Growth has been the main object of development for the past 70 years, despite the fact that it’s not working. Since 1980, the global economy has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty on less than $5 (£3.20) a day has increased by more than 1.1 billion. That’s 17 times the population of Britain. So much for the trickle-down effect.
Orthodox economists insist that all we need is yet more growth. More progressive types tell us that we need to shift some of the yields of growth from the richer segments of the population to the poorer ones, evening things out a bit. Neither approach is adequate. Why? Because even at current levels of average global consumption, we’re overshooting our planet’s bio-capacity by more than 50% each year.
In other words, growth isn’t an option any more – we’ve already grown too much. Scientists are now telling us that we’re blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed. And the hard truth is that this global crisis is due almost entirely to overconsumption in rich countries.
Right now, our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” annually – a standardised unit that measures resource use and waste. This figure is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. By contrast, people in the US and Canada consume about 8 hectares per person, while Europeans consume 4.7 hectares – many times their fair share.
What does this mean for our theory of development? Economist Peter Edward argues that instead of pushing poorer countries to “catch up” with rich ones, we should be thinking of ways to get rich countries to “catch down” to more appropriate levels of development. We should look at societies where people live long and happy lives at relatively low levels of income and consumption not as basket cases that need to be developed towards western models, but as exemplars of efficient living.
How much do we really need to live long and happy lives? In the US, life expectancy is 79 years and GDP per capita is $53,000. But many countries have achieved similar life expectancy with a mere fraction of this income. Cuba has a comparable life expectancy to the US and one of the highest literacy rates in the world with GDP per capita of only $6,000 and consumption of only 1.9 hectares – right at the threshold of ecological sustainability. Similar claims can be made of Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Tunisia.
And there you have it. Cuba apparently represents the shining example of true contentment and happiness. People there live in tiny, government controlled houses and drive 50 year old cars. They are prohibited from leaving the country. And they risk government punishment for raising a few extra vegetables in their garden to sell so that they can perhaps attend a movie once a month or buy an old sofa for their run down apartment. That is quite a strange example of the ideal Hinkel thinks we all need to live. The desire to achieve and to improve our life condition is innate in every human being. And Hinkel and the UN thinks the ideal is represented by what is seen in Cuba? He needs some glasses and a trip to Cuba.