In recent times a lot of controversy over environmental impact assessments, such as the ones concerning the Miramar Resort and the fourth-phase expansion of the Central Taiwan Science Park, have become a focus of civic groups, with large numbers of people getting involved.
The same is true of other controversies with environmental implications, such as the campaign to preserve the Losheng Sanatorium and opposition to the proposed construction of a freeway between Suao (蘇澳) and Hualien. These issues often point to a single clash of values.
The question is, between economic growth on the one hand and the environment and culture on the other, which should get top priority? Perhaps the question should be what is economic growth really for?
Taiwan is a country where economic language crops up all over the place. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) even talked about the economy during the celebration of the 350th anniversary of a Taoist temple.
In his speech, he predicted that the nation’s economic growth this year would be higher than last year. He also said that the stronger the religious atmosphere in a country, the more helpful it would be for economic growth.
While watching a hot-air balloon take off during the chilly New Year’s Day flag-raising ceremony, Ma was moved to say that he was full of optimism for Taiwan’s economic prospects, and that he hoped that Taiwan’s happiness index and economic growth would soar up high just like the hot-air balloon.
In economics, a country’s growth rate is often expressed in terms of changes in the GDP or gross national product (GNP). That is part of the ABC of economics, but is economics no more than a game of imperceptible numbers? Are things like the environment, culture, labor conditions, employment and education merely cost factors that stand in the way of growth?
Former US attorney general Robert Kennedy’s remarks in a speech given not long before he was assassinated show that he clearly understood the limited significance of measures such as GDP and GNP.
“Our gross national product ... if we should judge the US by that — that gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads, and armored cars for police who fight the riots in our cities ... Yet the GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials … it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile,” Kennedy said
Even Simon Kuznets, who pioneered the measurement of GNP and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1971, repeatedly cautioned people not to read too much into the numbers.
“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income” and “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth,” he said.
Even if Taiwanese keep on talking about economic growth at every possible opportunity, please let the nation learn how to achieve the kind of growth that allows everyone to really feel the benefits. That will permit society to develop in a sustainable way.
Lin Chia-ho is an assistant professor at National Chengchi University’s College of Law.
Translated by Julian Clegg