12/18/2015 08:15 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2016

Don't Blame Growth

By John Soroushian, member of the St. Gallen Symposium's global Leaders of Tomorrow community

Growth has lifted humanity from the caves to the cities and given us civilization. Yet today it is scapegoated by its critics for causing many societal ills. Growth's critics rightfully sound the alarm on environmental and social problems. But their criticism of growth misses the real issues of poor policy and misguided public values.

If growth were merely the ever-increasing exploitation of finite natural resources to create perishable goods without technological advance, there would be reason to limit it. But growth represents far more than that. Growth can also be a team of nurses learning to better collaborate, a doctor improving her services through empathy, or a teacher finding innovative ways to unlock human potential. These activities are both desirable and sustainable.
Furthermore, if governments and people were driven by a growth at all cost mentality, there would also be reason for concern. But this is not and has never been the case. If it were, funding for basic research and early childcare would skyrocket at the expense of elderly care. But the reverse is true. Policies favored by powerful political constituencies generally trump pro-growth ones. And these constituencies tend to be motivated by a variety of factors beyond growth, including self-interest, compassion, ideology, and fairness.

Instead of demonizing growth, we should focus on improving our policies and values to solve our social and environmental problems, as we have in the past. Ozone depletion was mitigated through shifting public opinion and negotiating global agreements, such as the Montreal Protocol. We can and are trying to do the same for climate change. High wealth concentration paired with a squeezed middle class has at its best resulted in inclusive policy reforms and increased philanthropy to mitigate itself, and at its worse resulted in increased class polarization and the appeal of oversimplistic populist views. Since limiting growth is likely to trigger the latter, let us focus on policy reforms instead.

Blaming growth is naïve and gets in the way of the deep thinking and hard work required to solve our global challenges. Growth can be both sustainable and desirable, and it has never been the decisive motivator for governments. We must continue focusing on the difficult challenge of shifting public values and policy to guide growth rather than get distracted by the undesirable goal to bluntly limit it.

Growth will be debated in the light of the 46th St. Gallen Symposium (11-13 May 2016). Graduate and postgraduate students have the unique opportunity to qualify as "Leaders of Tomorrow" for an expenses-covered participation in the 46th St. Gallen Symposium. Register here and apply no later than 1 February 2016.