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This is a transcript of Katherine Trebeck’s remarks to the APPG on Wellbeing Economics at the United Kingdom Parliament on 11 June 2019

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance works across the world and across sectors to build an economy in service of human and ecological wellbeing.

Understanding where that agenda is up to can be understood by looking at:
1 The forgers (those policy makers grasping the mettle and putting a wellbeing economy agenda into practice)

2 The frontiers (where are we standing now and what is the next challenge?); and

3 What is fraught (the barriers and the tensions still to be worked through)?

Forgers

The forgers are the policy makers – civil servants and politicians – rolling up their sleeves and delivering the sort of changes needed. You see this in Scotland with its National Performance Framework and its leadership of the Wellbeing Economy Government partnership. You see it in other initiatives such as work on making the economy circular and businesses more inclusive. And just today the announcement that Scottish Enterprise would shift its attention to supporting businesses that deliver decent work, fairness and tackle inequality.

Other forgers are Wales with its Future Generations Commissioner and New Zealand with its Wellbeing Budget. US states such as Maryland and Vermont are adopting the Genuine Progress Indicator and Oregon has a 10 Year Budget. Iceland is forging ahead with action for gender equality and Costa Rica on biodiversity.

These examples show embracing the wellbeing economy agenda and forging ahead is not just about scattering the word “wellbeing” in the title of policy documents or in the text of political speeches – it is about robust change in policy and decision making.

 

Frontiers

And that brings us to the next frontier we are facing. These are pockets of good practice, but their isolation and existence next to policies that are counter to a wellbeing economy agenda speaks to an incoherence in policy regimes. Mixed messages are being given – but at least mixed is better than the message of the past in which was a narrow fixation on GDP GDP GDP!

Now, we are at a point where acceptance that GDP is flawed is widespread – the question is now how not if GDP should be replaced (or at least complemented as a measure of progress and national success).

The next stage has to be how to take these patches of good practice and make a quilt? And that is about joining up the work of the forgers so the economy itself is changed. Repurposing and then reorienting decisions and budgets and incentives and procedures and power in government departments. Such as recognising that if the education department does its job well then the police department will see savings, that if teams looking after local parks and green space do their job well then health services will be under less pressure.

 

And what is still fraught?

Clearly, the timeliness of data is a challenge. GDP is sticky as a supposed measure of progress because it is reported on frequently and people think they know what it means. And while there is a plethora of data relevant to a wellbeing economy collected and collated, it needs to be better used and decision makers scrutinised according to this information.

The media is also a constraint – until the morning news shows, the day after a national budget is announced, ask the finance minister what it means for increasing collective wellbeing instead of economic growth, then this agenda is still marginal. And until the definition of an economic crisis shifts away from incremental falls in GDP to questions around economic inequality, numbers of people feeling financially insecure, the numbers turning to food banks and the extent to which people can and do access green space, then we’ve got work to do.

And finally there is the fraught question of definitions. Is it a matter of taking subjective wellbeing as the definitive measure or alongside societal or collective wellbeing with SWB as a component part?

There are questions on the adequacy of both – is SWB too anthropocentric? Inadequately attentive to economic inequalities? Are we talking about hedonic or eudemonic?

And for collective wellbeing there are also questions – who defines it? How is it measured and what proxies make sense? Who is the collective? And over what time period are we looking?

But these slightly fraught issues not withstanding, the work of the forgers and where the frontiers have been pushed show that while there is work still to do, progress has been made.

 

 

 

 

Last week’s edition of ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, the podcast about ideas by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, focused on building wellbeing economies.

Looking at New Zealand’s recent wellbeing budget as well as what might be possible in the UK and elsewhere, the podcast included interviews with: New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Annie Quick of the New Economics Foundation (NEF), academic Bronwyn Hayward and former UK Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell. Annie and Bronwyn are both members of WEAll, and all contributors to the podcast give in-depth analyses of what’s needed to build a wellbeing economy. There’s an important discussion too about the need to distinguish between subjective and collective wellbeing, with Annie Quick in particular making a great case for system change and looking at root causes in all their complexity (we agree Annie!)

Listen here now (56 mins): https://play.acast.com/s/reasonstobecheerful/b9dd227d-a3f1-4f3a-b242-d4125bf7ebeb

Last week, an enthusiastic crowd in London attended the sold-out event to promote ‘The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown-up economy’ by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams.

Hosted by WEAll members CUSP (the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity) and GEC (Green Economy Coalition), the event attracted academics, civil society professionals, activists, journalists and more, all keen to understand more about the need for economic system change and to engage in the debate about how we get there.

Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams inspired the audience with an overview of the book’s themes and concepts. Williams explained that the concept of ‘Arrival’ is “not a promise but the possibility of having enough.” The authors argue that for many countries, there are now diminishing returns to  growth and that they ought now to focus on ‘making themselves at home’ by prioritising human and environmental wellbeing.

