By: Martin Oetting – Omnipolis Media
When it comes to going ‘beyond GDP’, there are two major countries that have a mighty historical disadvantage: the United States of America and Germany — my home country. Until very recently, I was convinced that these two would only move away from that mighty number once every other country on the face of the earth had let go of it.
The USA were built on the promise that each following year, ‘the cake’ would be bigger — with ‘the cake’ being the space that was available to immigrants (while the aboriginal population was killed or dislocated). And, as long as new places could be ‘discovered’ and conquered, this logic held true: Anyone could make a living and build a wonderful new life in the New World.
Fast forward to today, and ‘the cake’ is no longer space — today, it is money. “With GDP growth there will be more money next year, so even you — yes, you, the poor girl/guy with nothing to eat, no roof above your head — can make it, if you only try hard enough” says the American Dream. The fact that this Dream is no longer available to most — despite the millions that are still clinging to it — may explain at least some of the current distortions in American democracy and society.
In Germany, our love affair with GDP has been much shorter — but no less powerful. For us, it provided meaning in our darkest hour: After the Nazis had inspired, motivated, coerced, tempted, roared, seduced, threatened the country into “total warfare” with the whole planet, our country and our world lay in ruins, and there was no way back to the (presupposed) glory of old. Enter GDP, to provide us with our new glory. Instead of winning the world by military means, my compatriots were handed a new tool to win it economically. And win we did. Leaps and bounds in GDP growth were soon summarised in the very term every West-German child is familiar with: “Wirtschaftswunder”, aka: “economic miracle“. (I grew up in the West and do not want to speak on behalf of my neighbours and friends in the East who grew up under the Eastern Bloc regime, which was governed by a somewhat different rhetoric. However, in 1990 they also joined the system that had been built in the West — for better or worse.)
Growing the GDP was our way to pull us out of the quagmire, the contempt, the devastation — and to regain acceptance around the world. It became our religion and our source of national pride and joy. And when it came to consumption patterns, we were more than happy to learn from our new North-American Ubervater.
I was more than surprised when I read earlier this month that one of these two countries might be making an attempt at changing course. After sixteen years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship — over which history will cast a withering verdict, I am sure — we now have a new German government. In it, the ministry for the economy has given itself a new double-mandate to additionally serve as ministry for the climate, which didn’t exist before. At its helm sits Robert Habeck from the Green party. Only days ago, he presented the latest economic report of the Federal German Government. Large parts of it read like a manifesto to fight climate change. And crucially, one section outlines how Germany must evolve its concept of the ‘social market economy’ to a ‘social-ecological market economy’ — a process for which GDP will need to be taken off center stage and surrounded with a range of metrics that will be better suited for assessing whether or not the country is actually making progress.
Not quite the revolution yet – but the door is opening.
Going beyond GDP is no silver bullet and no miraculous cure. But to accept that this earth and the amounts of money we can extract from it are finite is an important first step. It shows that a socio-political system is (finally) acknowledging the physical realities of our world. Habeck has not (yet?) stated outright that in the global north we can no longer afford GDP growth. Nor that it logically follows that we must start talking about what is fair or acceptable in terms of social inequality — and do something about it, once we agree that our combined income cannot keep growing; alas, that it might actually start shrinking. But he seems willing to take the long overdue first step into a direction that will ultimately enable that conversation.
Initial press reactions seem to hang somewhere between curiously critical and critically curious. To be sure — Habeck’s initial draft was much more progressive and daring, it contained questions regarding the capitalist logic of our societies, or the sustainability of consumerism. But much of that has been sanded down by the inner-coalition debate with the other government parties before the actual report was published. As a matter of course, ‘decoupling’ becomes — once again — the solution for the unsolvable. And yet, Habeck was not shy to preempt the actual report by leaking parts of his proper vision to the public.
The USA, on the other hand, seem nowhere near taking that first step. Watching them go these days, it seems they might soon be moving into the opposite direction — all the while being not only the biggest player but also the referee and writer of rules for the global economy. That probably provides the most compelling argument for the countries that do understand all of this to join forces and be stronger together. With the WEGo initiative — begun in 2018 by visionary pioneers Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand — that solution is already implemented, and has since been reinforced by Finland and Wales. This must be turned into the next global alliance of governments that shows the world a new way: Politics is not about making more money, but about enabling better lives for people and for the planet. The time for that is now.
In the homeland of Nazism, many of us have a hard time feeling and expressing national pride. I personally consider national pride a waste of energy and a bane of humanity. And yet — if one day Germany joins the Wellbeing Economy Governments, I may actually give in and feel a little pride. If only for a minute.