Episode 337. What Are We Measuring?

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 15th of May 2023.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Mainstream Economics

From Politico.eu comes an opinion piece by Jo Swinson, a former LDP leader in the UK. The piece is entitled: Mainstream economics is lost, and the price is political chaos


It’s time to move beyond GDP as a proxy for progress, and to end our obsession with a metric that has flaws which have been obvious since well before 1968 U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy made the memorable critique: “It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The arguments are well rehearsed — and many: GDP ignores much of what matters most; disasters make GDP go up; it tells us nothing about who gets what. For living things, growing is helpful and desirable only up to the point of maturity. And as a society, we need to support growth of other things — our health and wellbeing, the abundance of nature in our parks and green spaces, the flourishing skills and self-esteem of our young people, as well as our collective curiosity, creativity, care and cooperation. We are, by nature, social animals and cooperation is humanity’s defining strength.

End Quote

I believe we’ve discussed GDP before. The idea that spraying so much pesticide that honey bees are wiped out and apple orchards therefore, need to be hand pollinated is reflected as an increase in GDP because there’s more work for humans, more sales of pesticides and more accountants keeping track of all this. 

Clearly something is wrong with this. As mentioned in the quote: “For living things, growing is helpful and desirable only up to the point of maturity.”. The only other system I can think of that revels in unlimited, continuous growth is cancer.  That’s why it’s a problem. However the financial markets are tied to growth. Getting happening faster or slowing it down; to come out of a recession or slow down inflation respectively. 

Irrigation and Growth?

Last year the State Government announced a few new irrigation systems here in Tasmania. The problematic times of the year are January and February. We have a mediterranean climate and those two months of high summer are usually dry. The irrigation systems are designed to cover that gap and any other periods of less than average rainfall. The thing is these systems cost money to install on the farm and to set up as water collection systems. The problem of misapplied water, as in wet all summer, when the soil microbiota have evolved to thrive in dry summers and the debt incurred to build the system means a reliance on artificial fertilisers which disrupt the soil microbiota. I suspect there’ll be an increased need for fungicides as the out of whack soils race to rebalance themselves. The thinking behind the schemes goes along these lines: climate change will disrupt our rainfall patterns, we’ll create these systems to balance those fluctuations, increase productivity and grow Tasmania’s GDP.


Almost every economic decision made by governments almost everywhere, maybe not North Korea but who’s to know, the decisions are to grow GDP. A one off measurement that can trigger currency collapse, interest rate jumps and terror in the political ranks with an election always just around the corner.

Are there alternative measurements that might actually take into account the growth in knowledge and understanding of ecological systems? Well sort of. There’s a list of 8 alternatives for the website: In The Black on the page: GDP alternatives: 8 ways of measuring economic health (updated for 2023). There’s a link in the show notes, as always if you’d like to dig into all of them. And I should add the In The Black website is run by CPA Australia, one of our top bean counting professional associations. 

Thriving Places Index

There’s the Gross National Happiness Index from Bhutan which is a thing and the UN’s Human Development Index but the one that caught my eye is: Thriving Places Index,TPI. They have a website www.centreforthrivingplaces.org/ and the gist of their index is that they are:

“including mental and physical health, education and learning, work and local economy, and “green” infrastructure – to measure economic health.”

This is just a summary but you see what they’re on about. The positives according to In The Black are and I quote:

TPI supports a move away from defining success purely in terms of consumption. By looking at factors such as land use, recycling and income disparity, it can also help planners better understand how to support communities.

End quote.

All quite laudable and something I think could work but and here come the bean counters, the Cons re TPI are, and I quote:

TPI may be too radical a departure from the current GDP paradigm to be widely accepted by finance professionals.

End Quote

And that’s been the problem with climate change, electrification of the economy, moving to the metric system here way back in 1972 ish. Yet here we are with Celcius, metres and litres amazing. Despite the perceived reputation financial markets have for wildly speculating with other people’s money, there’s a deep interia against radical change built into the system. Speculation is great while it’s making money but when the ship hits the sand individuals go to gaol and some enterprises go to the wall or are bailed out by those filffy socialist, Central Bankers. (Make sure to point out this is me being ironic.) 

Something like the TPI is needed before we all consume ourselves, our societies and our soils into oblivion. Any thoughts gratefully accepted. And big thanks to Owain Clarke for your kind message in the Facebook Group. Very much appreciated. There’s a link to the group if you’d like to join the fun over there.

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.



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Mainstream economics is lost, and the price is political chaos


GDP alternatives: 8 ways of measuring economic health (updated for 2023)


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