Trebeck made the case that our global economic system is manifestly failing to deliver – on poverty, wellbeing, health, environment, and equality. “People feel their lives are out of control. The system isn’t working,” she said.

Sharing examples such as Japan and Costa Rica to demonstrate the potential of alternative economic approaches, and ending with a positive message that economic system change is possible, the speakers certainly got the room talking with this introduction to their work.

Questions and ideas came thick and fast from those in the room who were keen to delve further into the concept of Arrival.

A panel discussion featuring Professor Tim Jackson of CUSP and Irene Gujit of Oxfam GB, as well as Trebeck and Williams, gave an opportunity for more exploration, as the room considered the different applications of the book’s concepts in the global south as well as tangible ways to build a wellbeing economy in the UK.

‘The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown up economy’ is available from Policy Press here.

Watch a short video summarising the ideas in the book:

Images: Ben Martin

This article was first published by New Statesman

By Sarah McKinley, Democracy Collaborative

Against a backdrop of Brexit uncertainties, Labour members this week launched a grassroots campaign urging the party to adopt a Green New Deal. Their campaign calls for an economic stimulus programme to decarbonise the economy, create green jobs in struggling regions and invest in public infrastructure. It was a welcome respite in a week of disaster news.

As one of the Labour group’s organisers told the Guardian newspaper, “climate change is fundamentally about class, because it means chaos for the many while the few profit.” Indeed, the “Green” in Green New Deal can be misleading. This isn’t just an environmental proposal, but one designed to protect peoples’ livelihoods and confront economic inequality.

The only way to address the climate crisis is to fundamentally change our current political economy – something that people including Gus Speth of the Democracy Collaborative have long argued. While partisan political rhetoric pits environmental concerns against economic growth, proposals for a Green New Deal opt instead to secure employment and confront structural inequities.

For those of us who have been working for years on economic and climate justice, it’s exciting to see these proposals capture public imagination and enter mainstream political discourse.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement have championed the Green New Deal in the US, but this set of ideas is by no means new. Since 2007 the UK’s Green New Deal Group has argued for a transition towards a clean energy future that puts job protection and human rights at its centre.

The group, whose members include economist Ann Pettifor, tax campaigner Richard Murphy and the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, first published its Green New Deal proposals in July 2008, months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ten years later, after a decade of austerity and political and social upheavals, it seems the world is finally ready for their ideas.

We cannot talk about climate change as a “long-term” prospect any more: the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change warns that there are less than 12 years left to avert climate disaster. The world’s most vulnerable communities are already bearing the unjust brunt of environmental breakdown—as seen in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-Maria Puerto Rico and, most recently, Cyclone Idai in Africa.

Tackling the climate crisis with the kind of rehashed neoliberal tactics attempted by French President Emmanuel Macron, with his policy of “green taxes”, is a recipe for double disaster. Carbon taxes are both inadequate for addressing environmental breakdown and guaranteed to exacerbate tensions in an increasingly unequal economy. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges and present comprehensive and systemic solutions to the onset climate crisis.

Movements intent on transforming our economy have gained traction in recent years; community wealth building efforts are overhauling local economies on both sides of the Atlantic and broadening ownership of capital and resources. New networks like the Wellbeing Economy Alliance are examining alternatives to our current economic system.  These initiatives articulate a new economic paradigm that confronts inequality and encompasses nature and community, rather than merely focussing on short-term profit and GDP.

To truly address environmental breakdown, we also need wartime-levels of investment and state intervention. If the Green New Deal were to become government policy, it would represent a huge victory for pro-environmental politics and a fusion of economic and environmental justice on a scale unprecedented in Europe. It would commit governments to an economic model that put planet above profit.

Some national governments are taking tentative steps towards a new economic paradigm: New Zealand has unveiled a wellbeing budget, Finland has an Economy of Wellbeing strategy, and Scotland is convening a group of progressive governments through its Wellbeing Economy Governmentsinitiative. Wales has recently introduced a Community Wealth Building Fund, and Labour has created a Community Wealth Building Unit to support towns and cities implementing local solutions.

But electoral cycles (to say nothing of Brexit cliff-edges) do not lend themselves to tackling systemic problems. As the climate strikes of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and other school students have shown, young people are fearful that politicians are ignoring the impending crisis. With eyes firmly fixed on the future of their planet, their protests have magnified government silence.

To confront climate change, we can’t leave it all up to politicians. We need civil society, business, local government, finance and academia to mobilise and collaborate; to cross borders and build regional and international networks and platforms. Gatherings such as the New Economy and Social Innovation (NESI) Global Forum, the World Social Forum of Transformative Economies and Ctrl+Shift in the UK provide a collaborative space to replicate local experiments.

