The biggest threat to human development is excessive consumption in high-income economies

In this interview, Jason Hickel highlights the need for human development to focus on excessive resource use in economies of the Global North. He points out that countries currently scoring high on the Human Development Index are not able to do so within planetary boundaries, which goes against the aim of long-term common well-being.

The ISC is featuring contributions from the global science community on Rethinking Human Development. This is a joint project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

How should the concept of human development be rearticulated?

We’ve already made important strides in improving the definition of development. It used to be entirely based on gross domestic product (GDP) but since the 1990s, with the emergence of the Human Development Index (HDI), it has come to account for education and health as well. More recently, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have added a broader range of different objectives that we seek to achieve.

So, our objectives are becoming more human-centred, and that is important. Unfortunately, GDP remains a strong component of our development concept, including in the HDI, where it represents one third of the total value. Even the SDGs have a full goal dedicated to GDP growth, SDG 8. In an era of ecological breakdown, we must rethink this pervasive centrality of GDP growth. For instance, in my work I have demonstrated that SDG 8 is incompatible with ecological objectives in the SDGs, because of the tight coupling of GDP to energy and resource use. 

The dominant idea in development is that we should pursue GDP growth as our top objective, and hope that this will somehow magically trickle down and improve people’s lives. This is an irrational approach. Instead, we should focus on the goals that we actually want to achieve: better health, better education, better wages – whatever they might be. In the Global South, doing this is likely to entail some growth, and that’s okay as most of these countries are still well within the planet’s ecological boundaries. The good news is that we know it is possible for countries to achieve high levels of human development while also remaining within planetary boundaries.

Costa Rica is a brilliant example of this. Costa Rica has a life expectancy higher than that of the United States (US), with happiness levels that rival northern European and Scandinavian countries, and it does all this while remaining almost entirely within planetary boundaries. How? By investing in high-quality universal healthcare and education for all. That’s the secret to progress. And it does not take high levels of GDP to get there.

High-income nations, however, face a different problem. High-income nations vastly exceed planetary boundaries. Indeed, they are responsible for virtually all of global ecological overshoot, which is destabilizing ecosystems around the world. The notion that high-income nations need still more economic growth is madness. Why does the US need to grow any further? There are dozens of countries that achieve higher levels of human development than the US, with much less GDP. Portugal beats the US with 65% less GDP per capita. So, the US does not need more GDP to accomplish its goals; rather, it needs to distribute income more fairly, and to invest in universal public goods.

The Human Development Index has a problem. If you want to score high on the HDI, if that is your objective as a government, then you have to raise your GDP up towards US$75,000 per capita. It is impossible to do that while remaining within planetary boundaries and without extraordinary levels of ecological impact. And this kind of income is actually not necessary to achieve healthy, happy and flourishing lives for all. We must re-evaluate the extent to which rich nations need to pursue more growth. There is no justification for it, especially given that excess growth in the North is now causing severe damage in the South.

Remember, the North is responsible for the vast majority of historical emissions that have caused climate change, but the effects of climate change disproportionately damage the Global South. The same is true of other forms of ecological breakdown. Fifty per cent of the North’s resource consumption is appropriated from the South, with significant impact in extraction zones, including through deforestation, pollution and mining. What this means is that excess economic activity in the North is not innocent: it actively harms people elsewhere in the world. 

Every time media outlets give data on stock prices, they should also give data on insect biomass, biodiversity, carbon emissions and deforestation rates. We need to understand that our economy is embedded in our planet’s ecosystems, not separate from it. The fate of our civilization hinges on the fate of the living world.

Ultimately, we need to shift to a model of human development that is consistent with planetary boundaries. What does this mean for the SDGs? It means we need to get rid of the growth objective in Goal 8. As for HDI, it is essential that we correct it for ecological impacts, and change how we measure the income component. Right now, the HDI violates the principle of justice and universalizability. It is not possible for all countries to inhabit the top of the HDI because of the way that the income component is structured. Instead of aiming for high levels of GDP, we should be aiming for levels that are sufficient for human flourishing.

You are completely collapsing the concept of human development with the HDI, whereas the concept that emerged 30 years ago defines human development as living the lives people have reason to value. It seems this core meaning has been displaced by the HDI. Do you think that’s the case?

I think that is true to some extent. Indexes and metrics always have a dark side. They are useful to the extent that they may help us measure our objectives more easily, but they also obscure the real complexity of social life. Look at the way the HDI is structured in terms of education: we can all agree that education is an important factor in human development, and yet the indicator we use for that is the number of years people spend in school, when there is no guarantee that spending lots of years in school is going to give you a good education, and there are also no grounds on which we can say that those who spend less time in school are not educated.

As an anthropologist, I can tell you that working with indigenous people you will find that maybe they have only spent a few years in school and yet they have a grasp of how ecology and ecosystems work that exceeds that of most university professors, for instance. One could never gain that kind of understanding even after 15 years in formal education. Are we to say they are uneducated? So, the education metric today blinds us to the complexity of social life and, unfortunately, it also creates really problematic hierarchies. If you look at a map of countries that score highest on the education index, they are all in the Global North. So, we are led to conclude that the North is ‘smarter’, and yet it is precisely those countries that are causing the most harm to our collective future. How is that smarter? How is that more advanced? There’s something wrong here. We must ask: what gets left out of this picture? 

The anthropological perspective is extremely important to hear because it is not only the problem of the centrality of GDP growth, but is also how the other measures are interpreted. If we take an idea of human-centric development that is all these things, what would be the key challenges today?

