Calculating Nature's Bill: Environmental Quality and the Critique of Economic Growth in the 1970s

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The article uses the ascendance of “quality of life” in the 1970s to underscore the connected development of the critique of economic growth and the rise of interest in environmental issues. In his 1970 State of the Union address, US president Richard Nixon proclaimed that the nation's economic growth between 1970 and 1980 was projected to be greater than the growth of its entire economy from 1790 until 1950. But that growth did not mean Americans would be “richer in any real sense.” Instead Nixon declared that the time had come for “a new quality of life.” Concerns about the dominance of economic growth were not exclusive to the United States. In 1974 the English socialist member of Parliament Tony Benn expressed his belief that quality of life contained a bold social vision signifying “nothing less than the creation and the sustenance of system of society that enriches those who live in it.” Assessing quality of life appeared to offer a way to more accurately reflect the conditions and progress of the nation and respond to growing attention to pollution, energy use, and other environmental hazards. This article investigates attempts to measure quality of life and demonstrates the centrality of environmental quality in those efforts, as well as defenses of economic growth that followed. Although quality of life was conceived as a transformative alternative to economic indicators and a means to adequately address environmental issues, it also worked toward a contradictory objective of concealing the ambiguities of economic growth in order to maintain existing conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number95018
JournalGlobal Perspectives
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 25 2024


  • degrowth
  • economic growth
  • environment
  • quality of life
  • well-being

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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