Half an hour from now, Caroline Lucas MP is scheduled to lead a Westminster Hall debate on ‘a Wellbeing Economy approach to meeting climate goals‘.
I was invited to offer my thoughts to her on this topic (because I signed the UK Parliament petition ‘Shift to a Wellbeing Economy: put the health of people and planet first‘, which closed on 26Sep2021 with a puny 67,912 signatures). Here are the words I offered to the UK’s only Green Party Member of Parliament…
This is not a well-thought-out treatise; it’s just a brain-dump of various thoughts I’ve had in my six decades as a British citizen.
First and foremost, it’s crucial to reverse the trend of rising wealth inequality that has persisted for decades. This could perhaps begin with an overhaul of the tax system aimed at eliminating the various loopholes that allow the wealthiest to avoid contributing their fair share, and implementation of a wealth tax; it’s absolutely unconscionable that taxes are primarily based on income, yet the vast riches that many accrue are not classed as ‘income’ and therefore not subject to tax!
Implementing a universal basic income (UBI) would, I think, eradicate the wage slave syndrome, and help redistribute the nation’s wealth more equitably.
The subject of inheritance needs to be rethought. It’s perfectly natural for people to want to provide for their own progeny, but reasonable limits ought to be placed upon the maximum that can be transferred down through generations. While I am all for recognising and rewarding those who contribute most to society, when some incompetent can use their ancestors’ wealth to exert power simply by dint of an accident of birth, it makes a total mockery of any idea of ‘meritocracy’. The motto of my alma mater was ‘virtus non stemma’ (‘worth, not birth’), and I think any nation would do well to adopt it.
Now, I’m no expert in economics, but even so it’s perfectly plain to me that we need a steady state economy. The Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) has some good ideas in this domain, and I believe that our government ought to work with them.
The horror that is the current neoliberal economic theory, which underpins all our activities, needs to be eradicated; its greatest flaw is that its adherents seem to have no real grasp of the environmental effects of exponential growth. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ has been perverted into a monstrosity. (Though I’m currently unable to locate a relevant quote from his works, I believe that even he maintained that at some point capitalism would need to acknowledge that there are limits to growth.) The ‘trickle-down’ is in reality a ‘flood-up’, and the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ meme is poor succour to those who have no boat – and are drowning as a result.
As we approach the centenary of the introduction of ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP), it’s time to acknowledge that this anachronistic atrocity should be consigned firmly to the history books, where it belongs. GDP is indeed ‘gross’; it has no soul. It loves catastrophes because of the rebuilding they require, and it encourages antisocial activities (such as weapons manufacture, for instance). A better measure is required: perhaps the UN’s ‘Human Development Index’ could be used as a basis for this (although my own preference would be for a ‘Planetary Development Index’, a measure that considers the environment as a crucial factor in the wellbeing of all living things – not just humans).
Natural resources, and the environment as a whole, need to be revalued such that the economy recognises and appreciates their contributions to our wellbeing. All ‘externalised costs’ need to be reformulated as ‘internalised costs’!
The power of the banks to create money needs to be curtailed and put under the control of the State. Positive Money has some excellent ideas on this topic.
Manufacturing needs to be reworked from the bottom up, with longevity as the watchword. Those who design for obsolescence so as to ensure their income streams need to be encouraged to change their ways (perhaps by rewarding those who design long-lived devices), and those who cynically design their widgets to fail the day after their warranty expires need to be penalised for their avarice.
Modular construction should, likewise, be encouraged and rewarded. The failure of a small component should not require replacement of the whole shebang.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the concept of ‘recycling’ needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, from its current position as a greenwashing mascot and placed front and centre as a model of aspiration. Consumerism is killing us. It’s time that we acknowledged that when we throw things away, ‘away’ is a place on Earth; somewhere that, until recently, has been all too often out of sight, and out of mind. If we fail to recognise this, we may come to realize at the last that our society is itself also disposable.