For the past half century or more, the project of international development has been organized around the ‘deficiencies’ of poor countries. The idea has been that there is something wrong with poor countries and they need to be fixed. For example, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and bilateral development agencies such as United States Agency for International Development (USAID), all send missions to Global South countries to try to fix them.

This is a problem in two ways. Firstly, because in reality underdevelopment in the Global South isn’t primarily about domestic problems. It is about power imbalances in the world economy. Think about it this way: the Global South contributes up to 80% of the labour and resources that go into to the global economy, and yet it receives a mere fraction of the income from global economic growth. The poorest 60% of humanity receive only 5% of new income from growth. These are the people that harvest the tea, coffee and sugar that the world uses every day – grow the bananas and berries that Europeans eat for breakfast, sew the clothes that everyone wears. The global economy literally depends on the labour of the poor, and yet they receive only pennies. 

Secondly, the richest 1% of humanity receives about 28% of all new income from global growth. The disparities are extraordinary. And this is not an accident. It’s because of the way the global economy is structured. It’s because of the way the debt system works, which grants rich nations the ability to control economic policy in poor nations. It’s because of how the trade system works, where the richest countries have all the bargaining power and get to set the rules in their own interests. Poor countries have been integrated into the global economy on unequal terms – that’s what is perpetuating poverty.

This will never be fixed by sending missions to help poor countries ‘fix’ domestic policy. This is a problem that has to do with power and balances in the global economy. Who has the voting power in the World Bank and the IMF? Who has the bargaining power in the World Trade Organization? These are not democratic institutions; these are institutions that allow a small handful of rich countries to determine the rules of the global economy. If we want to see real development in the Global South, we have to challenge the balance of power in the global economy. Anything else misses the point.

So, that’s one shift we have to make. Stop seeing poor countries as the primary problem. It’s rich countries that are the problem. This is true in another sense as well. Remember, the goal now is to accomplish human development within planetary boundaries. On this front, poor countries are the easy part. We know it is possible for the Global South to achieve high levels of human development within planetary boundaries, like Costa Rica has done. How did Costa Rica do it? Universal public healthcare, universal education, social security and so on. These human-centred public services are systems that most countries in the Global South were putting in place in the immediate post-colonial decades of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and yet were systematically dismantled in the 1980s and 1990s by structural adjustment programmes. Structural adjustment cut public sector spending on healthcare and education, cut wages and privatized public assets, all with devastating consequences for poor people. That is the main reason why life expectancy is lower in the Global South today than in the Global North. The rest of the South could have been like Costa Rica, with a life expectancy of 80 years, had they not been brutalized by structural adjustment.

So, poor countries are the easy part. We know how to do it, and we know it’s possible. It’s rich countries that are the hard part. Rich countries have to massively scale down their energy and resource use to get back down within planetary boundaries and back into balance with the living world – that has never been attempted before in all of history, it is new terrain. Therefore, this is the real challenge of development in the 21st century: to bring the North back within planetary boundaries. It is possible to do, but requires a totally different economic paradigm; it requires abandoning GDP growth and shifting to post-growth and degrowth models.

If we were to really make the case for human-centric development being the priority for any kind of decision-making, not only policy decision-making but also private sector, how can this be achieved and what needs to happen to push for that understanding of putting human development within planetary boundaries?

New Zealand has made some interesting moves in this direction: they recently abandoned GDP growth as an objective and replaced it with human wellbeing. Scotland and Iceland are following suit. That is an immensely important first step. Right now, we have a situation where we target GDP growth and then we hope that somehow magically it will accomplish our social goals. This is an irrational and imprecise way of approaching the economy. It makes more sense to target the things we want to achieve directly and to make that the goal of governments.

But it’s also not enough, in and of itself. Rich countries need to actively scale down resource use and energy use. And I’m not talking about distant targets, like: ‘let’s have resource use down to sustainable levels by 2050.” No, cap resource use and ratchet it down, year on year, to sustainable levels. We need annual targets. Ecological economists have been calling for this for a very long time. It’s not rocket science. 

This means having a conversation about what parts of the economy we actually need. We often start from the assumption that all sectors of the economy must grow, all the time, regardless of whether we need them. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can decide what sectors we want to grow (like clean energy and public services), and what sectors should radically degrow (like SUVs, private jets, McMansions, the arms industry and industrial beef and dairy). Real economic sovereignty means having the freedom to have this conversation.

What I am calling for here is not peripheral to the project of international development; it is absolutely central. Excess growth in rich nations is driving ecological breakdown and actively harming development in the South: we are seeing hunger and poverty rates rise in some areas, and that will only get worse as the century wears on. If we don’t deal with the problem of excess in the North, we undermine the project of international development itself.

What will be an optimal definition of the concept of human development?

Well, ideally, we probably need to get away from the concept of development altogether. Perhaps we should speak about flourishing or promoting well-being instead, within planetary boundaries. We need a much more holistic approach.

One of the problems with capitalist civilization is that for 500 years we have imagined that humans are fundamentally separate from the rest of the living world, and that sense of separation is what has allowed us to treat nature and other human beings as objects to be exploited. What the 21st century demands from us is to restore a sense of our intrinsic connection to the rest of the living world.

Ultimately, what we call ‘the economy’ is the material expression of our relationship with each other and with the rest of the living world, with all of life. We must ask ourselves, what do we want that relationship to look like? Do we want it be a relationship of extraction and exploitation, or a relationship of reciprocity and care? That is the question we have to ask ourselves. If our conception of human development does not take that broader picture into account, then I think we are missing the point.


Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist, an author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He serves on the Statistical Advisory Panel for the Human Development Report 2020, the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe and on the Lancet Commission on Reparations and Redistributive Justice.

Cover image: by Danumurthi Mahendra on Flickr

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