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More Intimate Reflections on the Un-measurable Consequences of Economic Growth: Introduction
Vinod Anand | 23 Feb 2012

The clichés that come jingling towards a company's unwavering belief in economic progress (to which the company makes a modest contribution) and its power to make the world a richer, more varied, and more 'exciting' place to live in, have already been subjected to some buffeting.

WHAT SLENDER links remain between economic growth and social welfare must now come under further strain as we remove some of the pegs from the framework of analysis familiar to economists.The old-fashioned economic law of eventually diminishing marginal utility was founded on the supposed satiation of human wants, whether the wants were physical, intellectual, aesthetic or emotional. No matter how rich he becomes a man has still but one pair of eyes, one pair of ears, one stomach, one sexual organ, a single brain and a single nervous system. In the face of this unremarkable fact of life, continuous material growth cannot be sustained by a system geared simply to producing ever larger quantities of the same goods.

Hence there is the importance of product innovation. New and more expensive goods and services continuously supervene. And in the endeavour to ensure that men change their wants as rapidly, the economic system must be no less adept at creating dissatisfaction. Its success in this respect is symbolized by the postwar emergence of the 'pace-setter' - an ideal type, by hyperconscious of being in the van of fashion, and imbued with the new virtues of 'dynamism', expertise and unlimited ambition.

The more affluent a society the more covetous it needs to be. Keep a man covetous 'achievement-motivated' is the approved term - and he may be kept running hard to the last day of his life. But for what? Indeed, it is not so much the belief that there must be some hypothetical limit to a man's capacity for enjoyable experience that is pertinent hire. I should think that today man is far removed from such a limit. What is pertinent is whether by pursuing material growth he tends, on balance, to converge towards this limit or, on balance, to move away from it.

However we determine, there is unmistakable evidence that much of the enjoyment of life still attainable is being marred by a chronic restlessness to realize something bigger and better. Yet there are no circumstances which suggest that for today's ban vivants the experience of life as a whole is any richer than it was for yesterday's ban vivants, a sceptical view of things no less applicable to the future. That new opportunities, such as visiting the moon, exploring the oceans, traveling at unimaginable speeds, gazing at three-dimensional television screens, using visual telephonic communication, pressing buttons on miracle computers, raising of test-tube babies, and much more besides, will all be available to our grandchildren - if the world survives - need not be doubted.

What is to be doubted surely is whether, after their novelty has worn off, the experience of these things can be counted on to deepen the enjoyment of life in comparison with the life people have been leading in different periods and in other civilizations.One may ride roughshod over a multitude of doubts to a brave tattoo on the theme of the ?infinite adaptability? of man. But the fact remains that man?s bodily chemistry, his basic instincts and emotional needs have not, as yet, been altered. Sheer force of will and intellect may, for a while, enable him to act so as to appear to be adapting himself to, and coping with, a physical environment that changes more rapidly each year, but there is much in the rest of his being that will continue ? until science can alter it ? to protest at the growing stresses to which it is subjected. Thousands of slaves were sacrificed in the building of the pyramids of Egypt.

Today we are our own task-masters, dedicating our lives to erecting pyramids of material achievement.Immersed, as we are, in heaping Pelion on Ossa we pay no heed to the latent antagonisms between the demands of an advanced technological civilization and the demands of man?s instinctual nature. In the ruthless transformation of our planet home ? the only planet, incidentally, we can comfortably live on -. we are concurrently destroying much that man?s nature doted on in the past: a sense of intimately belonging, of being part of a community in which each man had his place; a sense of being close to nature, of being close to the soil and to the beasts of the field that served him; a sense of being a part of the eternal and unhurried rhythm of life.It would be as untrue to assert that in all past civilizations a feeling of security and contentment were experienced by all families as it would be idle to deny that many suffered from hardship, disease, and poverty. But wherever people lived comfortably, whether in town or village, or farm, their satisfactions were rooted ultimately in their closeness to each other and to the natural order of their lives.I shall not, however, pursue this train of thought here, since it is no part of our plan to reconstruct a faithful picture of the world we began to lose in the nineteenth century. Rather, we shall confine ourselves in the following pages to consider the ways in which the organized pursuit and realization of technological progress themselves act to destroy the chief ingredients that contribute to men?s well-being. This last sentence suggests the justification for including the present lengthy digression. The reflections, of their own, have no pretensions to novelty: reflections of a similar kind, though more subtly or more forcefully expressed, may be found in memoirs, novels, essays and in literary journals. Those elaborated here; however, claim to be relevant to the costs-of-growth thesis.

Thus, the suggestion that many of the less congenial aspects of life today are not just a passing phase, an unnatural prolongation of some freak of fashion, is neither original nor interesting. Any statement about such aspects must be more specific if it is to have any claim on our attention. Hence the attempt in the following pages to reveal a clear connection between the symptoms of social malaise and the processes that are generated by economic growthI must confess, however, that I have failed to discover any central theme about which these non-formal considerations might be made to cohere in some simple pattern.

Sustained cogitation might eventually disclose one. In the meantime, I have grouped the variety of considerations under several main headings and ordered them in roughly ascending importance ?the remarks on the cult of efficiency, which close the digression, carrying the gravest implications for social welfare. The sections on profit propelled growth form a digression within the main digression. They discuss some of the disruptive developments brought about by commercial enterprise in a wealthy economy, developments that are not unavoidably associated with technological advance. For what the distinction is worth, they are not therefore so ?inevitable? as are the others treated in the digression.Such aspects must be more specific if it is to have any claim on our attention. Hence the attempt in the following pages to reveal a clear connection between the symptoms of social malaise and the processes that are generated by economic growth.I must confess, however, that I have failed to discover any central theme about which these non-formal considerations might be made to cohere in some simple pattern. Sustained cogitation might eventually disclose one.