False gospel according to GDP

Murray Grimwood wonders what kind of "religion" demands such fervent allegiance to concepts and creeds such as "infinite growth" and "GDP".

Do we have a new religion? If you define "religion" as "belief in something unprovable", then we do. It's got it all - simple mantra, rigid code, demand for worship, disdain of unbelievers, denial of science. Based on the Book of Growth - exponential and forever, of course - on a finite planet.

Brought to you by GDP (in the third quarter, it will rise again), and "The Market" (rejoice, for the money-lenders have re-entered the temple).

I wonder, sometimes, whether it takes a certain kind of psyche to believe - to cling to something in the face of new or unfolding knowledge - regardless.

If you trace the traditional religion hereabouts, it's a reasonable assumption that there was an intelligent dude around 2000 years ago who understood Twitter-sized sound-bytes and delivered some excellent examples.

Take the one about a camel getting through the eye of a needle being more likely than a businessman entering the kingdom of heaven; I reckon he was on about "heaven" being a state of mind. A replete sense of self-worth without the need for flashy accoutrements, or the need to feel superior.

Later power-mongers would morph that into "There's a home for little children, above the bright blue sky", a hymn with which - as a youngster I had great trouble reconciling with the view I had had (from the top of Bellevue St, as it happens) of the first Sputnik.

In later teenage, I would study religions and religious history, and note an interesting fact: they are incredibly inflexible. Because they are based on dogma, a few generations down the track they lose the ability to alter.

Every time a Galileo or a Darwin comes along, the dogmatic followers start from the assumption that their dogma is omnipotent, and judge the new piece of discovered science accordingly: it must be wrong.

Magellan's crew (Magellan is generally credited with being the first around the globe, but he died en route) ran foul of the Catholic Church on their return. For instance, because they arrived home celebrating the Sabbath one day adrift. The church placed less credibility on the crew's testament than their own - which failed to mention the dateline.

I made the decision to question everything, ascertain what were facts - truths - and go from there. These last few years, I've been applying the same process to things we take for, well, gospel.

Things like "economic growth", "GDP', "the market". We heretics - unbelievers - holler and remonstrate, but, as history suggests, are sidelined. Sometimes, as I blog away, I chuckle at the thought that what I'm doing is not far removed from nailing 95 Theses of Contention to a church door Luther would have loved Facebook.

Exponential growth within a finite sphere of operations is impossible. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consult their nearest algal bloom immediately. Anyone who tells you otherwise, is either delusional, or an economist.

GDP? We voted for an increase in it didn't we? Do we know what we voted for, exactly? GDP measures the transactions we do. Period. Do more transactions, GDP rises. Do less, it falls. Economics professor Richard Denniss, in a recent visit, pointed out that it is easy to increase GDP. All we have to do, is go out and trash everything in sight.

Vandalise everything. Drive into each other's cars. GDP would go through the roof. Transactions for everyone. But would we be better off? It seems to me we'd just get back to where we'd been, after a very long and very hard slog. Why would you vote for growth of such a meaningless measure? Yet verily, we worship it unquestioningly.

And "the market"? A growing number of folk want a growing return from the afore-mentioned finite sphere of operations. Mass delusion, you'd have to call that. I'm alive now, but I fully accept that there will be a time when I'm not. Why, then, accept that just because it has held good for 200 years this regime was going to be forever?

I did the same kind of homework I'd done on traditional religion and came to the conclusion (and you'll never hear this from the high priests, whatever the shape of their table) that all economic activity requires energy, and that the peaking of energy flows would mark the peaking of economic underwriting.

Thirty years of homework have only reinforced that conclusion. The best stating of the case - the best appraisal of reality - that I've heard in many a year, came from venerable theologian Lloyd Geering, in a recent interview.

Apart from demonstrating a sharp-as-a-tack intellect, this nonogenarian made complete sense. Essentially, he was saying that the old religions created deities to answer their unanswered questions. Then, as they learned more and more, the need became less and less.

Essentially, we were learning that no great power is responsible, that indeed we are.

Then he pointed out that in his view, the Green movement was the new ecumenical movement - given that it was the social grouping with a message of 'fessing up to responsibility.

A brave and clear-sighted man. Meantime, when will we ask the hard questions of the new religion? We laugh at those who thought the Earth was flat, that there was pie in the sky when you die, and that the planet - glacial valleys, dinosaurs and all - was created 5000 years ago.

Why don't we ridicule those who blindly tout growth in a finite city/country/planet? Shake our heads at those who worship the nonsense that is GDP? Wonder at those who think no leadership beats good leadership? Our children's children will - bless 'em.

Murray Grimwood is a Waitati commentator in environmental issues.

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