Let’s encourage politicians to champion a just transition to a better future, but let’s not leave it all up to them. To build an economy that is appropriate for life on a finite planet, we need to listen to the young climate strikers and implement their rallying cry.

Sarah McKinley is Director of European Programs at the Democracy Collaborative.

Image: Getty Images

This article was first posted on Open Democracy

A few weeks ago I spoke on a panel at an economics conference alongside an academic who specialises in analysing results from surveys that ask people how they feel. These are the kind of surveys that ask people to rate how happy or anxious they are on a scale of 1-10, which in turn inform the evidence base of ‘subjective self-reported wellbeing’.

The results from these surveys certainly matter, but they do not depict the whole story of how a society is doing. To put it simply, you could report being very happy in an economy that is doing a lot of damage to the environment, becoming more unequal, or failing to ensure everyone has their basic needs met. But that’s another story.

What was interesting (and irksome) was his response to my suggestion that we need a new economic system. A system that does not see nature as simply an input to the production of things and a waste sink at the end of the production processes; but one that enables people to collaborate and build strong communities; that attends to reducing the inequalities that separate people from each other. In response to this, the academic declared that this was “fluffy bunny stuff”, and that I was being naïve.

This was not the first time I have been called naïve. As with this panel, every previous instance has been from a man older than me who seems to pride himself as a defender of the current economic system. The naïve insult is hurled to give the impression that to even think that things might be done differently is daft, and that serious and sensible people do not talk about changing the economic system.

My fellow panellist told the audience that if they “look at the data” they will see that things are fine in the UK, that the welfare state is working well, that people are naturally competitive, and that inequality doesn’t matter.

The problem is that just as only looking at how happy people say they are does not provide the whole picture; by only looking at selected pieces of information, defenders of the status quo effectively turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence against it.

There are many examples of this. For example: data is often subject to the tyranny of averages, as is the case with GDP per capita which masks the extent of inequality. Moreover, looking at headline employment statistics misses that many of those in work are not earning enough to live on and are turning to food banks. And while average subjective self-reported wellbeing in countries like the UK might be relatively high compared to other countries around the world, it misses the growing number of people self-harming or feeling stressed or lonely.

Furthermore, those who say that we are in an era of unprecedented prosperity conveniently disregard the impact that the creation of this ‘prosperity’ has had on the natural world. And even if, when pushed, they recognise that the environment matters, they tend to point to ‘green growth’ or casually say that things are fine due to the potential of decoupling CO2 from GDP growth. But that again ignores other aspects of environmental breakdown, and that decoupling is often achieved by offshoring to other countries – like a child sweeping their toys and books under the bed in order to tell their parents their bedroom is tidy.

As my intellectual hero Maja Gopel says, the burden of proof now sits with those who claim the current economic system is working fine or – perhaps worse – that it is the best we can do.

The defenders of the status quo need to explain why ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ will sufficiently attend to the interlocking crisis: how it will give people a sense of control over their lives; how it will ensure they are optimistic about the prospects of their children; how it will stop the world plunging into dire climate change; how it will bring people together rather than push them apart behind gated communities and twitter bubbles.

Fortunately, those of us working on building a wellbeing economycan do this. We can explain how a new economic system which is geared up around the purpose of human and ecological wellbeing will attend to these questions, and how it will be better for current and future generations. That, of course, doesn’t mean that shifting to such an economy will be easy, it just means the possibility is there.

Returning to that panel.

As an Australian, from a country where rabbits were introduced and did great damage to native flora and fauna, I’m not the biggest fan of bunnies.

But in the context of asking who really is naïve in discussions about the economy and the future of society and the world, then I am proud to be a fluffy bunny.

By Katherine Trebeck, WEAll Knowledge and Policy lead

Image by Joe Brusky, CC BY-NC 2.0

WEAll’s Katherine Trebeck has written a chapter for a new ebook by Open Democracy, available free here. Edited by Laurie Macfarlane, “New Thinking for the British Economy” brings together leading thinkers to outline the broad pillars of a new economic agenda, and the type of policies that are needed to get us there. As well as more traditional policy areas such as trade, finance, housing and industrial policy, the book explores a range of areas that are not typically considered to be within the sphere of economic policy but which nonetheless play a critical role shaping our political economy – such as the media, our care systems, racial inequalities and our constitutional arrangements.

Katherine’s chapter – “Building a Wellbeing Economy” – explains that GDP is a wholly inadequate measure of progress for the twenty-first century: the narrow pursuit of growth-at-all-costs is failing to meet human needs and destroying the planet. Repurposing the economy away from GDP towards outcomes that align economic success with the delivery of human and ecological wellbeing is therefore an essential step towards an economy that works for people and planet.

Download the ebook for free now.