PCDForum Column #49,   Release Date June 25, 1993

by Winifred Armstrong

Sustainability–of people and resources–is unlikely to be
achieved using either current capitalist or socialist
economic models. Both models have been posited on
assumptions of limitless economic growth. Both measure
increased prosperity by growth, and growth by consumption. Many people now recognize that the global economy has already grown to such a size that it is consuming
resources and disposing wastes at a faster rate than the
planet’s ecology can sustain. Yet a substantial portion of
the world’s population is growing poorer.

Trying harder using current economic premises
clearly is not working. Faced with the possibility of
collective impoverishment–of earth and people–we have
both incentive and opportunity to think anew about
organizing our productive systems in ways that are

Goals, strategies and indicators must be altered to
attain an integrated system that will balance use with
replenishment of resources in ways that allow people the
opportunity to sustain themselves. These are not the goals
of current economic policy: thus current indicators
(which show whether we are achieving the goals we’ve
set out) do not reveal sustainability.

What can we alter? The obsolescence and replacement that characterize current modes of production can
be shifted by providing incentives to reduce the resources
used in production and the wastes generated. More goods
can be designed to be repaired, recycled, reutilized–with
consequent reorganization of work and materials. Access
and use rather than ownership and consumption can
become measures of prosperity. Access to transportation,
for instance, can be substituted for the number of cars per
capita as both a planning goal and a prosperity measure.

A second arena for alternative conceptualizing deals
with what we economists do and don’t count in the
calculations that underlie policy formulation. Prevailing
models do not aim for achieving sustainability of people.
Thus when Ghana is proclaimed a success after undertaking a decade of the World Bank’s structural adjustment
program (SAP), the fact that the majority of Ghanaians
are living at a standard of living far lower than they were
20 years ago is not “counted” or even mentioned.

We economists don’t count subsistence agriculture or
informal economic activities. Yet in Africa, 50 to 90
percent of people (depending on the country) gain much
of their livelihood from what they grow and eat or make
and barter. And in countries as diverse as Peru and Italy,
a substantial portion of the population is engaged in the
informal sectors. But if goods and services don’t enter the
cash economy, we economists don’t count them. It is
increasingly clear that disregarding what half or more of
people do to sustain themselves seriously skews both
economic policy and human potential.

Neither the North nor the South is sustainable in the
present economic framework in my view. Northern
countries, which include approximately 25 percent of
the world’s people, consume roughly 75 percent of the
world’s production and overproduce waste products that
further damage the resource base from which future
production must come. Yet the U.S. Congressional
Budget Office reports that the standard of living for 80
percent of Americans is lower than it was 10 years ago.
Poverty seems increasingly widespread in Eastern
Europe and other regions as well. The majority of
Africans I talked with on a recent trip through 17
African countries noted their countries were getting
poorer–yet nearly all felt their countries could be
viable, that is, could provide their people a satisfactory
and sustainable lifestyle based on the use of their own
resources under an alternative economic framework.

Many of the alternative theories and tools needed
for sustainable economic management are already
developed and ready for application. Environmental cost
and benefit accounting, and indicators of informal
economic activity and human development are available, but have yet to be effectively applied by the U.S.,
the World Bank and the many others who have contributed to their development.

Decisions to organize projects, programs and
institutions in alternative ways do not need to wait for a
mandate from elsewhere. We can begin wherever we are
to set out sustainable objectives and apply the growing
body of new concepts while contributing through
application to evolving them. And we can insist and
assist the governmental and international bodies that
represent us to go beyond the current restrictive framework that so clearly no longer meets our needs.


Winifred Armstrong is an international economist, a principal organizer of TOES/North America, and a
contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. She is
currently working on a book on
Getting to an Economics that Will
Work for People
and will appreciate
comments on ideas presented in this
column. Her address is 400 Central
Park West, New York 10025. This
column was distributed by the
PCDForum based on her article in
Development Forum, March-April

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