Does making poverty history require making wealth history too?

We need to redefine wealth if we are to find a sustainable path to global prosperity, says Jeremy Williams

“We can’t begin to tackle poverty without growth.” The words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, speaking in the US earlier this year.

Since the fragile peace negotiated in 2003, Liberia has had steady economic growth at an average of 7% a year. If the country can continue to build, tackle corruption, increase access to education and healthcare, and ensure that wealth is shared, then Liberian teenagers can dream of perhaps one day owning a car, living in a house with running water and taking sight-seeing trips to New York.

Meanwhile in the UK, the prime minister is reassuring businesses that his austerity drive won’t compromise their interests: “Relentless focus on growth is what you will get from this government,” he said to the Confederation of British Industry in 2010.

Britain’s GDP per capita is over 150 times bigger than Liberia’s. Life expectancy is 21 years longer, infant mortality is 20 times lower and literacy rates are almost double. The majority of us already have the car, heated house and overseas holidays. You would have to go back 200 years to find the same level of poverty in Britain as Liberia has today, yet both countries have the same economic priority: pursue growth.

Conventional economics tells us this isn’t a problem – get on with the business of growth and a rising tide will lift all boats. However, as the economist Herman Daly has said, the economy exists as a subset of ecology and the planet has finite limits.

According to WWF, since 1987 we have been using more natural resources than can be replenished each year. While it’s possible to live in this state of ecological overdraft for a limited time, deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, water shortages and a destabilised climate will eventually compel us to adopt sustainable ways of life.

Our total draw on the Earth’s resources needs to be scaled back but at the same time, countries like Liberia must develop and lift their populations out of poverty. The only way to reconcile this problem is for rich countries to reduce their consumption and create ecological space. To make poverty history, we need to make wealth history too.

Where does that leave us in the developed countries – either holding out against our poorer neighbours, or forced into an unwanted downsize?

I believe there’s a third option, and that is to transition to a post-consumer way of life. It requires us to redefine wealth, from the endless accumulation of goods to a focus on the things that genuinely make life worthwhile: community, family, satisfying work.

Progress would not grind to a halt, but would be qualitative rather than quantitative, expressed in education, health, art, culture and participative democracy instead of abstract GDP.

Growth is only a means to an end, and in the rich countries its work is done – absolute poverty is rare. Adopting more qualitative aims would reinvigorate our politics, rebalance our economies and give us a new sense of common purpose.

A post-carbon, post-growth, post-consumer future need not be one of hair-shirted austerity, but in fact of human flourishing.