Rethinking Values and Well-Being

The control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

It seems almost too obvious to point out, but conversations about possibilities and limits of future development are essential for us to have. I am grateful for, and supportive of, any attempts to have an informed dialogue on this issue. In our back-and-forth with Tupy and Pooley, however, I am afraid the debate is rapidly approaching the proverbial ships passing in the dark.

Perhaps a little background is useful here.

As most children in modern societies, I grew up fascinated by new inventions, faster cars, better gadgets. For me, development was virtually synonymous with more, bigger, faster. In my first economics classes, the scientific language of optimization, utility maximization, and economic growth confirmed what I already intuited experientially: not only were things getting continuously better, they were improving for one reason: growth. Growth allowed for investments and expansions and virtually endless innovations. Indeed, after half a century of near uninterrupted growth, humanity seemed on a path to solve life’s persistent challenges—hunger, poverty, lack of education.

Yet my privileged exposure to critical voices from across multiple cultures quickly punctured the balloon of smug self-satisfaction. Tens of thousands dying in what could only be called industrial-scale disasters, from the shop floor, to guns, to highway pile-ups; world-famous scientists, studying the effects of insecticides, sounding alarms about a Silent Spring; nuclear “accidents” putting millions on edge; alienation and stress making people sick; a planet heating up, choking on our waste, its rich biodiversity annihilated by voracious expansion. In the end, values of solidarity or love or beauty are superseded by the cold and narrow calculus of utility maximization.

Growth, it turned out, was far from a simple story. Indeed, rarely did anyone talk about, much less define, what they meant by growth. Growing what? And for what purpose?

Today, we can retell the stories above in greater detail, and with more knowledge and understanding. Yet the debate remains the same: how to think about the benefits and costs of growth-based progress? Or, even more simply: what constitutes a good life?

Economists still prefer to assess benefits and costs as something that can be expressed in monetary terms. Ecologists, meanwhile, insist that basic features of life, things like biodiversity or clean water, are not only essential, but inevitably priceless. Benefits like living in a thriving natural environment, or enjoying the opportunity to govern oneself, they argue, cannot be expressed in prices. On the cost side of the ledger, nor can things like insecurity, precarity, or toxic environments be captured in monetary terms. Add to this the voices of feminists or anti-poverty activists or indigenous peoples, insisting on life forms and values like reciprocity or solidarity that happen in entirely different arenas than those of simple market exchanges, and the question of growth-based progress becomes a truly wicked problem—and often a harbinger of liberation as much as death.

All this has been known for a long time. Yet rational discourse on growth and progress is still hard to come by. Those who share a deep faith in the promises of growth-based progress can be found everywhere—in every culture, from global north to global south; among the secular as much as the religious; among the far right as much as the far left of the traditional political spectrum. Former President Barack Obama faced no critical questions when he stated, without much room for any legitimate doubt, “the truth is that if you had access to all the measures of well-being in the world, and you had a choice of when to be born, … the best time would be now.”[1] Ah yes, the march of progress.

Progress is, no doubt, the premise and the promise of modern societies—it is, as anyone knows who ever studied it, also a very slippery, deeply ideological concept, used mostly to rationalize and justify existing systems—and, all too often, simply to cover up crimes against people and nature. But one does not need to be a historian to understand this. To the evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould, “progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history” (Gould, Evolutionary Progress, 1988, p. 319).

Anyone who ever participated in a spirited discussion of progress has seen how the conversation can effectively be brought to a premature end by people bringing up highly selective, cherry-picked comparisons like life expectancy in the middle ages, or invoking the witch hunts, or raising the question as to when you’d prefer to have had your tooth infection, 300 years ago, or now. And, to end debate for good, one can summon the big guns and quote Thomas Hobbes, who famously opined that life in the “natural state” was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Case closed.

Except that it is not. In fact, ask people in modern societies what they would consider to be the main qualities of a good life, and a fairly standard answer would usually include things like “health, access to nutritious food, strong relationships, meaningful work”—something that, as more and more anthropologists suggest, comes very close to describing life among foraging peoples, across the globe, some 10 to 200 thousand years ago (who, as better technologies of carbon dating suggest, were also people who often rivalled, if not exceeded, our modern life expectancy—that is, once they made it past age 2, for their infant mortality rate was dreadful).

So, are we richer, happier, better off? The answer, of course, always depends—who and what do we compare, based on what criteria and time frame? But I think it depends a lot more, and in a lot more ways, than we usually realize. The list of our collective accomplishments is undoubtedly very high. Its tantalizing glow, however, dims considerably when juxtaposed with the record of destruction, pain, and loss that enabled the gains.

America is a wonder of creativity and wealth creation. Does that justify the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of kidnapped Africans, and, today, ongoing systemic racism, mass incarceration, and breathtaking educational inequality? We are grateful to the medical profession for endless improvements in the treatments of illness and disease, yet almost all the major causes of premature death today are a direct result of modern civilization—cancer, heart disease, diabetes, death by modern life (car accidents, opioids, smoking, gun violence). Productivity keeps going up, and so do people’s loneliness and depression.

But let’s stipulate, for a moment, that we agree with Tupy’s and Pooley’s version of progress—in life expectancy, knowledge, and political rights over the last 400 years. It still leaves the question: how and why did this happen? To ascribe this progress to markets and capitalism is simply bad history, and seriously lazy thinking. The U/S. Constitution or the UN Declaration of Human Rights is not a product of markets or capitalism—it’s a product of human striving, fights for freedom and democracy (many of which were explicitly directed against capitalism). Flight, penicillin, or the internet might never have happened in a pure market-based capitalism—they, too, were a result of human ingenuity, in this case with the critical support and financing of the state.

