Is sustainable growth with justice possible?

By Patxi Álvarez SJ

In the past couple of decades, the world has seen economic growth that yielded spectacular results. Developing countries enjoyed a 6% annual growth rate between 2000 and 2010, with Asia growing at 8%, Africa at 5% and Latin America at a similar rate. As a result, some one billion people have escaped extreme poverty (an income of less than US$1.25 per day), and there has been a slight bridging of the economic inequality gap between countries.

However this positive picture needs some qualification: much of the improvement was due to growth in China, where 680 million people emerged from extreme poverty. There are still 1.1 billion people in the world who are extremely poor, while another three billion are considered poor, surviving on an income of less than US$2 per day. This figure has remained unchanged for the past 10 years.

Kangemi, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Despite surges in economic growth in developing countries, billions of people still live in poverty (D. Zammit Lupi/AJAN).

Kangemi, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. Despite surges in economic growth in developing countries, billions of people still live in poverty.
(Photo: D. Zammit Lupi/AJAN).

That we need economic growth is undisputed, but what kind? Frequently calls for growth stem from the belief that within our current economic system, our societies can create employment only in conditions of growth. While there are credible ways of creating paid employment in conditions of non-growth, they require a social pact we do not seem to be ready to subscribe to.

From a different perspective, economic growth is required so that the poor of our world – who are the majority – can access adequate means of subsistence, health and education. If they are to have what we consider a decent life, then economic growth is absolutely essential and nothing less than their right. But this interpretation is not too popular.

In our economic system, growth hinges on two problematic assumptions. First, it is based on increased exploitation of natural and mineral resources, making it unsustainable. Second, for many decades, growth has been accompanied by increased inequality within countries, making the economic system unjust.

Unfortunately what might force us to see the need for change is not the injustice – we are not that generous – but its inevitable unsustainability. We need a model based on green technology, which draws on sustainable energy, recycling and reuse of materials. We need to share labour and benefits, to ensure the equitable redistribution of wealth among and within countries.

A farmer who is taking a course in organic agriculture at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre (KATC), a partner of CJI. Sustainable income-generating activities are one way of lifting people out of poverty (photo: E. Kaas/CJI)

A farmer who is taking a course in organic agriculture at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre (KATC), a partner of CJI. Sustainable income-generating activities are one way of lifting people out of poverty. (Photo: E. Kaas/CJI)

But we also have to change our habits. Those of us who belong to wealthy societies refuse to believe that we are consuming beyond the capabilities of the planet. We can consume this way only because of the scant consumption of the poorest people and at great cost to future generations. We need to develop new relationships with material goods and with nature; we cannot afford more growth at the expense of creation and of others.

The challenge before us calls for generosity and greatness of vision. As Jesuits, our international work in social justice is geared towards connecting the struggles of the poor at the local level with global decision makers. We have created five advocacy networks focused on the right to education, migration, governance of natural and mineral resources, ecology and human rights. We advocate together for just structures, foster more respect for the environment and promote the participation of the poor, so that they may be able to enjoy a greater share of economic growth.

This article by Patxi Álvarez SJ originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of CJI’s Mission News. Patxi Álvarez SJ was the Director of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretaria at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, Italy.