In case you’re not familiar with what a ‘Wellbeing Economy’ (WE) is, here’s a TEDX video that explains it, and why it’s necessary. There’s no doubt in my mind that ‘WE’ offers far greater promise than the corrupt perversion of an economic system to which we’re all currently yoked.
Katherine Trebeck (the presenter in this video) is the Policy and Knowledge Lead for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll), which is a collaboration of organisations, alliances, movements and individuals working towards a wellbeing economy, delivering human and ecological wellbeing.
Katherine Trebeck: Thank you so much and so lovely to be here, though I have a sense I’d much rather spend the afternoon dressing up as a rhinoceros now and hanging out in Michael’s museum. But I do want to talk to you about economics, and I hope it doesn’t make you do this [shows picture of a sleeping person]. But, to be honest, this is my friend Martin, and he is one of the many people who is striving to make the world a better place, striving to build what we’re calling a ‘wellbeing economy’: an economy that delivers for people and for planet.
And some might call that a utopian vision; but since when has that been such a bad thing? People like Martin, and, I suspect, so many of you in this room, have always got up out of bed and strived out of the hope that the world can be better, that we can improve on where we are. And so, just before I took this photo, Martin and I were chatting about what is the foundations of that hope? What’s the scaffolding, if you like, of our optimism? Because it’s an enormous task to transform the economy. And so where is it that we build our hope on? I’m going to come back to that.
Because, if you think about it, we’ve got an economic system that is founded on economic growth. It’s structurally dependent on growth. And I guess the good thing is that there are examples of where that economic system has delivered for us, there has been fruits of that growth, and you probably all have your favourite example, whether it’s mothers and babies now surviving childbirth to rates that they haven’t before, whether it’s certain diseases being eradicated, whether it’s life expectancy rising across the world, whether it’s illiteracy rates coming down and so on; you all have an example where you can think about over the last decade or even the last century, things have got better.
But the crucial thing is that these achievements have come about when we have used the fruits of growth to invest in our collective institutions, like health and education systems, and when that growth has been used to divert it and direct it to those who need it most. But the challenge is, it is very hard not to stand here today and look around the world and think it is time to ask, “Are those fruits of growth beginning to rot?” Because we’re seeing and we’ve just heard about the extent of environmental breakdown. It’s an unsafe growth. We’ve got scientists telling us ever more loudly of the extent of the damage that we as human beings are doing to the environment. And they are pointing ever more firmly at the economic growth system as the root cause of that environmental breakdown just at the same time as young people are coming out of their schools week after week after week and saying, “Enough of this political recalcitrance.”
So it’s an unsafe growth, but it’s also fruits of growth that have been unevenly shared; it’s an unevenly shared harvest. It’s an economic system that has done too little to support those who struggle to get by each week. And it’s an economic system that has done so much, though, to enrich those people who have so much wealth, and the power that goes along with it, that their money will make more money for them in a day than you or I could make just working for our wages in a year. So it’s an unevenly shared harvest, but it’s also an economic system that is hurting us. Individuals like never before are feeling more stressed, more alienated, more precarious, more lonely, more depressed and more anxious about their future. And so yet, despite all that evidence and all those realities, we are trapped in an economic system that tells us just because the system and the economic growth that went with it may have worked, some of the time, in some of the places, then that is automatically the right recipe for the future.
That assumption is dangerous, and it’s dangerous for three reasons. Firstly, just like with the substance of salt; a little bit of it when we don’t have enough of it is helpful. But the same it is with growth; when we don’t have it, it’s dangerous and it’s harmful. But if we keep reaching for more and more of it, after salt, or after economic growth has done its jobs, the benefits start to tail off. The returns become marginal. And even if we keep reaching more and more for growth, or if we keep reaching more and more for salt, we’re doing damage to ourselves and damage to our planet and damage to our society.
