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25 Jul, 1999

Key Question for Globalisation Gurus: Is Life Getting Any Better?

Originally Published: 25 July 1999

Buddhist scripture suggests that before taking any action, we should listen, think, question and then act.

In a world that has become almost totally mesmerised with globalisation, a growing body of social scientists, environmentalists, researchers and indeed economists themselves who have both listened to and thought about the conventional wisdom of economic growth are beginning to QUESTION whether the hype is a truly all that is made out to be.

“Is life getting better?” That is the shoot-from-the-hip question that leads off a fascinating research report sent to me by Prof Dick Braithwaite of the Resource Futures Program, CSIRO Wildlife & Ecology, Canberra. Drawing upon data, statistics and opinion polls from around the world, the research paper says that perhaps the time has come to “examine more critically the whole basis on which progress is currently defined, measured and achieved.”

This process of re-examination begins with a re-definition of the terminology of economic growth. ‘Progress’ usually refers to ‘material well-being.’ But the report says that if ‘well-being’ is re-engineered to refer to the state of ‘being well’, contented and satisfied with life, then it should be based on physical, mental, social and spiritual components, not just material.

A whole new science is emerging that attempts to measure quality of life based on these components. The traditional economic indicators, things like Gross Domestic Product and various other composite indicators, are referred to by various researchers as ‘voodoo science’ that are ‘effective in capturing headlines’ but little else.

Meanwhile, the research cites the ‘perverse’ pattern of economic growth, as cited in the UN Human Development Report 1996: The assets of the world’s 358 billionaires exceed the combined income of the poorest 45% of the world’s population; the share of global income of the poorest 20% fell from 2.3% to 1.4% in the last 30 years, while the share of the richest 20% rose from 70 to 85%.

Says one researcher in the report, “If present trends continue, the global economy will be gargantuan in its excesses and grotesque in its inequalities. Vast inequality would be the norm and instability and violence its accompaniment.”

At the same time, many in the industrial world are experiencing what one economist called “the startling realisation that the quality of life is worsening… that people who are three or five or ten times richer than their grandparents do not seem to three or five or ten times happier or more content or more richly developed as human beings.”

In Chile, university rector Manfred Max-Neef has proposed a ‘threshold hypothesis,’ which states that “for every society there seems to be a period in which economic growth (as conventionally measured) brings about an improvement in quality of life, but only to a point — the threshold point — beyond which, if there is more economic growth, quality of life may begin to deteriorate.”

This threshold is now widely seen as having been crossed. The research refers to emerging indicators like the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which attempt to essentially quantify the economic progress being made and then deducting the price that society is paying for it — such as environmental damage, crime, family breakdown, loss of leisure time, automobile accidents, loss of farmland and wetlands, etc.

When looked at with these new pair of glasses, things suddenly don’t seem so rosy. The research says that while the line showing Gross Domestic Product has been increasing since the 1950s in many of the industrialised countries, the line showing the Genuine Progress Indicator has been falling since the 1970s.

“There is evidence that the developed world has passed a threshold, a point beyond which economic growth (as currently defined and derived) ceases to improve quality of life.”

The population is beginning to feel it. In Australia, a conference was organised on the subject of Measuring National Progress. A poll of public perceptions commissioned for the conference surveyed 1,200 people aged 18 and above and found that 52% believed life in Australia was getting worse, with only 13% believing it is getting better.

The poll showed that most Australians felt the quality of life would be worse early next century. More than half had an essentially pessimistic view of the future of the world. One can only imagine what the results would be if a similar poll is held in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines.

What’s bothering people? Mainly ‘big’ topics like moral, ethical and economic issues within the community. Even in Australia, many “deeply resent a society that seems to penalise those who battle to look after themselves and reward those who take unfair advantage of the system. They worry intensely about the welfare of their children in a violent and predatory world. They feel powerless to control their lives in the face of rapid economic restructuring and social change.”

Most significantly, they “believe strongly that people in positions of power and influence abuse public trust and are more likely to be part of the problem than the solution.” Says the report, “The public mood about the state of Australian society defies the proclaimed good news about economic performance and prospects.”

Another study of Australian young people showed that “their dreams for Australia are of a society that places less emphasis on the individual, competition and material wealth, and more on community and family, co-operation and the environment.”

Yet another researcher found “growing community concern about the gap between our values and the way we live. We crave greater simplicity in our lives, yet continue to complicate them. We would like to be less materialistic, but seem to acquire more and more. What seems to be lacking is a ‘guiding story’ that connects leaders and people, a set of coherent values and beliefs, imaginatively couched, that gives us a framework for making sense of our lives and, indeed, for taking more confident steps towards control of our destiny.”

Stressing that economic growth is no longer a be-all and end-all, the report says, “The rationale for economic growth seems flawed in several important respects: (1) it reflects too narrow a view of human well-being, and fails to explain why, after 50 years of rapid growth, so many people today appear to believe life is getting worse; (2) it overestimates the extent to which past improvements in material well-being are attributable to growth; and (3) it underestimates the gulf between the magnitude of the environmental challenges we face and the scale of our responses to them.”

It adds, “The crux of the debate about progress is the direction of change. Will we improve the quality and sustainability of life by continuing on our present path of progress – increasing average wealth to give the average consumer greater choice? Or do we need to find a new path that leads in a different direction, towards new personal and social goals? Both expert analysis and public opinion suggest the need to canvass more openly the possibility and feasibility of new directions.”

However, the report is realistic enough to admit that changing this mind-set is not going to be easy. “Policy debate needs to be linked to a wider cultural debate – a discussion of values, priorities and worldviews to provide a new framework within which the more detailed policy issues can be decided. The policy shifts necessary to achieve a high, equitable and sustainable quality of life will not occur in the absence of a deep cultural change.”


References to ‘spirituality’ appeared six times in the 58-page report, entitled “Perspectives on Progress: Is Life Getting Better?”. The contexts in which they appeared, reproduced as direct quotes below, are an important indicator of the new thinking emerging among economists, social scientists and futurists. Indeed, they beg the question: Is the long-overdue missing link in the human psyche gradually coming to the fore?

1. The many terms used to discuss progress can, broadly speaking, be grouped into two clusters. The first focuses on the economic, and includes economic growth, standard of living, economic welfare, affluence and material well-being. The second puts more emphasis on the social and environmental, and includes ecological sustainability, quality of life, equity and a broader meaning of well-being that encompasses physical, mental, social and spiritual dimensions.

2. Increasingly, health is being defined in terms of well-being rather than just the absence of disease or infirmity. Well-being (and so quality of life) has several components, including physical, mental, social and spiritual.

3. The link between the quality and sustainability of life – between human well-being and environmental health – is pervasive, and includes spiritual, cultural and aesthetic dimensions as well as physical.

4. The belief that material progress equates with a better life is so ingrained in our culture that most commentators tend to overlook the importance of other factors – in particular, the personal, social and spiritual relationships that give our lives a moral texture and a sense of meaning – of self-worth, belonging, identity, purpose and hope.

5. (The public’s) dreams for Australia are of a society that places less emphasis on the individual, competition and material wealth, and more on community and family, cooperation and the environment. Some expressed their wishes in terms of a greater recognition of the ‘natural’, ‘human’ or ‘spiritual’ aspects of life.

6. Most if not all societies have tended to reinforce values that emphasise social obligations and self-restraint and discourage those that promote self-indulgence and anti-social behaviour. We cannot quarantine other aspects of life, including our personal, social and spiritual relationships, from the moral consequences of the economic requirement for ever-increasing consumption.