By Senator Christine Milne, Leader of the Australian Greens
How do we build an economic system that serves the needs of people and nature, both for today and for tomorrow?
The economy is a tool; a tool we humans invented – like democracy and politics – to help govern our relationships between each other, and between ourselves and the world we live in. If our economic tools are not getting the outcomes we want, making us happy, safe, healthy, better educated and fulfilled and protecting and preparing our country for an increasingly uncertain future in a world on track to be 4 degrees warmer, then it is time our economic tools changed.
It’s clear that whilst the economy is growing, our quality of life is stagnating, our environment is suffering, and we are failing as a country to invest seriously in the things that we value, the things we need now if we are to have a better future: a fair education system where you can get a good start in life regardless of how much money you have or where you live; a zero emissions energy network that doesn’t pollute the air and drive global warming; a health system which takes care of all of us, from the state of our teeth to our state of mind.
The old parties are grounded in a belief that the economy is an end in itself, and that we have to ‘balance’ the need to care for people and the need to protect the environment against the needs of the economy.
Where the old economic right, broadly speaking, has sought to create a ‘strong’ economy and the old left sought to create a ‘fair’ economy, neither has grappled with how an economy can be strong or fair when ecological limits are being reached.
Tony Abbott’s Liberals want to pretend that we can keep going the way we did in the 1950s, exploiting resources and exploiting those worse off than we are, dismissing global warming as crap.
The Labor Party, on the one hand, wants to embrace transformative policies and the benefits they will bring; on the other hand, it wants to cling to the past. Witness its contradictory policies on pricing pollution whilst bending over backwards to expand the coal sector, expand coal seam gas and protect fossil fuel subsidies.
For most of us going about our daily lives, the new, caring and ecologically sustainable society will look very similar in most ways to the old one. Yes, it will be powered entirely by clean, renewable energy – including electric cars, buses, trains and trams – and there will be more cycleways and better designed homes and offices.
What will be different is that we will have replaced the idea that Australia’s wealth is dependent on digging-it-up, cutting-itdown and shipping-it-overseas with the knowledge that our prosperity depends at a personal and collective level on our brains, on our health, on our creativity and on a healthy environment. So how would the Greens recalibrate the economic tools? How would we make them enhance our natural, human, social, manufactured or financial capital? Markets are useful tools to achieve an outcome. The Greens adopted one in our long push to put a price on pollution through an emissions trading scheme. But markets need to be constantly evaluated against the outcomes that society and the environment require of them.
I am for growing natural, human, social, manufactured and financial capital and I am against growing global warming, species extinction, poverty, poor health, inequality, conflict and corruption.
If economic growth as it is currently measured isn’t actually making us happier, healthier, cleverer or safer then it isn’t real growth. If we are growing our economy in defiance of physical limits, that isn’t real growth: it’s a confidence trick.
On the other hand, if people are getting happier and healthier; if we’re protecting and restoring the environment which sustains us; if our schools, universities and research institutions are thriving; if we’re helping unemployed people find worthwhile jobs and we’re addressing structural inequities such as illiteracy; surely that is real growth, regardless of what our GDP numbers show.
GDP measures what we make and consume, not who we are (our human and social capital) or where we live (our natural capital). It ignores work done in the home and volunteer work across society. It disregards the entrenched gap between rich and poor. It loves a catastrophe like a car accident or the Queensland floods because they generate economic activity, regardless of the human cost.
GDP is useful for its purpose – for predicting tax revenues, for example – but it cannot be seen as the definition of our progress as a nation.
In short, the Greens do want to see growth, but growth in quality of life, growth in equality of society, and growth that plans for the long term.
We can make this vision a reality, but only if we recognise that the economy needs to serve the needs of people and nature, not the other way around.
This is an edited extract of a speech to the National Press Club 26 September 2012. The full transcript is available at: http://christine-milne.greensmps.org.au/