It’s also a dangerous assumption because of something called ‘failure demand‘; the extent to which so much of what we’re now spending our money on is to fix, and repair, and clean up, and try and patch up the damage that our growth-obsessed economic system is doing to people and to planet; whether it’s gas masks to try and combat pollution, whether it’s top-up wages for those people who have worked for their poverty, whether it’s security guards because we’re scared of each other, or whether it’s cleaning up after a flood or a climate change induced bushfire, like my own country is experiencing so much today, or whether it’s help cleaning up after an oil spill: so much of that expenditure is avoidable – as avoidable as the greasy breakfast to ease a hangover and then the causes of the cholesterol-reducing medicine because we’ve clogged up our arteries. It’s avoidable, reactive defensive expenditure.
And the third reason why this economic system is so dangerous is because just as which so often to fulfill that very innate human need for social connection, we so often reach for consumption and materialistic goods. Same it is with economic growth. We won’t meet our needs for very natural desires like decent work, secure livelihood, a quality natural environment just by reaching for economic growth. Because GDP and economic growth and consumption are pseudo-satisfiers; and reaching for them more and more is actually going to undermine our chance of meeting what it is we most depend upon for good lives.
And so instead, what can we have? Can we have a different system that isn’t so unsafe, that isn’t so precarious, that isn’t doing so much damage to our planet, and so unevenly shared? Well, what we need to do is recognize that GDP-rich countries have arrived. They have got enough wealth and resources. The fruits of growth have done their work, and what they now need to do is shift gear and make themselves at home and cherish those fruits of growth much more than they have done to date; share it much better than they’re doing now.
And so, what will a wellbeing economy look like? You don’t have to look far to get a sense of how we can do things differently. You just need to turn the pages of great development scholars who tell us what the real purpose of human progress and development should be about. You can see it in the brain scans of neuroscientists when they say which areas of our brains light up, when we’re relaxed, when we’re happy, when we’re content, or whether you listen to epidemiologists or psychologists and they tell us what really makes us mentally and physically healthy. You can hear it when you sit down with people, wherever they are in the world, and have a conversation with them about what truly most matters to them.
And I’d suggest that you can recognize it when you listen to the voices of people who are in their final days of life. And these were collated by a palliative care nurse, a woman called Bronnie Ware, and over her decades of working with people in their final days she grouped together their common regrets. And what people told her were that they wished they had been true to themselves; they wished they hadn’t worked so hard; they wished – there’s a lesson there – they wished they had been more honest and more open with their feelings; they wished they had stayed in touch with their friends; and they wished they had allowed themselves to be happier. So, you bring that together and you get a very, very clear message about what we need the economy to actually deliver for us.
So, we all need connection and a wellbeing economy has to be about building connection, and creating the institutions that deliver that for us. We all need to participate, so a wellbeing economy has to be built on the engagement of citizens around the world, and ensuring they are rooted in their local communities. We all need nature, so a wellbeing economy has to be about regenerating and protecting that precious planet that we all depend upon in so many different aspects. A wellbeing economy has to be about fairness and delivering justice in all its dimensions. And finally, a wellbeing economy has to be about ensuring dignity to everyone, making sure we all have enough to get by and we have a sense of purpose and meaning in our existence.
So, you bring that together and you apply it to the economy, and actually you have an economic system that tips that one of today absolutely on its head, because a wellbeing economy starts with the premise that the very purpose of the economy should be about serving people and planet first and foremost. And so building that is about ensuring that everyone has enough; a wellbeing economy is about distributing much more fairly than the unevenly shared harvest we have today. And that is about asking the economy to do more of the heavy lifting, not being content to turn to government and policy and charities to fix up and clean up and repair that damage of our unsafe, unevenly shared, hurtful economic system. But say the economy from day one, from the word ‘go’, needs to do more of that heavy lifting by regenerating the planet and delivering good lives for people.
