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A low-no-growth, sustainable Barbados: Is new thinking required?

Tue, 2014-03-25 12:58
Robin Mahon

Professor of Marine Affairs and Director of the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies, University of the West Indies

Should we be promoting quality of life  over income growth as a primary indicator of social development?

Port St. Charles, Barbados (Photo: Sandman5 via Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
The prevailing belief in Barbados is that the economy will recover from the current recession. However, the global economy may not recover as expected, and the Barbados economy may not begin to grow again or may grow only very slowly. Could this be a good thing for Barbados? If so, how can it take advantage of opportunities offered by this situation and minimise the negative impacts?  This perspective on the situation facing Barbados and what could be done about it, seems entirely absent from the national discussion.
 
Many think it unlikely that growth, as we have known it in the past, will return. In ‘The End of Growth,’ Jeff Rubin argues convincingly for this view. A no- or low-growth option presents substantial difficulties for conventional economists whose ideas are built around continued economic growth. Importantly, Rubin argues that high fuel costs will make transportation of goods and people prohibitively expensive; a serious problem for Barbados which depends on tourism and imports.
 
Barbados has enjoyed many decades of growth and development that position it well to transition into a no-growth society if it has to, or perhaps even by choice.  The standard of living in Barbados is relatively high; it’s per capita GDP it is about 50th in the world and about a quarter that of the USA. However, for the entire world to live at the standard of the USA, will require four ‘Earths.’ Should Barbados be chasing a standard of living similar to that of the USA? Or is it already at a level where the focus should be on sustainability and quality of life? 
 
In ‘Deep Economy,’ we learn about recent studies showing that while there is a certain material standard of living required for well-being, beyond that material things tend not to increase well-being or happiness. This is a controversial topic, as there are still many in Barbados whose standard of living is unacceptably low. Perhaps our focus could also be on ensuring that what we have is more equitably shared. 
 
How does that translate into reality and what would that reality look like for Barbados? There are no clear answers, and it will be up to Barbados to develop them. Either from necessity or by choice, it would be wise to think comprehensively about a sustainable low-no-growth path now. The transition will be difficult, but some will find it new and exciting. There are ideas out there that can be drawn upon, for example in ‘Agenda for a New Economy,’  ‘Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller’  and ‘The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality’.
 
One main thrust in these discussions is the need to refocus attention on community, and the local provision of goods and services. This thinking is not entirely new to Barbados and the press and airwaves are full of good ideas or initiatives that will be an important part of going in this direction.  The recent Green Economy Scoping Study for Barbados (2012) includes several ways to transition to sustainability but unfortunately, still includes a large element of dependency on growth. Despite an abundance of good ideas, there does not seem to be an overarching vision that ties them together. 
 
Barbados’ small size is to its advantage in moving towards no-growth sustainability. As a small country, it should be possible to manage the natural environment, especially agro- and marine ecosystems effectively and to improve the built environment without exceeding limits that will lead to environmental degradation. Many activities currently ongoing in Barbados, from organic farming, to renewable energy already position it well to pursue this path.  The existing vision however, is one of material growth, fuelled by dependence on tourism and external investment. 
 
Many of these ideas are not new to Barbados. The 2003 Barbados Sustainable Development Policy created by the National Commission for Sustainable Development (established in 1997) states: ‘Promoting the concept of quality of life as a primary indicator of social development, with preference over income growth, will for the most part be a novel challenge in Barbados.’ Perhaps now is the time to take up that challenge.
 
Reorienting the country towards no-growth sustainability will not be smooth sailing. There are no off-the-shelf ready formulas for what a no-growth sustainable Barbados might look like. It must be addressed by a fully cross-sectoral process. Everyone has a part of the answer. Over the years, many changes in Barbados have led away from the socially cohesive environment that will be an important factor in this transition. Yet, if any country in the world can make this transition, Barbados can. Small size, education, intelligence, resilience, strong work ethic, community mindedness are all qualities in its favour. 
 
Photo: Port St. Charles, Barbados (Sandman5 via Creative Commons http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
 

 

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