Gross Domestic Product is used to measure wealth and growth. It focuses us on what we produce in terms of goods and services, while ignoring the impact of those things. It is massively problematic as a thing for governments to focus on because it goes with the idea of perpetual growth. We have economies built on the idea of perpetual growth and yet with finite resources this clearly isn’t going to work. Taking GDP as a measure of success also assumes that anything creating money is inherently a good thing. This clearly doesn’t work either. What we measure and focus on informs policy and decision making. The speed of movement of money isn’t that useful a thing to obsess over.
What might we measure instead to establish how well a country is doing? Carbon emissions would be an obvious one, as we urgently need to reduce those, the more attention paid to them, the better. We can easily measure health, and this is a much better way to think about how well a country is delivering for its people. Wellness is a meaningful measure of quality of life, especially when you include mental health in that. Happiness is a difficult thing to measure because it’s so subjective, but when you put people self-reporting on happiness alongside health considerations, you might have a meaningful sense of how people are doing.
Biodiversity would be an excellent thing to measure and monitor and put at the centre of decision making. In the UK, tree cover would also be a thing to consider. Green spaces – and being able to access them – goes with good mental and physical health.
All of these things would shift us away from imagining that money/production for its own sake is a reasonable measurement of something. By focusing on GDP, we priorities a notion of wealth creation over the actual wealth that is health and happiness. Money and product is of limited value when it costs your wellbeing. As the gap widens between the very rich and all the rest of us, money as a measurement of a country’s wellbeing becomes ever more suspect. Although it is worth noting that billionaires are the enemy of GDP – GDP is in many ways a measure of money moving around. Money hoarded by billionaires has been removed from the economy and is of no use to anyone else.
Ditching GDP would take us into the difficult territory of re-imagining our economies. We are either going to have to let go of eternal growth as a theory, or societal collapse will force that onto us anyway. We have to let go of the idea of always having more of everything, and replace that with ideas of sustainability, and staying at a level. If we focus on wellbeing rather than on making stuff and the movement of money, we might be able to see ourselves progressing in other ways, and that might make it easier to let go of this rather toxic narrative about what a successful country looks like.