How Economic Growth Has Become Anti-Life

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It is very rare that mainstream media publish even commentary that tells us the brutal truth about the folly of our worship of economic growth. The commentary featured on today’s Wall of Fame was published last month, but it is exceptional; I don’t want you to miss it. Nor do I want Vandana Shiva to go another day without our appreciation and applause.

Dr. Shiva was well-schooled in physics and the ethics of science. Perhaps her lack of formal training in economics explains why she can see so clearly the failings of our economic beliefs.

Shiva delivers a one-two-three punch in this op-ed published in the UK Guardian:

1. “…gross domestic product (GDP), which is supposed to measure the wealth of nations, has emerged as both the most powerful number and dominant concept in our times.”

2. “Limitless growth is the fantasy of economists, businesses and politicians.”

3. “However, economic growth hides the poverty it creates through the destruction of nature, which in turn leads to communities lacking the capacity to provide for themselves.”

She goes on to offer a very brief history of our love affair with GDP, and explains succinctly why it has veered us off course:

“…’growth’ measures the conversion of nature into cash, and commons into commodities.” 

“A living forest does not contribute to growth, but when trees are cut down and sold as timber, we have growth. Healthy societies and communities do not contribute to growth, but disease creates growth through, for example, the sale of patented medicine. Water available as a commons shared freely and protected by all provides for all. 

However, it does not create growth. But when Coca-Cola sets up a plant, mines the water and fills plastic bottles with it, the economy grows.”

Continuing this Coca-Cola water-mining example, Shiva offers an observation that rarely finds its way into print:

“But this growth is based on creating poverty – both for nature and local communities. Water extracted beyond nature’s capacity to renew and recharge creates a water famine. Women are forced to walk longer distances looking for drinking water.”

Read her commentary for the full story and to understand how she draws this conclusion:

“The dominant model of economic development has in fact become anti-life. When economies are measured only in terms of money flow, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the rich might be rich in monetary terms – but they too are poor in the wider context of what being human means.”

I'd like to thank Vandana Shiva for her tireless crusade to acquaint us with truths like these, and I thank The Guardian  and Natalie Hanman (editor of its Comment is Free section) for doing what every news organization ought to be.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Lee

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How much fame?
Dave is the director of the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave is also president of Citizen-Powered Media, a non-profit working to find the cure to our society's growth addiction. Growth Bias Busted is one of the projects of Citizen-Powered Media's ongoing GrowthBusters public education program.


  • Mike Hanauer
    Mike Hanauer Monday, 16 December 2013

    A wonderful piece with great thinking. That growth creates poverty is true I suspect, especially excess growth - that which feeds beyond carrying capacity (which is where we are at).

    I was also struck by Dave's comment: "Perhaps her lack of formal training in economics explains why she can see so clearly the failings of our economic beliefs". My experience, not a scientific study, suggests this is true -- that economic and business education is so nearsighted that most students, and perhaps their professors, never think of or discuss the problems inherent in what they are taught. I would suggest that not honestly discussing two sides of a course of study is indoctrination rather than education. This so needs correcting!

    Reply Cancel
  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Monday, 16 December 2013

    Thanks for the comment, Mike. Yes, I believe when we are into what Herman Daly refers to as "uneconomic growth," it would be particularly poverty-producing.

  • Guest
    patel Monday, 16 December 2013

    Shiva gets a lot of high marks for this one and expressing it so well and sharply. But she can get higher scores if she comes out on overpopulation, which she never has. In fact, I have heard her say bold eye-brow raising statement about population - that the right kind of farming can feed 2 billion people in India. Now this statement was probably meant to imply that this kind of farming beats industrial farming for those who believe only industrial farming can feed the world and not necessarily to mean 2 billion is a good number to aspire to but it would help to either not make such bold statements given the high population overshoot and given that no farming method that is not based on fossil fuels is proven yet to scale at 7 billion and admit that this is not a piece of cake or say clearly what is meant so that it isn't misunderstood by people who hear such things and tell the people who are raising concerns about overpopulation that it is not a problem if we simply do farming differently.

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  • gaia baracetti
    gaia baracetti Tuesday, 17 December 2013

    I disagree. I think Vandana Shiva is a simplistic thinker who doesn't understand the complexity of the actual world and thinks there's only one root to all problems.
    First of all, she has odd theories about population: "Population control is not an issue involving contraceptives for third world women. It is an issue of ecological justice".
    I can't find the actual essay, but her publishing in a book with this title might mean something:
    Moreover, she ignores that some economic and technological growth actually can improve lives. I'm not familiar with Indian history but she seems to imply poverty there is a new thing, which is not true ( I do know that in my own country, Italy, some growth and development pulled people out of poverty and gave them some choice regarding their life. It's true that we've gone way too far and destroyed the environment both here and abroad, but not all was bad, as Shiva always seems to imply with her idealisation of "household economics", whatever that is.

  • Guest
    gaia baracetti Tuesday, 17 December 2013

    Sorry, something's gone wrong with the links, here they are:

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Tuesday, 17 December 2013

    I haven't read or heard Dr. Shiva on the subject of population; I'll be interested in what she says. I'm not looking for anyone to get behind any kind of population "control" other than "self-control."

    I also disagree that economic growth has ever been responsible for improving lives. Economic growth has been concurrent with many improvements (thus our confusion and obsession with growth), not responsible for it.

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