Living in the City vs. Living in the Country: A Discussion of GDP and Sustainability

A rural run to the super

I talked with a young man who is a native of Drake Bay, Costa Rica, about his experiences living in the big city, in San José. One of his remarks got me thinking. He pointed out that although he made more money in San José, he also spent more money. In fact he said that after working for a few years, all he had to show for it where his clothes and a computer.

Furthermore, he said that the common activities in San José all cost money. Fashion is a big deal, so if you want to fit in then you need to earn money to shop, to buy the clothing and shoes that everyone else has. And as for typical leisure activities, these included going out to watch a movie, and going out to eat with friends. Everything not only costs money, but is also counted as “economic activity” which contributes to “GDP” which is a key measure of a country’s “level of development.”

But then we got to talking about his life here, in a small, remote town on the coast of Costa Rica that’s accessible via 4×4 on one road that tends to wash out during the rainy season. There’s no mall here, there’s no movie theater, and the fashion trends here, such as going shirtless and shoeless, look little changed from when I was on the coast in Sámara, Costa Rica eight years ago studying Spanish. The local general stores mostly sell staples, and of the goods they are selling, what they have tends to be generic, or used, and in any case not that desirable. And so although this young man may make less money here, he’s actually putting more money away, while enjoying a higher quality of life. He likes to hike, and there’s an endless variety of amazing, free hikes to be had around here.

But also consider that all his activities here, and the lack of them, generate no measurable economic activity or GDP. From a sustainability perspective, it’s great, but economically it looks like backwards movement. There is a weird rich world perversion with “progress.” A lady on the same snorkeling tour I was on remarked that a large school of fish we’d just seen “seemed lost; they were just going in circles; they didn’t know where to go.” I replied “maybe they were just hanging out.” Coming back to economics, just hanging out can easily be a free activity, and thus one that creates no GDP and pays no salaries. Does that make it useless, or perhaps very useful?

Before tourism really arrived in Drake Bay about 12 years ago, people here grew their own food. Apparently kids who are 17 and older all know how to grow food, but the kids younger than that have no idea at all. Again—growing your own food—no GDP, but buying food that’s come from somewhere else, probably produced on a large farm by machines—that’s GDP, that’s “progress.”

I have this sense that as a society, we are that school of fish that’s going in circles, but unfortunately we’re not just hanging out. Rather we’re eating ourselves, little by little, in a vicious cycle away from living in harmony with nature, and further towards consuming nature, of which we are an undividable part.

What I ask myself is if I’m willing to part with the creature comforts, to work towards living in a profoundly more sustainable way, or if I’m bound to continue being yet one more set of jaws in the gnawing school of fish that is humanity.

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