> Conceptual Framework > Causes of Scale Problems > Obsolete Public Policies
 Under Construction

Obsolete Public Policies

Economic Policis Set Growth as the PriorityGROSS WORLD PRODUCT 1950  2001.gif
It would be difficult to find any governmental body, at any level, in any nation, which did not have economic growth as a key if not central goal of its administration. Economic considerations are generally given the highest priority in public policy decision making. If there are conflicts with social or environmental concerns, political decision making generally favors economic interests. Higher policy priority will have to be given to maintaining ecologcially sustainable scale to avoid the inevitable consequences of exceeding scale. (See Attractive Solutions: Supportive Public Policies). "The overarching priority of economic growth was easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.1"

Money Policy Drives Economic Growth
One of the most fundamental policies of any government has to do with how money is created. This is known as seignorage, acknowledging that such a task was originally the sole right of the monarch. In most developed countries this right is now in the private sector, and is accomplished by requiring economic growth for new money to be created. Money creation, economic growth, and a rapid advance on sustainable scale boundaries are intimately connected in reality if not in design, by public policies around the world. Scale problems will not be solved without adjusting money policies (see Attractive Solutions: Economics For Community).

Business Policy Encourages Growth
The term "open for business" has become a cliche for cities, regions and nations around the world. Governments encourage business developement through a variety of laws and regulations, and by generally facilitating business expansion regardless of the environmental and social consequences. In many jurisdictions, corporations are required by law to ignore these consequences in the interests of shareholder return. These externalized costs obscure an accurate accounting of business operations. Business practices which unnecessarily contribute to material throughput are encouraged and supported by numerous government policies and programs. They are incompatible with resolution of the scale problem.  Alternaitve business approaches are available (see Attractive Solutions: Sustainable Business Practices).

Trade Policy the Vehicle for Economic Growth
Most nations seek economic growth and prosperity through trade with other nations. Most international trade agreements make economic growth priorities clear; social or environmental issues cannot legally interfere with the opportunity for economic growth. These trade agreements, by their nature, encourage further increases in material throughput. Policies which fail to consider the impact of increased international trade on the sustainability of ecosystems pose a serious threat.

Environment Policy Off the Mark
The vast majority of environmental regulations by governments, and voluntary environmental measures by businesses and consumers, occur without identifying sustainable ecosystem impacts. (The same is often true for environmental organizations.) If clear targets are set at all, they are often the result of political negotiations, rather than based on principles of sustainability. Such an approach places greater emphasis on the palpable unpleasantness of environmental problems, rather than on their less visible threats to ecosystem sustainability. Environmental policies that neglect to identify the capacities of ecosystems to continue functioning under ever increasing levels of material throughput are of limited usefulness.

Growth as the Solution to Policy Challenges
Economic growth has become the dominant policy instrument partly because it is believed to hold out promise to solve a variety of social, environmental and economic problems. Economic theory creates great faith in the market’s ability to generate well being. Economists advocate letting the market do its work as the most efficient approach to benefits for all. These beliefs are firmly held, frequently repeated and energetically defended, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. These economic theories supporting the growth priority have serious flaws, drawing into question both their validity and their role in policy formulation (see Causes of Scale Problems: Defunct Economic Theories).  Fortunately, alternatives are available (see Attractive Solutions: Economics For Community).

Reduced Size and Scope of Government
The trend to reduce the size of governments in the world’s major nations means that the mechanisms and procedures for developing sound public policies are also reduced. What remains is largely focused on promoting economic growth as the goal which will allow all other major problems to be resolved. There are scarce public resources available, and even scarcer political will, to consider the harmful impacts of this growth. There is even less public policy space available to grapple with the scale issue, even though it touches directly on each of the main areas of government responsibility. National governments have the responsibility to address scale issues and need to commit sufficient resources to do so.

Government Responsibilities
The ideal for most modern democracies is to ensure that the basic needs of all citizens are met, and that all are able to reach their potential. Governments’ responsibilities in areas of education, healthcare, environmental protection and social justice, are affected by their ability to tax their citizens. Taxes rise with increases in economic growth, so governments see economic growth as the means of fulfilling their responsibilities. However, when growth becomes the overriding goal, policies are implemented which support growth without fulfilling these other obligations. Economic growth considered as a means to citizen well being (rather than as a end in itself) would be a policy change compatible with sustainable scale. The importance of sustainable scale for well being should be reflected in public policies.


1McNeill, J. R. Something New Under the Sun. New York: W. W. Norton Co., 2000: p.337.

<< Economic Growth << >> Defunct Economic Theories >>
© 2003 Santa-Barbara Family Foundation