It was a straightforward conversation with a French government official – an acquaintance from my time in politics – about Canada’s failure to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. We continue to enjoy a shared interest in foreign aid, development, and the state of global refugees.
As we wound up the conversation, he made an intriguing observation: “What if we make the same mistake of pursuing growth at all cost, just like we did before the pandemic? It would be like we haven’t learned anything.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
The prosperous nations of the world have spent their entire existence upholding the rationale that progress is impossible without growth. It has found welcoming audiences in universities, various levels of government, mass media, and Chambers of Commerce. It has been the driving force of graduates, small business entrepreneurs, tech gurus, houses of faith, sports franchises, and urban planners.
We have a lot to show for it: technological miracles, vast suburbs, affluence, a collection of material riches historical average families would never have known, and a sense of “can-do” that infuses everything. But there was a cost to that rampant pursuit of growth that now threatens to undo us: a degrading planet, vast swaths of poverty, racism, renewed nationalism, and yes, unpreparedness for a pandemic.
We were already talking about this in the years leading up to COVID-19, but now the future looks like such an uncertain thing, a blurred image with little definition. While everyone is presently talking about reopening economies, getting back to normal, and finding our economic groove again, the word “growth” is rarely spoken. In its place is the voiced sentiment that maybe we can just get back to where we started. There is this abiding sense that much of what we lost during COVID-19 might not have been so great for humanity, or the planet, after all.
For the first time in perhaps centuries, the concept of growth is becoming the subject of criticism and exploration. A growing list of academic voices is wondering if anacronyms like GDP or GNP are actually proper or accurate measures of true prosperity. There was so much these abbreviations didn’t account for: people without jobs and jobs without people, environmental ruin, broken communities, homelessness, bankruptcies, the decline of infrastructure and human productivity. These are the things that are awry in our world and they reached record levels during the same time as wealth exploded.
We have come to the point where governments view their main reason for existence as the management of growth rather than the expansion of prosperity. The former is about creating winners and losers; the latter involves bettering the human possibilities for families, businesses, the environment, and, indeed, civilization itself. Politics is at its best when it accepts differences, and politicians are the most effective when measuring progress through the advancement of all sectors of modern society. When this is not the case, citizens fall prey to acquiring cheaper goods at the expense of meaningful labour, and we don’t think twice about it. Governments have, as a result, learned to appease voters through the flow of trinkets instead of equity.
This mindless process might have continued but for COVID-19. Suddenly all those things we had acquired – knowledge, technology, ease of travel, wide-open possibilities – have been held ransom, contained by something that can only be found through a microscope. All that wealth and growth couldn’t keep us from having to socially distance or face the threat of a diminished future. An effective prosperity would have invested much more than it took away. It would have poured funds into healthcare, more secure food chains, a politics of meaning rather than madness, and societies built on empowered citizenries instead of spoiled voters. An unseen virus has stripped us of our security and left us highly suspicious of the idea of economic growth as an end in itself.
This is now the world that modern politics must navigate. Right now, politicians are surviving the pandemic by distributing large amounts of funds to beleaguered businesses and citizens, but soon enough they will have to figure out a way forward that looks strikingly different from our materialistic past. Public investment must become the focus of any recovery, not private advantage or merely getting by until the next calamity. All that growth of recent decades left us largely unprepared for a public emergency because it was predicated on consumption instead of investment in the future.
When I asked my French government friend if he would bring this idea of growth versus prosperity to his party leader, he laughed and said, “We’re not there yet.” Well, politics and government had better engage in needed prosperity soon, before any chance of shaping democracy’s future is lost.