In the end, of course, all comparisons are moot. For us moderns, the option of going back, or redoing the past, is neither possible nor desirable. But for future generations, the question about progress is likely vital. Moving forward when standing at the edge of the cliff is not progress.

Is talk of existential cliffs exaggerated? Perhaps. But, as any independent climatologist, for instance, would tell you, there is a very good likelihood it is not. What can hardly be exaggerated in its significance is how little sustained conversation there is about how we can make reasonably sure to avoid the cliff.

The near-blind faith of Tupy and Pooley in the wonders of capitalist innovation, it seems, is sustainable only by engaging in two epistemological maneuvers:

  1. To have little to no appreciation for values and principles that lie outside of the cold market exchange nexus (beauty, nature, reciprocity, solidarity, and many more);
  2. To assume (as most mainstream economists still do) that somehow, magically, the economy is not embedded in the natural environment; to believe in what economists call substitutability, the bizarre idea that all of nature can be substituted with man-made capital: Who needs bees and flowers and air when we have Elon Musk and potential Mars colonies, anyway?

Both assumptions, aside from seriously stretching basic logic, can and do have horrifying consequences. They effectively represent the logic of the cancer cell. Growth at all costs, blind to the fact that it will eventually kill the host body.

Tupy and Pooley did not engage our initial analogy with calories—essential for survival, in need of increase/growth until we have reached a healthy level, yet deadly if on a continued exponential ascent.

Let me offer another analogy—a train speeding up, barreling toward the cliff. For argument’s sake, I am happy to stipulate that many improvements on the train are real—better diets, more diversity in first class, sleek solar panels replacing dirty Diesel engines. It does not change the fact that the train is racing toward the cliff—and that we have a fairly clear, and largely undisputed, understanding of at least one manifestation this cliff will take: a depleted and hot planet, inhospitable to life as we know it.

We have looked far and wide for literature that can make a credible case for dematerialized growth—the kind that offers a realistic path toward sufficiently absolute decoupling of the kind necessary in order to avoid catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss. It effectively does not exist among serious scholars. Does this mean it’s absolutely impossible? Probably not. But the likelihood of innovation, within the endless growth regime, to come up with the solutions necessary to avoid (1) more than an average temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and (2) a fatal level of biodiversity loss, is so low as be fantastical. Are we ready to bet our children’s future on fantastical thinking?

To emphasize: there is no credible empirical evidence for the possibility of the kind of absolute decoupling between economic growth (GDP) and aggregate material or energy use that would be necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss. None—for just a few recent highlights of thousands of articles, see here, and here, and here.

Which brings me to one more point: I think the concept of abundance—perhaps even “superabundance,” has a lot of potential. The way it makes sense to me, however, is probably the polar opposite of Tupy and Pooley. In ways that Jason Hickel has recently spelled out with clarity and focus, economic historians have long understood that capitalism is a system that is good at both generating wealth and producing ever more scarcity. Indeed, in order to generate continuously growing demand, it needs to spawn continuously growing scarcity. It does so, initially, through enclosure and dispossession, and then through familiar methods ranging from indebtedness to planned and perceived obsolescence to endless creation of new needs. The whole point, after all, is not to satisfy needs, but to create new needs. Hickel rightly calls this logic irrational and ecologically violent.

A great diversity of scholars has begun to show how the wealth created by human innovation could be used to create abundance—abundance of time, of security, of health, of wellbeing—precisely by jumping off the stupid-train of growth, and instead boarding the slow train of less wage work, expanded communities, reduced inequality, liberated creativity, of development instead of growth. They call it a lot of different things—the care economy, economy for the common good, wellbeing economics, post-growth prosperity. They may not have all the answers, but at least they’re asking the right questions. And they’re creating visions of a future that doesn’t reduce life to simplistic cost-benefit analyses and unambitious goals of ever more, but rather begins to match the rich explorations of thinkers from around the world, and throughout time, about how to build the good life. Given a choice between blind faith in reductive growth, or deliberate emphasis on wellbeing for all within a thriving environment, I, for one, am pretty clear with whom I want to share my journey forward.


[1] Barack Obama, “Now is the Best Time in Human History,” 7 September 2016 (

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley argue that empirically speaking, resources are growing more abundant, not just as measured by inflation-adjusted price, but as measured by time prices: An hour of labor today generally buys a lot more than a comparable hour in the past. Additional human beings add to our economic capacity rather than diminishing it, because people are the solvers of economic problems.

Response Essays

  • Giorgos Kallis argues that we shouldn’t want economic growth to continue indefinitely. Nor will it do so. The relentless pursuit of economic growth will eventually lead to a collapse. Better, says Kallis, is to aim for prosperity without growth, which he calls “the defining challenge for twenty-first century economics.”

  • Katherine Trebeck and Dirk Philipsen say that the relentless pursuit of economic growth is harmful in the long term. While poverty should be alleviated, there is such thing as material sufficiency, and unfortunately, markets don’t always point at it. Often, they encourage us to substitute harmful products for beneficial natural goods. Developed economies should reposition themselves to provide economic stability, human dignity, environmental protection, and healthy communities.