In the May issue of Harper's, Jonathan Rowe argues that the Gross Domestic Product is a poor measure of an economy's health because it only tallies spending, and doesn't take into account whether the spending actually adds anything to our quality of life. According to the GDP, he writes, "a terminal-cancer patient going through a costly divorce" is "the nation's economic hero." Likewise, the GDP measures increased fossil fuel use as a positive, since it burns dollars; in actuality, the nation is poorer because its irreplaceable natural resources are diminished.
Where am I going with this? I think I've come across a real-world example of Rowe's thesis: according to an industry group, high fuel costs could take up to one-third of the world's longline tuna fleet off the oceans. This is great for the yellowfin and bigeye tuna usually targeted by these boats, but of course the industry group and the article posit that this "bad" for the economy.
Our natural resources aren't considered in the GDP, and so most talk of "stimulating" the economy doesn't paint a full picture of what's really going on. As we burn fuel, cut down trees, scoop out tuna and lop off mountaintops, we irrevocably give up parts of the planet, parts of ourselves even, for the sake of positive statistics.
As Rowe concludes, "The purpose of an economy is to meet human needs in such a way that life becomes in some respect richer and better in the process." Leaving some tuna fish in the sea, I think, moves us closer to this ideal.
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