Economic Growth and Health Poster

Economic Growth and Health Poster

Download the poster (Low Res 876 KB)

Download the poster (High Res 4.5 MB)

The words ‘economic growth’ appear in most news bulletins and political articles in the press. This poster raises the issue that growth in many ways is a health hazard for it is incompatible with a sustainable future for humanity.


In Western society progress is equated with economic growth. It is argued that wealth creation has allowed us to spend more on environmental and health objectives and certainly human health in many societies has improved immeasurably during the twentieth century.

However, it has become apparent that growth of the consumer society in times of affluence has not always led to environmental protection and scientific evidence now suggests that the environment is damaged more by growth than is repaired by the additional wealth created.

In 2005, The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report by 1,360 scientific experts from 95 countries showed that approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem services that support life on earth—such as fresh water, fisheries, and the regulation of air, water, and climate—are being degraded or used unsustainably. Since that report, these services have deteriorated further and this is related to the footprint of Western consumption which if attained by the rest of the World would require us to live on between 3 and 4 planets.

The global economy is nearly five times the size it was fifty years ago. Before the recent bank-induced recession most developed countries aspired to an economic growth of 3% p.a. This results in each economy doubling in 23 years and quadrupling in 43 years. Energy consumption parallels this growth, but not absolutely because efficiency improves somewhat, that is, we can produce more goods with slightly less energy as time goes by. Thus in 43 years’ time we will need to have 40-50% of our energy production from renewable, non-fossil fuel sources simply to keep greenhouse emissions at their present levels. With present technology this is not possible. The driving impact of growth on greenhouse emissions is demonstrated by a decrease in global emissions of 2.6 percent since the economic recession began, the first such decrease in 40 years.

Politicians in all developed countries aim for growth for this is required for employment and the functioning of the present economic system. The survival of governments depends on it! It has become a concept beyond scrutiny. But it has to stop or it will be stopped by environmental calamity. Perhaps the economists who have used growth as the mantra of their recommendations will come to appreciate the impending ecological collapse of the world and indeed some eminent economists such as Nicholas Stern have recently uttered the heretical thought that economic growth may have to be curbed sometime in the future!

Economic growth has not provided economic and social stability and Western thought is increasingly recognising that health means a reasonable quality of life for all within ecological limits. In fact excessive consumption, which is encouraged in order to drive economic growth, has deleterious effects on health. The term “Affluenza” describes this connection well. Levels of wellbeing should be measured by indexes of health and happiness rather than reliance on GDP (gross domestic product) growth. However we must recognise that poor countries DO require development and growth to bring them to an acceptable level of health and education and developed nations will assist their needs by reducing their own foot print.

The “Contraction and Convergence” movement seeks to greatly reduce the environmental footprint of developed countries while shifting some wealth to poorer countries, thus creating a more equal and sustainable world. Our global economy currently functions on ‘expansion and divergence’. We have a growth model of capitalism that is creating a ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. In a nutshell, the Contraction and Convergence model is the opposite, based on the idea that “the right to emit some carbon dioxide is a human right and should be allocated on an equal basis to all of humankind”.

Better health also requires sustainable human development. Measures to stabilise the population in countries with high birth rates could be the most cost-effective greenhouse gas reduction measures, and would reduce poverty, hunger and deaths of mothers and children.

Reading Jackson, T.J. (2009). Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy. Sustainable Development Commission report. Downloadable from

“Affluenza” Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Allen & Unwin