You can't stretch an elastic band to its limit, and expect it to have all the bounce it had at its natural length. Yet our primary societal goal has become stretching everything but we express bewilderment when things snap. It must be someone's fault, someone's neglect or greed – anything but the system in which we are all complicit.
Productivity is the art and science of stretching all our resources, to extract more economic utility. Without it, we can't sustain economic growth. Not so long ago, economic growth was largely sustained by recruiting more resources that had not previously been in the monetary economy. Frontier land, forests, even workers. These opportunities are mostly exhausted. We can only produce more by getting more out of less. Productivity is King.
Maximizing productivity means selecting the most productive varieties, machines or systems and applying them universally. It means finding ways to recruit all feasible resources to the production of these elite idiotypes.
Resilience, on the other hand, depends on variety and redundancy. These are precisely the qualities that productivity seeks to eliminate.
We're just starting to realize that the resilience we always took for granted is no longer there when we need it. What we thought was famine-proofing, drought-proofing or economic insurance turned out to be only spreading the vulnerability more thinly, but setting up a house of cards when an over-stretched system reaches break-point. Resilience has become a fashionable term in development ideology, as if it were a new discovery, and when mastered can be plugged into our socioeconomic system like a bug-fix to further its unquestioned progress.
But resilience is not an add-on. It's an attribute of healthy biological capital – whether personal, social or environmental. As we consume that capital, its resilience is eroded. We've reached the point where we must choose either growth or resilience. What now?
Enter economic heresy number one: we don't have to grow to prosper. We merely need to have a net income consistently larger than our cost of living, and to spend at least some of the surplus prudently on durable assets that really improve our quality of life – including philanthropy, as nothing makes us more fulfilled than helping others. The crucial lesson is that we don't become more prosperous by spending more, rather by needing to spend less.
Yet our primary economic indicator of prosperity, GDP, measures how much we spend. Even our collective debt level, an indicator of whether or not we can afford what we spend, is argued away as a technical irrelevance.
What we measure affects what we do. We don't make things to last longer or to be easier to repair, because that would reduce sales. Instead of making it easy for people to maintain things themselves, it's better for the economy if they have to pay a specialist. The faster we harvest non-renewable resources and shift them to landfill, the better our economic statistics look. Over a lifetime, this represents a great deal of avoidable 'need', or foregone prosperity. But we don't measure prosperity.
Of course, all that we spend becomes someone else's income. If we each focused on living better by consuming less, that would take money out of someone's pocket. Wouldn't it?
Here's yet another apparently unresolvable conundrum. We are constantly made to feel guilty about the amount we consume and the toll it takes on the planet, yet the moment consumption drops, every economic lever is pulled to ensure it 'recovers'. Don't think for a moment that we can save the planet by convincing people to consume less. Such efforts are merely guilt-abatement. The slack will always be taken up by lowering interest rates or currency values or providing economic stimulus packages to generate economically unjustifyable consumption at the taxpayers' expense. New 'green' businesses will find ways to entice us to spend the money we saved cutting power bills on their products and services. And by eroding the environmental amenity we used to enjoy, a thousand ways can be supported to sell comparable pleasures back to us.
The most perverse of all methods of fabricating economically-stimulating need is population growth. More people must have more housing, more infrastructure for transport, electricity, health, education, law and order, welfare, waste and pollution management etc. Lots more economic activity that we simply can't put off, regardless of what we can afford. Lots more resources that we can't afford to reserve for resilience, when the current need is so great – a need we didn't have until we chose to expand our population.
Lots more GDP, more money in pockets, but whose pockets is it coming out of? It's not the added people – babies and new migrants. It will take them many years to put a dent in the cost of their immediate needs. It can only be funded by putting up the cost of living for everyone else. Reportedly, half our power bills are already attributable to the costs of expanding supply and networks to service new suburbs. Cash-strapped governments are selling off publicly owned assets or entering public-private partnerships, a short-term remedy we know we will pay dearly for in the long run. And while all this expenditure is increasing the income of some, it is expanding the ranks of those who lose out.
What do we need to do to get out of this tail-spin? Stabilizing population is not the whole answer, but it makes all the other measures easier and more effective. We should abandon GDP growth as a primary economic goal, in favour of reducing cost of living relative to per capita Gross National Income (along with non-monetary measures of wellbeing), and minimizing income polarization. We should give higher priority to reducing private debt levels. We should welcome stagnation in property values, or even a down-grading of our international credit rating – who wants to be the easiest touch in the neighbourhood? Without population growth creating demand for infrastructure and population-driven property speculation acting as a sink for investment funds, we won't need much international investment anyway. We may even start to shore up the expatriation of profits (currently over a third of our GDP leaves the country as profits to foreign investors).
Will any of this improve our societal and environmental resilience? It would certainly limit its further erosion. It could give us space to allow improvements in technology or understanding to reduce our environmental footprint, instead of merely struggling to compensate for the additional feet.