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GDP Does Not Equate to Success

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Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series submitted by undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago from a course called ENVS 363: Sustainable Business Management.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word finite as – having a limited nature or existence; finite is also commonly used when describing the amount of natural resources the Earth possesses. Yet many individuals still believe that the answer to this issue of having finite nonrenewable resources is economic growth. This is most prominently seen in modern economics in the United States. In our current linear, cowboy economy, consumption and production are the main drivers for a “successful” society. Manufacturing and purchasing goods only to eventually dispose of them as “waste” is one of the main problems with our current way of life. In this paradigm, success is measured by gross domestic product (GDP). One of the numerous issues with measuring societal success with GDP is the fact that it does not factor in the cost of using nonrenewable resources. In addition, the social and environmental issues that occur as a result of our continuous economic growth are not covered in GDP either. If we as a society continue down this path of infinite economic growth, we will not only be measuring individual, national, and international success incorrectly, but also create unnecessary waste and deplete our finite nonrenewable resources at a much more rapid pace than is truly necessary.

The posed solution to this dilemma is increased advancements in technology and circular economic growth. These two concepts go hand-in-hand and are both critical to economic sustainability. If we can figure out how to create more efficient and longer-lasting products, fewer resources would be used to continuously replace old ones that are not necessarily at the end of their product life cycle. In addition, we would have better ways to fix the goods we currently own, thus saving us money. A great example of a product that people replace well before they need to are their cellular phones. This is primarily because phone production companies do not build their phones to last very long as well as continuously code software updates that are not fully compatible with previous models. If companies prioritized the longevity of their products over corporate greed, consumers would not have to get rid of their phones every two years and resources used to produce them would decrease.

This idea of repairing and reusing products instead of getting rid of them are the first two steps in the circular economy model. From there, the model suggests the refurbishing and remanufacturing of products and/or product parts in order to further keep them in circulation. Finally, if a product is truly dated or unsalvageable, only then should recycling the product be the step. The recycling stage is more often than not the step most individuals take after something occurs with their products.

All of this relates back to the idea of finite things. If we look at our finite resources on Earth, it is almost like we are all together on one ship and have to learn to budget and manage our resources in order survive. Ellen MacArthur, who set the world record for quickest solo sail around the world, relates her time on her ship to our time on Earth. She tells her experience about being on the ship with a finite amount of food, water, and fuel, and how she realized that if she isn’t conscious about how much she consumes, it could eventually cost her life. She then goes on to explain how our economy is no different. In her iconic TED Talk in March 2015, she says, “Our global economy is no different. It’s entirely dependent on finite materials we only have once in the history of humanity…what we have out there is all we have. There is no more.” (MacArthur). This scary but true statement is more relevant today than it has ever been. With increase in production and consumption comes an increase of pollution as well; and with our finite resources depleting faster than ever, change has to be made in order to get away from the linear cowboy economy. GDP has been proven to not directly correlate with quality of life; therefore, why do we still measure our success and happiness by it? With a circular economy, consumers would save money and live an overall happier and healthier life because of it.

Consequently the first move we must make is learning how to transition from a linear economy to a circular one. The RESOLVE Framework lays the foundation for this transition. The acronym RESOLVE stands for the following: REgenerate, Share, Optimize, Loop, Virtualize, and Exchange.

  • Regenerate resources by switching to those that use renewable energy and materials.
  • Share assets and prolong the life of products through maintenance, design, and durability.
  • Optimize product efficiency to use less energy and create less pollution during production.
  • Loop products through the remanufacturing cycle and recycle what is absolutely broken.
  • Virtualize everyday things such as movies, music, books, and shopping.
  • Exchange our old habits for greener new ones.

If all societies globally adapted the RESOLVE platform, everyone would have a common understanding of what we need to do in order to conserve our nonrenewable resources. We would all understand that we are all on this ship together and have to work hand-in-hand in order to make our supplies last, not just for ourselves, but for future generations as well.

Once we have adapted to a more efficient, restorative, and regenerative way of life, the next step would be teaching greener methodologies in universities in order to continue our global transition to more sustainable economies. By moving away from a linear economy framework to a circular one and increasing our technology in order to be more efficient, we can take the necessary steps in order to protect our planet. Continuously growing our economy is not the solution to our problem, creating a more efficient one is.

MacArthur, Dame Ellen. “The Surprising Thing I Learned Sailing Solo around the World.”Dame Ellen MacArthur: The Surprising Thing I Learned Sailing Solo around the World | TED Talk, TED, Mar. 2015, www.ted.com/talks/dame_ellen_macarthur_the_surprising_thing_i_learned_sailing_solo_around_the_world.

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