01 July 2009

Flying blind

There is optimistic talk about emerging from the recession in the UK and Europe. I think we are confused on several fronts. First, the health of an economy, even if it were accurately measured, is not the health of a society. Second, because what passes for the health of an economy these days are, essentially, the profits and sales of large corporations, and the rate of growth of house prices. Far more important though, are what is left out: the numbers of unemployed, debt levels, crime rates and the huge negative non-market impacts that a growing fossil-fuel dependent economy has on the environment. All this is not to deny that there are positive non-market externalities when the economy, as simplistically measured, is doing well. There are, but the negative impacts: climate change, for instance, or the risks of other environmental catastrophe, or an alienating physical infrastructure; these are ever more serious on a shrinking planet.

And we're not addressing them. The politicians and their corporate paymasters are desperate to revive the old economy. At the global level there are no systems in place to deal with climate change, nor man-made disasters such as a nuclear exchange. There's very little explicit targeting of such desirable but elusive goals as 'avoiding catastrophe'. At the national level, governments fiddle with well-intentioned, but meaningless or even harmful Mickey Mouse targets. The problem is similar to that of the public sector: the interests of government agencies and public sector auditors are the interests of their organization, and when they conflict with the greater good - for which, admittedly, goals are difficult to define - it's the wellbing of the organizations that wins every time.

So we are flying blind. Our flightpath is determined by powerful corporate interests and their friends in government. On our aircraft there are many well-intentioned people doing the right thing. But the overall direction they are travelling in bears little relation to their efforts or intentions. It's not the wellbeing of ordinary people that will determine whether, or when, we fly into a mountain, or crash into the sea, but the short-term interests of large organizations, public and private sector, as measured - badly - by the accountants.

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