And it’s also going to be measured by something so much different from gross domestic product with all its distorting perverse incentives. GDP is blind to distribution, and it actually counts as a boost to the GDP ledger when we spend on pseudo-satisfiers and failure demand. So wellbeing economy has to be about measuring what really matters.
The good news is that despite all the headwinds, a wellbeing economy is emerging; we can see these chinks of light already bubbling up, already being built around the world. And you can see it in organizations that are saying work is going to be better shared; work is going to be decent quality; it’s going to pay enough for people to live on. You see it in successful businesses and saying that their purpose is going to be squarely about delivering social and environmental returns rather than just extracting profit in the short term for the very few. And you see it in the cities and places that are designed not for petrol, but for plants; not for consumerism, but for choirs and for communities coming together and powered, of course, by renewable energy.
And you can see it in the collaborative circular economy. We see examples of this everywhere; whether it’s people sharing books or sharing tools; or whether it’s co-housing with 25 families, for example, saying, “We don’t all need to own our very own washing machine.” 25 families can do very well with just four washing machines. Or the circular economy that says one person’s waste is another person’s input, their materials and their energy, and my favorite example of this is off the west coast of Scotland, where you get heat from the local whisky distillery is used to warm the local community swimming pool. And you also see examples of a wellbeing economy in practice with all the community budgeting and participatory budgeting, community planning initiatives where it’s saying it’s got to be about people who design how we do our local economic spending, how we spend public money, how we design our communities.
And a wellbeing economy will be more possible with initiatives like this: the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership, which in a way is an alternative to the G7. These are governments led by Scotland, with New Zealand and Iceland, who are saying, “We want to collaborate, to learn from each other, to share, and exchange, to build economic systems that deliver collective wellbeing rather than just short-term GDP growth.” This is sort of the future of political leadership. And so, Sam, who’s one of the amazing young people that we work with to try and bring about a wellbeing economy for the future, has been looking around the world; and he says all those societal challenges that we face demand that we transform our economy.
But now, the climate crisis, and the biodiversity crisis, has set the clock. It gives us a decade to bring about that economic transformation. And as I’ve explained, the good news is that there is a lot happening; ideas are bubbling up how to do the economy differently. It’s all about paving the path to a wellbeing economy. And the challenge is – and I think this is the question of our time – Sam, from WEAll Youth, has said, “Will this change happen fast enough?” So Martin, who you saw at the very beginning, my filmmaker friend Martin and I, we were reflecting on this question, because it is the question of our day.
How can we bring about this transformation to a wellbeing economy in the time that we need to do it? And we were reflecting on how our optimism is founded in some very strong rules of nature, if you like, our hope-filled realities that give us a sense that just this shift, this transformation of the economy might be possible. And so our scaffolding of our hope that we can have a different economy is based on the reality that more and more people are starting to recognize that the economy is a subset of society and those two are a subset of nature and that a wellbeing economy will serve both.
We’re also hopeful because history tells us that it is our collective institutions that have been enabling us to thrive over the decades, and they’re the ones that enable human beings to flourish, and they will be the backbone of a wellbeing economy. We’re hopeful because more and more people are realizing that actual fulfillment and true freedom comes from collective endeavor, from relationships, from staying in touch with your friends, from not working so hard, rather than being a lonely consumer. And we’re hopeful because, while people are diverse across the world and while cultures differ, there are innate human needs that connect us all; and a wellbeing economy will be one that will deliver that.
You can all be part of it. Whether it’s through your conversations, with your work, your investing, your shopping, your mobility, absolutely with your voting, if you’re going to bring in the sort of policy regime that we need to support this. But I’d say most importantly you can be about it with your hope. With your hope, based on those hope-filled realities, that the future economy is one in which humanity determines our economic system, one in which it’s a wellbeing economy for everyone. Thank you.Katherine Trebeck, ‘Why the Future Economy has to be a Wellbeing Economy‘
The transcript above was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.