Growth, mad men and economists: Why we need an intergenerational and interconnected economy

30 Sep 2011Kyra Choucroun

Copyright (c) Kyra Choucroun

Despite years of thinking about the traditional model of economic growth, it wasn’t until I drove through rural Ghana that it truly hit me just how spectacularly it has failed to deliver on the promise of global prosperity.

In my last blog I challenged the widely held belief that infinite growth is both necessary and viable. That piece generated a flood of responses, from howls of protest at one extreme to speaking invitations at the other. And it was one of those invitations that led me to Ghana in the first place, to share my views on how Africa can play a part in tackling the world’s most complex challenges at a youth-led conference in Kumasi.

As I travelled across the country, the scenes of debilitating deprivation and insecurity that I encountered only threw into sharper relief the optimism, intelligence and sheer ingenuity of the young Africans I met. Their commitment to get us out of a mess they didn’t get us into was humbling.

On the (many) occasions I heard the term “green economy” I found myself full of hope, not only for Africa’s future but also for our own, here in the West. It’s a familiar phrase to those of us working in the sustainability field, but – believe me – it sounds completely different when it is uttered by a villager speaking from the heart, rather than a CEO or politician reading from a script.

Everywhere I went, the same intergenerational theme became part of the discussion: Would our ancestors be proud of this decision? Will it make us good ancestors?

I met one particularly impressive young man from Dulugu, in the upper eastern region of Ghana. Godwin Yidana spoke first of family values. “We have been taken care of,” he stated with conviction, “why not repay the intergenerational debt?” Writ large, for me this underscores how we must approach building a new paradigm for growth: yes, we have inherited an imperfect world from our forebears, but what can we do to preserve and nurture what remains?

It was as if Godwin were quoting directly from the Brundtland Report: Our Common Future: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Except that Godwin didn’t need a government sponsored report, or a global summit, or an MA to figure that out, because the sentiment seems to be embedded in his very DNA, and that of countless other Ghanaians I met. In Ghana, irrespective of your personal success, if you neglect your family, you are considered a failure.

Copyright (c) Kyra Choucroun

Godwin described to me a tradition in his town, in which the elder member of the family holds a parcel of land in the name of his or her relatives, with the produce being commonly owned. This sort of arrangement ensures that, in seeking to secure the interests of your family, you are invariably securing your own. I couldn’t help wondering how different the world would be if we chose to see the planet as a whole in this way.

Imagine an economy where we work less, spend more time with our families, trade, rent and borrow rather than buy, encourage intergenerational responsibility and innovation, and actively foster social connections and community. Some countries have edged toward this vision already: consider the “Dutch miracle,” when in 1982 the Netherlands government instated policies encouraging people to work less and spend more time in their communities. Within a decade the average workweek fell from 30 to 27 hours and unemployment halved.

In the Ghanaian communities I visited, “prosperity” only takes on any sort of meaning when it is shared. I saw the seeds of a new kind of growth, one that values and indeed depends upon intergenerational equity and environmental sustainability. One in which the happiness of individuals is inextricably linked to that of those around them – in time as well as in space.

As I left Ghana, I found myself reflecting on the words of Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” I couldn’t agree more: it’s time for us all to grow up.

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