Inequality has reached indefensible heights, but we can still turn it around

Inequality has reached indefensible heights, but we can still turn it around
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Political dysfunction, violence, floods, droughts, hurricanes and opioid addictions.

The news headlines are depressing and the problems seem overwhelming. From Russia to America; India to Turkey; Italy and most recently from Poland to Brazil — growing numbers of people have voted for authoritarians — presumably as a way to return to a simpler and better past.

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Meanwhile, the challenges and threats keep mounting. Inequality has reached morally indefensible heights, power concentrates in ever fewer corporate hands, poverty continues to crush souls and according to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the environment is beginning to crash. If the globe was a person, we would rush them to the emergency room. 

And yet, just below the surface, hidden by partisan rancor, hope and solutions can be found everywhere. Surveys continue to show that most Americans agree on far more than they disagree. They want the young to be able to thrive. They believe all people deserve real opportunities. They know our environment needs serious protection. They believe old people should live out their lives in dignity and that illnesses deserve treatment without risk of poverty or despair. Above all, they keep caring, inventing, problem-solving, together. 

Collectively, we have accomplished a great deal. Mountains of wealth; medical breakthroughs; technologies that give us access, organize us, connect us. And yet debilitating poverty persists, basic medical problems remain untreated and people disappear in dark tunnels of loneliness and depression. 

With so much knowledge, so many tool and such good intentions and values, how is it that we can go so wrong?

The core problem is this: The overarching, single most important goal of modern societies is growth, not human and ecological wellbeing. Our primary mandate is to increase “efficiency” and “productivity.” Make it cheaper, faster and above all, make more of it.

Busy speeding up a runaway train, we see our dominant gauges of success continue to point in a positive direction. Unemployment is down, GDP is up. The stock market keeps hitting record territory. In service of growth, the economy and with it politics, no longer adequately reflect our realities.

The deeper reality is this: Today, in an overpopulated world choking on stuff, a focus on more has become both absurd and dangerous. Three recent international studies all came to the same conclusion: We have reached very real limits to growth.

Our train needs a new track. One focused on a greater vision of human and ecological wellbeing, one leading to real human prosperity anchored in environmental health and sustainability. An emphasis on what is actually good for us — more connection, more opportunities, less inequality. Above all: a healthy environment and stable communities. 

There is little difference between Democrats and Republicans, but neither can answer a simple question: How to grow indefinitely on a finite planet? Neither can answer why growth would even be desirable, when its drawbacks range from resource depletion to pollution, from accidents to addictions, from more miles commuted to more hours worked?

No we must grow, as economists and politicians keep telling us. Trust the market. Trust science and technology. Trust something, just so long as you don’t question growth. 

As more aspects of our lives turn into contributions to the growth mantra, our focus on quality of life — on community, on meaningful work, on family and love, on a natural world that can nurture our children — inevitably shrivels.

The good thing: There is a growing number of people whom are building companies that don’t depend on fossil fuels, cities that serve people rather than cars, communities that don’t generate poverty or homelessness, health-care systems that don’t leave anyone behind, regions that provide security and jobs for everyone. On the frontiers, we’re learning how to create prosperity without waste — waste of resources, people, potentials. 

Solutions come from every part of society: socially and environmentally responsible investing (ESG), builders and architects creating improved LEED standards in construction, doughnut economics that explains how to create human prosperity within the boundaries of natural systems, to cyclical production systems that eliminate waste. Across the spectrum, people are working on ways to build regenerative economies focused on human and ecological wellbeing rather than blind growth.

The future is bright — if only we can get politics to catch up with what is already happening all around us. 

Dirk Philipsen is an economic historian teaching at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and author of "The Little Big Number – How GDP Came to Rule the World, and What to Do About It" (Princeton UP, 2015).