Plus ça change…

There’s a new growth business – no growth. Tim Jackson’s Propserity without Growth is the text of the moment, and the New Economics Foundation has a new report out today on why Growth is Impossible (we’ll be blogging on these over the next few days and weeks, so watch this space for our analysis of where they are right and where they go wrong). 

President Sarkozy of France has added to the mix, last week launching a new sustainable development barometer. Sarkozy, you may remember, commissioned prominent economists Amartya Sen and Joe Stiglitz to look beyond GDP growth and advise on other ways of measuring human progress.  According to reports, the barometer will be used “to inform the French government, parliament, local authorities, businesses, NGOs and citizens about sustainable economic development and environmental pressures in a drive to support initiatives that boost sustainable behaviour”. The indicators included range hugely, from unemployment to the evolution of bird populations, from the carbon footprint of France’s imports to the suicide rate.

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Back in 2005, the UK Government set up a set of 68 sustainable development indicators, including many the same as or similar to the new French list, covering sustainable consumption and production, climate change, natural resouces, sustainable comunities and quality of life. The latest report on the indicators would seem to suggest that the UK has been doing quite well – the vast majority of indicators have either seen improvement or not got worse, while only a handful have deteriorated.  According to the report, “a wide range of measures show improvement, including renewable electricity, carbon dioxide emissions from domestic energy use, water resource use, chemical water quality, waste and land recycling, farming management, crime, fear of crime, mortality rates, infant mortality differences, road accidents, rough sleepers and homeless households.”

But hang on a second, isn’t this the carbon-spewing consumerist, debt-addicted, casino-capitalist, Heathrow-loving UK that environmentalists (including those from the New Economics Foundation) love to hate? Surely we are all going to hell in a handbasket (or at least to the Dark Mountain).

There are two possibilities. One is that, despite the flak it gets, the UK Government isn’t as GDP obsessed as it appears, because, like Sarkozy (in fact 5 years ahead of him), it got a set of sustainable development indicators. The other is that having a set of sustainable development indicators actually isn’t really the same thing as moving on from GDP, and doesn’t really mean you are going to prioritise birdsong over concrete (even if you have a long lunch culture). You decide….

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