Our leaders are like teenage boys taking the economy out for a spin in dad's
car. Politicians want to go as fast as they can, without getting caught or
crashing. They want our economy to grow as much as possible, to make the Gross
Domestic Product, or GDP (the total output of goods and services in this
country) get bigger and bigger and bigger. The governors at the Federal Reserve
Bank are worried about getting caught by inflation or crashing into a recession.
Their motto is: "Don't grow too fast, but grow steadily." Continuous growth in
the dollar value of the GDP is the goal.
By focusing our attention on a few percentage points or even tenths of a percent
difference in the GDP's annual growth, our leaders distract us from the more
important question of what the GDP really measures. Once we understand what it
measures and what it doesn't, we'll know why the continuous growth of the GDP is
truly like a cancer and as such isn't necessarily in our best interest.
Economists like to keep track of things which are easy to count such as
expensive weapons systems or big new shopping centers . The numbers add up very
quickly. It doesn't matter whether they're being built, modified expensively or
being taken apart. The numbers always go up.
On the other hand, the food from our gardens and the fruits of our volunteer
work don't have a number value, so they are impossible to count. Economists
don't even consider them.
New prisons and casinos, long hospital stays, natural disasters and
rapidly-obsolescent cars and appliances are all easy to count. They make the
GDP go up.
Home cooked meals, quality time spent with our children, clothes drying on a
line in the sunshine and health maintained with a good diet and plenty of
exercise are hard to put a dollar value on, so they aren't included in the GDP.
Clear-cut forestry, superfund toxic-dump sites, nuclear power and its wastes, as
well as heart disease and cancer push the GDP up. The more expensive the
problem, the higher the GDP.
In contrast, preserved wilderness, modest lifestyles, happiness and peace,
aren't counted. They barely affect the GDP.
Insofar as we've got some of the most powerful people in the world telling us,
in effect, that we want to increase the things we can measure and not bother
with the things we can't, it isn't surprising that we find ourselves with an
over abundance of expensive problems and a shortage of peace and happiness.
Using the GDP to guide us, it's easy to justify fighting a costly war half way
around the world to get oil to heat our homes instead of using south-facing
windows to get that energy for free. It's no wonder that we need irrigation
projects, pesticides, fertilizers, expensive machinery, packing sheds, migrant
laborers, trucks, transcontinental highways, parking lots, supermarkets, lights,
cooler cases, wrappers and trash incinerators just to get lettuce that is easily
grown in our yards or even in a window box.
Redefining Progress, a San Francisco organization, has proposed a solution. Its
"Genuine Progress Indicator" attempts to correct the GDP. It subtracts the
value of depleted natural resources and the costs of pollution, crime and family
breakdown, and adds the value of housework and volunteer work, for example.
Since 1950, the "Genuine Progress Indicator" has lost a third of its value,
while the GDP has more than doubled.
We find great satisfaction in reducing our consumption and increasing our
production. Less television and greasy fast food, fewer aluminum cans and
extravagant vacations, and more gardens, solar energy, volunteer work and family
Last Saturday I went to the recycling center in town. I was delighted to see so
many people there, even though one of the workers said it was a slow day. Less
than twenty years ago, all the waste in our town went to a landfill in a
wetland. So, we are capable of making important changes in our behavior.
But as long as we're guided by a system which values the sales of cigarettes,
alcohol, weapons and elaborate entertainments over family, love, peace and
happiness, you know what we'll get.
Ask a politician what he or she wants to grow.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Solar Farm Edcuation is based on the Old Solar Farm, operated for about half of
this century by Joe and Josephine Solar. Suzanne and Bill Duesing are working
to increase the direct use of solar energy and the number of farms and gardens.
Solar Farm Education works to increase local sufficiency and organic agriculture
through a variety of projects including lectures, writings, a long-running
school garden program in Bridgeport, an educational farm in New Haven and work
with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and the New Haven Ecology
Since 1990, Bill and Suzanne have produced a weekly radio essay/commentary for
broadcast onWSHU, 91.1 FM , public radio from Fairfield, Connecticut. Living on
the Earth airs every Friday morning at 6:53. New essays are posted weekly at
A collection of over 90 of Bill's essays, Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays
for a Sustainable and Joyful Future, published by LongRiver Books in 1993 is
available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid for
the first copy. $12 each thereafter. Quantity discounts available.