Campus / News / April 30, 2009

Public Ethics professor says money is not everything

On Tuesday, April 21st, former director of the Australia Institute think tank and Australian National University Professor of Public Ethics Clive Hamilton delivered a lecture to Knox students and faculty entitled “Growth Fetishism and the Climate Crisis.” Introduced by Knox professor Tim Kasser, Hamilton spoke steadily and earnestly about how the world’s preoccupation with gross domestic product was getting in the way of the bigger picture.

“Most countries nowadays measure their prosperity by GDP,” said Hamilton. “Either they’re living in opulence or in squalor. But that’s just not true. GDP is not a measure of happiness.”

Hamilton referenced numerous other authors and academics throughout his talk, including Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring, the report The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome think tank, Nicholas Stern’s The Economics of Climate Change and Simon Kuznet’s equation of industry versus per capita income. The basic conclusion he drew from these references was that the increase of industry in countries was not equivalent to their relative level of contentment. To help his audience grasp his point, Hamilton showed stills from the digitally animated film Wall-E.

“In this film, humanity has lost touch with nature, becoming fully integrated with an industrial society,” said Hamilton. “They’ve fallen into believing the myth that income and productivity mean happiness, because growth has become a symbol of vitality. Their technology allows them to float in space in equilibrium with themselves while the Earth is trashed below them. It takes the discovery of a single plant left on Earth to jolt them to their senses and initiate their return to Earth and the reclamation of Earth’s resources.”

Hamilton said at the rate countries are currently growing industrially due to their pursuit of happiness, the cost of repairing the damage done to our atmosphere and climate will cost the world dearly in terms of money.

“In the early 20th century, technology was viewed with a boundless optimism,” said Hamilton. “But unless we do something now our technology will mean something different to our children. Technology will be seen as desperate measures to undo the damage we’ve done, and eventually, technology will no longer be able to keep up.” He argued that if we were to begin reducing the parts per million of carbon currently in the air by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in a few decades our atmosphere will have normalized, saving the world more money by not having to repair it quickly. This reduction of greenhouse gas emissions means a reduction in industrial growth.

“If we harness the growth that countries have been achieving, people can expect to see an increase in income approximately six months later than they normally would,” said Hamilton. “They’d still get richer, it’d just take longer. But if we don’t reduce the gases the damage to our climate system will devastate the world economy.”

The problem, Hamilton told his audience, was that those in power have a vested interest in keeping the economy the way it is. Oil lobbyists and fossil fuel lobbyists have the ear of those in charge in the government, and the government itself has a vested interest in continuing to believe that all growth is good. Some members of the audience wondered what they could do to as individuals.

“If the dedication to growth is irrational, those in charge in Washington are reluctant to hit the levers, those who benefit have influence and the cost of inaction is greater than the real threat, how do we create a destabilizing political influence?” asked journalism department co-chair David Amor.

To answer him, Hamilton related the stories of individuals he knew who chose to “downshift,” intentionally receiving less income by switching jobs and producing more goods for themselves. According to Hamilton, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. has taken part in some form of downshifting, making it less than a passing trend.

“If enough people downshift, maybe the government will get the message. But it’s difficult to sacrifice that much and likely impossible to get everyone to do it.” Another option, according to Hamilton, would be to institute a “carbon tax,” in which the government would allow only so much carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere by handing out licenses, and then allowing the market to bid for those licenses. “In such a system,” said Hamilton, “the market takes the risks, and regulating the climate for the better is a sure thing.”

The best way to effect change, though, said Hamilton, is to contact government representatives. Local lobbyists in areas affected most by the release of gases, such as in coal mining towns, can have the greatest effect, but everyone should be warning their representatives of the dangers of inaction, according to Hamilton.

When asked if he was hopeful that the Obama administration would be more open to the ideas he discussed, Hamilton was doubtful.

“He’s put the right people in place to advise him on the topic,” said Hamilton, “I know a few of them myself and they’re the real deal. But I think the Obama administration is more pragmatic than people realize,” said Hamilton. “Pragmatism leads to compromise, and this just isn’t an issue you can compromise on.”

David Nolan

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