Honeybees and Betty Draper versus the GDP

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced the latest figures for our national accounts: the GDP rose by 1.3 per cent in the March quarter. Not surprisingly, the economies of Western Australia and the Northern Territory outdid everyone, rising at a hefty annual rate of 14 and 15 per cent respectively, even outpacing global economic giant China (whose annual growth was 8.1 per cent).

Their healthy buoyancy shocked everyone who knows and cares about such numbers. ‘I’m picking my jaw off the table,’ said Commonwealth Bank chief economist Michael Blythe. Everyone is celebrating. Except, perhaps, for Tony Abbott.

GDP figures purportedly measure our national wealth, they supposedly calculate the success or otherwise of our economic lives. And the latest GDP figures rock.

But what, exactly, do they measure? All legal transactions in the money economy. No more and no less. Which raises the more important question: what, exactly, do GDP figures not measure.

They do not measure the value of wild blueberry bees as they pollinate blueberry flowers. And yet their value is so enormous – each one pollinates up to 19 litres of blueberries in its lifetime – that farmers see them as ‘flying $50 bills’. Their pollinating activity is about 100 times more valuable than the honey they produce. And yet it counts for nothing in our GDP figures.

The work of nature in general counts for nothing in our GDP accounts. The carbon absorption of forests, the coastal defence provided by coral reefs (from erosion, storm damage, flooding), the pollution-filtering potential of wetlands, the nutrient recycling carried out by the soil. All this counts for nothing in our GDP figures.

Nor do GDP figures count the work done by housewives and househusbands. Domestic work counts for nothing.

The priceless services provided by honeybees, trees, coral reefs, wetlands and homemakers are not included in the GDP because we treat their work as free. But as Janet Abramovitz of the Worldwatch Institute says, ‘nature’s services are not, in fact, free, and the future will bear the hidden costs of losing them’. We’ll pay the costs in environmental destruction and climate change.

And the costs of treating housework as if it’s free? The armies of bored, drugged-up postwar suburban housewives continue, paying the costs of not counting the inestimable value of their work. Betty Draper. Revolutionary Road.

Betty Draper

Because we don’t value the services provided by housewives and nature in the way we currently structure our economies, we have no incentive to care for them. In fact, there’s an incentive to wear them down and tear them apart. As we’ve been doing at increasing rates for the last 250 years.

Under current GDP measures, countries that cut down forests for timber exports, dynamite their reefs for fish, pollute and degrade their soil for intensive agriculture, and allow farms and factories to contaminate their waterways get rich.

But there is nothing necessary about national accounts. They were first constructed as temporary measures in Washington to guide policy during the depression as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and then in Great Britain during the Second World War. But they quickly became enshrined in public life and after the war – courtesy of new international financial organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF – GDP accounts were imposed on almost every nation on earth.

Even their creator, Simon Kuznets, knew they were partial and deeply flawed. New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring discovered their flaws when she became a politician and found that in her nation’s GDP measures the things she valued most about her country counted for nothing: ‘its pollution-free environment; its mountain streams with safe drinking water; the accessibility of national parks, walkways, beaches, lakes, kauri and beech forests; the absence of nuclear power and nuclear energy’. Bobby Kennedy said something similar in a speech he made in 1968 three months before he was assassinated.

So how can we make housewives and honeybees count? At least three recent initiatives come to mind:

1. The first, driven in Europe and the USA by the twin bads of environmental degradation and financial collapse, is the construction of accounts that supplement the GDP and measure a range of ‘key national indicators’, from education and health to the arts and culture, families and children, crime and justice.

2. The second is the attempt to give dollar values to natural wealth, which is being done by organisations like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Its findings are staggering.

3. A third alternative is to enshrine the rights of nature in law, such as Bolivia’s 2011 Mother Earth legislation.

But more importantly regarding the GDP, we need to question the single idea that has driven national economies since the Second World War: ‘economic growth’.

Because what does ‘economic growth’ mean? It means increases in the GDP. It means that our leaders across the political spectrum and across the planet are programmed to ensure GDP goes up. And GDP goes up when we cut down trees, buy cigarettes, pay the chemotherapy for lung cancer, pay for the petrol we use to sit in cars in peak-hour traffic, buy Ritalin, junk food, pay hospital bills for obesity and diabetes, build weapons of mass destruction, pay the costs of environmental destruction.

At this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, Jeanette Winterson spoke to a packed Sydney Opera House. In attempting to articulate the sacred in our secular world Winterson did something most unexpected. She referred to the GDP. She said: ‘we do also wonder where the sacred has gone, and we can’t find language for that any more … The part of us that isn’t to do with GDP, that isn’t to do with the national debt, that isn’t to do with gross income or the amount of money you earn …’

Wrong! I believe there is no longer any part of us or our planet that isn’t to do with the GDP. And for too long we writers, artists and poets have been dividing ourselves off from the GDP, from the national debt, from gross income. Albert Einstein said: ‘The intuitive mind is the sacred gift and the rational mind is the faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ I think we with intuitive minds need to join the conversation. And I think that like James Joyce, Alexis Wright and Harry Potter, we need to learn to speak in the language of our oppressors: the language of numbers.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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  1. Yep, thanks for mentioning it, Chris: Gross National Happiness, first used to guide economic growth in Bhutan in 1970s.
    It’s a thing – and a good thing. And has inspired some of the thinking behind the recent moves in Europe and USA to extend the concept of national wealth.

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