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The Attenborough Challenge: The Plane That Can Never Be Allowed to Land

by Maureen McAllister, E-RYT 500, YACEP

As a small business owner, this blog, in particular, feels a bit odd to write. For the third month of the Attenborough Challenge, I'd like to explore the paradox surrounding limited natural resources and unlimited Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth as the standard of health for an economy. I believe that Kate Raworth's TED Talk, A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow, said it best when she describes GDP as "the plane that can never be allowed to land." This idea is taken from W.W. Rostow's 1960 book, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, which describes five stages needed for economic growth and ends with us flying off into the fifth stage, "the sunset of mass consumerism." Rostow recognized the problem with unlimited growth but was unable to answer it in his book, as an advisor for John F. Kennedy at the time, who was running for election on the promise of five-percent growth. In 1962, one of Kennedy's advisors, Arthur Okun, coined Okun's Law: "for every 3-point rise in GDP, unemployment will fall 1 percentage point. The theory informs monetary policy: Keep growing the economy, and everything will be just fine."

Although initially, it was Simon Kuznets, an American economist at the National Bureau of Economic Research, who created the idea of GDP in 1934--"one stat to rule them all." It was quickly adopted as the primary measure of a country's economy at the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 (not too long ago!--and coincidentally the name of a country club I worked at for good while). I think it is intuitively clear to everyone why this model is unsustainable--we have a limited amount of resources on earth, and if every economy were to reach the unlimited growth symbolic of countries like the United States and China, we would quickly be in our third World War for resources. There's just not enough to go around indefinitely in the current "take --> make --> use --> lose" model of consumerism.

Raworth, who is an Oxford economist, believes that we as people have developed a financial, political, and social addiction to the idea of growth.

  • Financially: we are obsessed with the idea of the highest rate of monetary return to a shareholder. Banks create money as debt, bearing interest, which must be repaid with more, (anyone with student loans is familiar with this structure).

  • Politically: how do you raise tax revenue without taxes? GDP is a solution. There is also political pressure felt from other countries--if your economy is not growing, what are you doing? This is not just the politician's fault, unfortunately, this is the pressure that we as consumers put on lawmakers.

  • Socially: the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, coined his uncle's ideas to create and popularize the idea of mass consumerism by selling to people's emotions rather than intellect. We can "transform" how we feel about ourselves with products.

Couple this with the fact that most GDP gains get returned to the 1% and the reality that our current way of doing and thinking about things is rapidly destabilizing the planet. There is also something to be said for how the "take --> make --> use --> lose" one-way drip of products affects our mental psyche and well-being as humans and co-habitators of a space. Ideas do not stay compartmentalized, they seep over into our way of thinking and viewing just about everything around us. You only have to look so far as social media, music, and pop culture to see an abundance of posts and media propagating the idea of throwing away people who have displeased you or disagree with your worldview. Originally we might not agree with these ideas, but by being introduced to them in microdoses slowly over time, we start to think that there might be something there.

Raworth argues for the idea of a sustainable economy, or a circular economy, which is already being implemented by the European Union in their European Green Deal, as they strive to become the first climate-neutral continent where "no person and no place is left behind." Already they seek to decouple economic growth from resource use "by turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities" for new industries and technologies. Raworth's ideas (outlined below) also asks for a new American economic plan that strives for the lime green donut and equates the poetry of a circle to this cyclical symbol of well-being in many cultures:

  • Maori Takarangi

  • Taoist Yin-Yang

  • Buddhist Endless Knot

  • Celtic Double Spiral