, or, in the case of radio, the facts and models of behaviour one hears related, all evoke in their audience the desire to imitate the things they see being done by the people that appear in them, including the desire to own the things they see other people owning or using. There is no mystery about where all these constantly multiplying desires come from. But since most of these are entirely artificial desires that do not in any way contribute to our survival, whether as individuals or as a species, and since they are responsible for the very serious alteration and deterioration of the physical and natural environment on which we depend for our survival, it logically follows that it is better not to have these desires in the first place rather than to allow them to multiply and then seek to satisfy them.

When one watches the images that are transmitted through these mediums of communication, one is allowing a dangerous virus to enter into one’s brain, a virus that will make one want to imitate the things one sees presented in these mediums, which in turn will make one restless and dissatisfied with one’s life, while constantly yearning for many things that one cannot acquire or do. The fact that many people are dissatisfied with their spouse or companion is a common example. Because we spend so much of our time looking at images of the “perfect” man or woman, we come to lust after these, for most of us, unobtainable images of physical “perfection.”

Even if one spends little or no time observing the images that are transmitted through these mediums of communication, so that one has little or no inclination to imitate them, the fact that one is surrounded by many others who do observe them means that one will often feel obliged to conform to their behaviour, which increasingly is determined by the images and models of behaviour we observe in them. For example, most of us have bought something, such as an item of clothing, a car, or the latest electronic device, simply because we felt embarrassed not to own it; in other words, by buying it, we have conformed to the behaviour of those who are in our realm of influence.

In just a few decades, a period of time that, in evolutionary or planetary terms, is utterly insignificant, our obsession with the GDP, which has led to our abject prostration before this inanimate numerical accounting figure, has resulted in an ever-worsening planetary catastrophe that increasingly threatens not only the survival of a great many of the Earth’s living creatures, but also our own survival. In my opinion, the completely unrealistic economic belief that we can continue to focus solely on increasing the GDP every year, while we ignore the many serious problems which this very narrow goal has begotten, will ultimately lead us to our collective doom. It is time for us to ignore the false and misleading advice proffered by economists, those dangerously myopic intellectual charlatans who claim to know how the human race should behave in order to increase its prosperity, harmony, and happiness, but have instead encouraged us to alter, pollute, contaminate, weaken, impoverish, destabilize, and destroy the very systems, both living and non-living, on which we depend for our existence and the long-term survival of our species.