Redefining Progress, One State at a Time

What can prosperity possibly look like in a finite world, with limited resources and a population expected to exceed 9 billion people within decades? Do we have a decent vision of prosperity for such a world? Is this vision credible in the face of the available evidence about ecological limits?…The prevailing response to these questions is to cast prosperity in economic terms and to call for continuing economic growth as the means to deliver it. Higher incomes mean increased choices, richer lives, and an improved quality of life for those who benefit from them. This, at least is the conventional wisdom. This formula is cashed out (almost literally) as an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

This passage is excerpted from a groundbreaking work of paradigm shifting economic analysis – Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.   Jackson, a Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, is one of the most well-known and well regarded members of a global network of academics and public intellectuals who are working to develop a new economics – one that proceeds from the premise that the economy is a subset of our ecological system and to be sustainable must operate in ways that respect the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Counter-intuitive as it may be, the opposite proposition – that there are no limits to how much we can and should use and discard of the planet’s resources – has a nearly hegemonic hold on us, with tentacles that intrude into even the most unlikely of places. Some (perhaps most) environmental advocates believe (perhaps correctly) that they have no choice but to frame the value of protecting the environment in terms of how doing so will help to create more new jobs and further grow our economy.

Making it safe to trouble these waters is no small task. Jackson and his fellow apostates recognize, however, that a key point of intervention involves challenging the calculus that equates expanded social prosperity with increased GDP.

Happily Maryland is ground zero for some of the United States’ most forward thinking work of this sort. Maryland is the first state to establish an official complement to the GDP/GSP.  Rather than equating progress with the total amount of economic activity within the state, the Maryland  Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) generates an aggregate measurement of economic, environmental, and social progress, a measurement that parses the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of economic growth, and also embraces value that resides outside of balance sheets.

With our help, the Institute for Policy Studies (a Washington-based think tank) is helping Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to expand awareness of the Maryland GPI, and to deepen its impact.  Their work together will be featured at the upcoming State of the State briefing of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.

Sean Maguire, at the Office for a Sustainable Future in Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, is the Genuine Progress Indicator Program Manager . Sean was recently interviewed on WYPR.