As Giorgos Kallis points out, the dominance of economism and associated metrics such as GDP neglect the preservation and enrichment of capitals other than economic, e.g., human, natural, and social. A multiple capitals framework provides a foundation for understanding and reconstituting our notion of wealth and the wealth creation process.
Turning the tide toward such a holistic framework will be neither rapid nor easy. Paradoxically, the flaws of conventional wealth metrics also explain their resilience: elegance, simplicity, quantifiability. Computing and monitoring GDP is far less complicated than doing the same for human, natural, and social capital, for which generally accepted definitions and measurement techniques remain unsettled. And these same complexities operate to the benefit of the vested interests that prefer to retain conventional wealth metrics and, more broadly, the economistic worldview they embody.
Even within the narrow confines of GDP and kindred measures, not all transacted dollars, Euros, or renminbis contribute to human and ecological well-being. And not all forms of accumulation, a defining attribute of capitalism, are bad. GDP growth associated with production of land mines, clear-cutting forestry, and jail construction bear no resemblance to wealth created by school construction, public health programs, and biodiversity research in terms of enriched lives and, in Kallis’s terms, caring, regeneration, and meaning. This distinction is not new. It has been made time and again by scholars and practitioners long before the contemporary degrowth debates. Yet economic reductionism and the metrics it advocates remain firmly entrenched in the mindsets of government, business, and the media.
But hopeful signs are identifiable. More nuanced definitions of wealth populate the literature on societal well-being and human development. At the micro (firm) level, they are finding their way into the business world via initiatives such as the Global Reporting Initiative, the International Integrated Reporting Council, and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. Enterprises such as Mondragon (Spain), Novo Nordisk (Denmark), and Natura (Brazil) have built their organizations based on such integrating thinking. They behave, however imperfectly, as human capitalists, natural capitalists, and social capitalists. In the business world, unfortunately, these kinds of firms are the rare exceptions in an otherwise economics and finance-dominated culture.
Of course, the character of enterprise depends on the character of those who create and steward it. As in the case of enlightened global governance, there can be no transformation of firms without personal transformation and value shifts in the direction of equity, solidarity, and ecological sensibility. Multiple capitals offers a prism through which the mainstream obsession with growth and accumulation may shift from an unsustainable path toward global degradation to a redefinition of the firm as a generator and steward of natural, human, and social capital. With supportive governance structures, this scenario might trend toward a form of growth that aligns with the "limits" and “care” concepts embedded in Kallis's definition of degrowth. Perhaps it is regenerative growth, or "regrowth," rather than degrowth, that should guide our collective thinking toward a just and sustainable world.
Allen White is Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Tellus Institute, where he directs the institute’s Program on Corporate Redesign. He co-founded the Global Reporting Initiative and Corporation 2020, and founded the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings. He has advised multilateral organizations, foundations, government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and NGOs on corporate sustainability, governance, and accountability.
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