Financial and Monetary Systems

New Growth Models: Why bigger isn’t always better

Simon Zadek
Principal, Project Catalyst, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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Since the 2008 financial crisis threw the world economy into a tailspin, there has been much talk about the need to pursue inclusive, sustainable prosperity. Yet policy-makers in developed and developing countries alike have largely continued to rely on reactive, one-dimensional strategies aimed at boosting economic growth, instead of adopting a systemic approach that prioritizes social and environmental objectives. This may be about to change.

A recent report called New Growth Models – produced by the Nobel laureate Michael Spence and an array of distinguished policy and business practitioners, and released at the World Economic Forum’s 2014 meeting in Davos – highlights the deficiencies of the current approach. More importantly, it calls upon policy-makers worldwide to commit to new growth models that foster inclusiveness and sustainability, alongside prosperity.

The problems with the world’s current growth trajectory are well documented. The planet is creaking under the burden of a fast-growing and increasingly consumption-hungry human population.

Moreover, despite great strides in poverty reduction – largely a result of China’s unprecedented economic rise over the past three decades – inequality is on the rise worldwide. Increasing interconnectedness has contributed to greater volatility, as individual countries struggle to address challenges ranging from food security to financial reform. If policy-makers continue to focus exclusively on output growth, the global economy’s stability – indeed, its viability – will be seriously threatened.

Of course, this is not a new notion. The Club of Rome’s controversial 1972 study, Limits to Growth, set a new standard for modern, ecologically inspired catastrophe theory, warning that unchecked consumption would lead to “global economic collapse and precipitous population decline”.

Disparaged by mainstream economists as technically inadequate, Limits to Growth was effectively buried in the following decades, as the pro-market policies spearheaded by US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took root and spread. More recently, the widely distributed benefits of China’s rise confirmed to many that a single-minded focus on growth works in practice, even if it is theoretically flawed.

But three recent developments have reignited the debate about unfettered growth. For starters, the global financial meltdown and subsequent recession laid bare the consequences of free-market fundamentalism, thereby undercutting popular and ideological support for the neoliberal view that markets are best at shaping societal outcomes.

Furthermore, China – the embodiment of the go-for-growth movement – has signalled a policy shift toward the pursuit of better social and environmental outcomes, alongside more moderate GDP gains. This is largely a case of virtue arising from necessity; export-driven growth has slowed, leading to a higher risk of social unrest over issues like air pollution, food toxicity and corruption. But the new approach is also based on the recognition that China’s continued development depends on a healthy balance between ecology and economy.

This shift is linked to a third, broader development: the world’s growing understanding of where the planet is heading environmentally, especially in terms of climate change. While the science is constantly improving, the evidence is abundant and clear. It is the economics of environmental action that now forms the core of the policy debate – unlike in 1972.

The good news is that fewer and fewer economists question the need to shift to a green economy, though this emerging consensus is not yet reflected in the pro-growth rhetoric of economics or in politics and public policy outside China and exotic outliers such as Bhutan. The question now is how to change the economic rules of the game to provide incentives for potential winners to drive progress – or at least neutralize likely losers’ ability to obstruct it.

New Growth Models argues that markets alone should not decide our collective fate; non-economic goals and metrics – both social and environmental – are also needed to guide countries’ economic aspirations and policies. This is a radical view; if applied to mainstream economic policy-making, the results would be nothing short of revolutionary.

Read more blogs on economics and growth.

Author: Simon Zadek is senior fellow at the Global Green Growth Institute, Switzerland, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Growth Models.

Image: Vehicle drive past a traffic policeman in Beijing, February 10, 2014. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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