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When Prince Edward Island's governing Liberal Party was looking towards this year's provincial election, they were probably pretty happy to see reports that the province was leading the country in GDP growth. Governments in Canada and the rest of the world tend to gauge their success based on this single number, the Gross Domestic Product, which represents the total market value of all the goods and services produced in an area.
The guiding ideology of mainstream economics and most mainstream political parties is that a rising GDP means a rising quality of life and thus happier citizens that are then going to reelect them.
Why then, is the PEI Green Party leading the polls in the middle of the province's election, with the Liberals and Conservatives jockeying for
position behind? If the province's GDP growth is the highest in the country, why isn't that translating into support for the government that is associated with that growth?
The PEI Green Party, like other Green parties in the country and in international politics, doesn't particularly concern itself with GDP. PEI Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker himself has consistently advocated for a new measurement to determine the wellbeing of Canadians; something called the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator).
Around the world, regular voters and some politicians are finally clueing in to the fact that the GDP is not a very good way of determining the success of an economy, and of a society. This runs counter to the mainstream economic and political wisdom that has dominated since the invention of the GDP indicator by economist Simon Kuznets in the early 20th century. Even at the time, Kuznets warned the US Department of Commerce that "the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income." Despite that warning, the economic policy of Western nations for the past hundred years has been to chase GDP growth at all costs, naively believing that it will solve every possible problem, and cause none.
But GDP is a strange measurement that includes many things as positives that we would normally consider as negatives. For instance, an oil spill causes an increase in GDP because of all the money that must be spent on cleanup. A married couple breaking up and incurring costly legal fees when fighting custody battles increases GDP because of the money paid out to lawyers. Throwing a brick through a window increases GDP because now someone must be paid to repair that window.
Creating a market out of an aspect of our society that traditionally was shared rather than sold also increases GDP, even though commodifying something that was formerly free and shared is not necessarily better.
Using multiple surveys over the years of how happy people feel about their lives, and gathering measurements of life expectancy, inequality, and access to social and community support, we can see if these things correlate with a growth in GDP. For many years now, they haven't. Per capita GDP (the GDP of the nation divided by its population) continues to increase, but people's happiness doesn't. For a while it did, and it probably would still help in countries that don't have universal access to sanitation and education and health services. But in industrialized Western countries it appears that it's no longer helping.
In fact, the pursuit of infinite uninhibited growth is creating a huge number of problems, the most pressing being our current environmental crisis. We've already grown bigger than our planet can handle, and the political mainstream is struggling to come to grips with this fact and how it conflicts with their "growth solves all" ideology.
This is possibly what people are seeing in the PEI Green Party, because the party isn't trying to solve problems simply by promising more growth. They're offering real, concrete ideas that don't have anything to do with growth. Instead, they resonate with the actual experiences that people are having, and their actual anxieties.
If you're living in your house, and are only four feet tall, then it seems like growth would increase your quality of life. After all, you probably have trouble reaching things on the top shelf or seeing on top of counters. However, if you're already seven feet tall, then growth is no longer going to be a solution to your problems. You're hitting your head on door frames and your feet are hanging off the edge of your bed. Growth has caused your problems and isn’t going to solve them.
Humanity has outgrown its house. We need to start thinking about new ways to solve our problems, and increase people's quality of life without relying on growth to do it. In Canada's smallest province, that might be what's happening.
James Marshall is the author of 'What Does Green Mean?' -- an upcoming book on the history of Green politics and ideas in Canada and abroad. He's a former candidate for the BC Green Party, and is currently seeking the nomination for the federal Green Party in Vancouver Centre.