Finding a better metric for a sustainable future

It is time to change our system so humankind can flourish in a steady state, not dependent on GDP growth.

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a regular series, Green Briefs, written by eco-leaders on Vashon, for The Whole Vashon Project. To find out more about the work of this group, visit

The climate crisis and the state of the environment have led to an alternative economic model called “Degrowth,” with three main themes: (1) reduced environmental impact by human activities, (2) redistributing income and wealth within and between countries, and (3) transitioning from materialism to a convivial and participatory society.

Degrowth envisions a sustainable future in which human prosperity is the goal of economic activity, instead of the accumulation of capital. In contrast to earlier systems that regarded nature with respect, divine energy, and innate value, the birth of capitalism in the 1500s changed our relationship with the land, soil, and minerals.

Capitalism has appropriated nature with abandon with its principles of possession, extraction, commodification, and ever-increasing productivity. Thus, its compound, non-linear, nature of exponential growth — in which a 3% growth rate will double output every 23 years — has had enormous negative impacts on the planet.

A central element of capitalism is to generate profit with continuous growth, measured using Gross Domestic Product (GDP), introduced in the 1930s. Many countries measure prosperity with GDP, which is flawed as it does not distinguish useful from destructive activities — including costs of war, pollution, disease, and deforestation, among others.

As GDP grows, so do energy and resource consumption and waste, resulting in an unsustainable state given our finite planet; many countries have already passed their planetary boundaries.

GDP growth has also led to massive global inequality. The global North has four times the per capita income and eight times the raw material consumption compared to the global South. Low-income countries annually consume two tons of resources per capita, with high-income countries consuming 28 tons (the U.S. consumes 35 tons).

Yet, the estimated sustainable global per capita material footprint is 8 tons. This is all driven by growth in resource consumption, despite leveling or declining populations.

Growth sounds natural because all living organisms grow, however, only to a point of maturity when they stop growing. When cells continue to grow unabated, like cancers, the growth becomes deadly.

It is time to change our system so humankind can flourish in a steady state, not dependent on GDP growth.

Innovative technologies are not the simple solution. Many have already led to increased material consumption. Resource use cannot be decoupled from GDP growth. We need technologies that reduce our impact on Earth, not speed up the rate of extraction and production.

Jason Hickel is an “economic anthropologist,” whose 2020 book “Less is More” details five steps to achieve Degrowth:

• End planned obsolescence,

• Cut advertising

• Shift from ownership to usership (e.g., tool libraries)

• End food waste

• Scale down ecologically destructive industries.

He suggests we change how we interact with the living world by practicing restraint and reciprocity, taking no more than we need, no more than others can share, and giving back by regenerating ecosystems.

If U.S. corporations are legally considered “persons” with rights, we can easily grant nature personhood as nations including New Zealand, India, Bolivia and Columbia have done.

United Nations (UN) data analyzed by Hickel, using the Sustainable Development Index, shows that nations can achieve high levels of human development with less than $10,000 per capita purchasing power, without high GDP growth, based on a wide range of key social indicators including health, education, nutrition, employment, and life satisfaction.

Another alternative metric to the GDP is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which accounts for the social and environmental costs and benefits of the economy, including income inequality.

Societies with extremely unequal income distributions are less happy. Caught in a spiral of needless over-consumption, there is a lack of social trust, cohesion, and solidarity.

The richest 10% of the global population has generated half of the world’s carbon emissions in the last 32 years, contributing greatly to the climate crisis. In contrast, societies with more equal income distributions have higher levels of satisfaction where people feel they have meaningful lives and express compassion, cooperation, and human connection with a true sense of community.

They pay less attention to GDP and more to these intrinsic values. Egalitarian societies feel less pressure to pursue ever-increasing incomes and status-related goods, liberating them from perpetual consumerism.

The European Union (EU) has already launched “beyond GDP” campaigns and a new metric, the “Better Life Index” (BLI), incorporating indicators such as health, housing, jobs, education, and happiness.

So, let’s convince our leaders to shelve the GDP growth economy, adopt the GPI and BLI, and remove the imperative of constant expansion so we can heal the earth, achieve balance, and flourish in a world without GDP growth.

Steve Bergman is an island geologist, Zero Waste Vashon and Vashon Makerspace board member and Whole Vashon Project advisor.