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2012 September 1
by dan bertolet

Helping to keep the “gross” in gross national product, at least the name Fatburger doesn’t try to hide how it feeds our vicious cycle of bloating GNP, as handily illustrated on the above marquee at the corner of SR-99 and Enchanted Parkway in Federal Way. Too many Fatburgers making you fat?  No worries, just swipe the card for a membership next door at LA Fitness and—ka-ching!—GNP gets a double shot.  Enchanted!

GNP went up when we built those oceans of strip malls and the 6-lane roads that feed them, and GNP went up because people needed to buy more cars and gasoline to access these places, and GNP went up because people had to work more to pay for those cars, and GNP went up because people work so much that they don’t have time to prepare healthy food at home so they hit the Fatburger, and GNP went up because frazzled, dual-income parents feel the need to outsource their kids’ play to outfits like Trampoline Nation, and GNP went up because since we drive everywhere and spend our days sitting in offices staring at computer screens we become out of shape and pay to join the gym (and drive to get there), and GNP went up because so many people don’t follow through on the fitness plan and develop obesity-related health conditions that require expensive treatment. Too bad Federal Way Crossings doesn’t also include a home security company that adds to GNP because soulless, car-dependent environments tend to fray community connections, so people turn to alarm systems to make up for not knowing their neighbors.

But nothing will get better until GNP goes up again, right?


P.S. Check out Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy for an inspiring discussion of how we could correct the perversities of our GNP obsession by restructuring economies to function more on the local scale.


Photo by the author — click to enlarge.  This post is part of a series.


7 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    September 11, 2012

    Spot on, Dan. “Development” should be measured by values other than GDP.

    This is a synopsis of the best economics/policy book (well, one of them) that I’ve ever read:

  2. JoshMahar permalink
    September 16, 2012

    Point taken no doubt. I would suggest this may be a little too black and white though. Investing in new transit systems, building high density housing, developing sustainable energy systems. These all increase GNP as well. Similarly, if all these people started living the way you want them to, it certainly doesn’t mean their per capita GNP would go down. Fancy new bikes plus all the REI roadwear to go with it. High priced dinners with local, organic ingredients. Even bartering your home grown vegetables for someone else’s homebrewed beer is technically considered part of GNP, granted it would be very difficult to account for.

    GNP is simply a measure of the flow of goods and services. Like all measurement tools it only gets at one aspect of a broader subject, in this case the health of our economy. It can only really be used in conjuction with other measures, such as personal health, and welfare statistics. (Not much different than CO2 emissions trying to measure the health of our planet)

    On a very general level, having a high amount of goods and services being exchanged seems like a good thing. A very low GNP means things are stagnating and good ideas can’t get funded and realized. That certainly isn’t what we need if we’re going to retool our planet into a healthier, more sustainable world.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      September 17, 2012

      “On a very general level, having a high amount of goods and services being exchanged seems like a good thing.”

      I’d say a high amount of services being exchanged is a good thing. In our current world, with highly polluting unsustainable energy and material sources, having a high amount of goods being exchanged is a bad thing.

      Transit systems and high-density buildings also take a large amount of resources to create. If the alternative is new roads and low-density buildings, that’s a net loss in GDP (especially over time) if you go with transit and density.

      • JoshMahar permalink
        September 18, 2012

        “If the alternative is new roads and low-density buildings, that’s a net loss in GDP (especially over time) if you go with transit and density.”

        Absolutely transit and density are lower in terms of environmental impact. But I think that is a misconception to assume that they somehow lower GDP. In this case overall resources for housing and transit per capita will go down, but the net amount of resources isn’t going down (people aren’t getting paid any less). So any resources saved from higher density and transit, will simply be reinvested in something else, whether that be art products, higher quality foods, entertainment, etc.

        I also think its a misconception to think that a lower exchange of goods is a positive thing. No woman or man is an island. The whole idea of comparative advantage is a simple, yet elegant way of using resources more efficiently and effectively. So a very low GDP could mean that we’re actually using more resources than we should be.

        I think my overall point is that assuming GDP and environmental sustainability are somehow correlated is a fallacy.

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