This is a translation of an opinion article (originally in Basque). Published 17 Apr 2021 at Berria: https://www.berria.eus/paperekoa/1952/003/001/2021-04-17/dirua-baino-ongizatea-neurtu.htm
After the Ever Given cargo ship got stuck, I learned that our neighbourhood’s lifelong butcher shop would close. The two events are linked by something, and it is not the pandemic.
When the Suez Canal was blocked, there were about a hundred thousand live animals in the twenty or so boats that stopped, carried to satisfy the markets of the Middle East with European production. In our neighbourhood, shoppers are slowly disappearing from once-full-fledged stores. Meat consumption has not fallen, but shopping habits have changed.
Both are the materialisation of the same trend, the transformation of consumption and production, and with it, of the ecological footprint. Many shoppers, here and in the Middle East, turn to hypermarkets to buy food, without looking much where or how it is produced. The same with clothes, toys, electronic devices … things that also got stuck on the other side of the Suez canal. This change is not only individuals’ responsibility: promotion and acceptance by private and public agents facilitate the proliferation of shopping malls and predatory chain stores. In the meantime, it seems that alternatives that do not go with this trend have become more difficult — who would say that going to a local butcher or buying espadrilles [a traditional shoe] made locally could be considered a transgressive act?
The evolution of industrial production is part of the same trend: attracted by cheap labour and weak regulations in other countries, many companies are gradually moving their production, perhaps even the Tubacex steel pipes [a firm about to lay 600 workers, triggering violent protests]. What used to be produced nearby now is done far away and bought from afar — more and more things. The outcomes? loss of quality jobs and the exploitation of the planet, just like the train that the Marx Brothers fed on timber.
These dynamics are mainly driven by a goal: short-term spending cuts and monetary gains, for both individuals and firms. For governments, this goal takes the form of aiming for GDP growth. Passion for growth fills huge cargo ships.
The concept of GDP was created to measure the income of nations, with a note from its creator: it does not serve to measure development. However, it has been enthroned as an indicator of the progress of nations, and we are blindly looking at it: we have just heard that Navarre’s 2020 GDP and the Basque government growth forecast for 2021 have fallen, causing uncanny feeling of unrest.
But the sole purpose of our activities is not to inflate market value. There are other important goals: stable employment, quality products, education and life opportunities for all, equality, human and ecosystems’ health, and so on. If a company or nation maximizes revenues by sacrificing any of these goals, this should not be called development. As many have long said and as recently strengthened by the Dasgupta Review commissioned by the UK Treasury, development must be measured in terms of what is important to society, and this measure must guide policy. Several indicators that do this are up and running, such as the Human Development Index, the Inclusive Wealth Index, or portfolios of key indicators.
Key decisions for rebuilding the economy are what goals are to be achieved and how the intermediary progress will be assessed and communicated. It is time to let go unlimited growth and prioritise other goals. This would provide a model that society (private agents and individuals) can follow. This would attract less Ever Given, a better environment and greater well-being.