Forget GDP growth, it’s sustainable wellbeing we need to aim for

Earth Growth

I’ve just been to a three-day conference on sustainable prosperity in Europe, attended by thousands of people.

In a stirring opening address, the speaker said governments must stop misusing GDP growth as their goal and move swiftly and urgently to sustainable wellbeing within planetary boundaries. They got a standing ovation.

The young leader of a climate and social justice movement concluded the event with a call to join the “movement of movements”, to create a new economy based on sustainable prosperity, justice and sufficiency. Everyone rose to their feet to show their solidarity.

This is not the start of a utopian novel set in an alternative universe.

This was a real event: the Beyond Growth conference held at the European Parliament last week. Sponsored by the European Commission and the Club of Rome, it attracted more than 2,500 participants (with another 2,000 online).

I believe it marks a tipping point in thinking and governance in response to the convergence of crises facing humanity today.

We are in a race of tipping points. We are exceeding biophysical planetary boundaries and the climate is fast approaching irreversible tipping points that could give us a world that human civilisation has never experienced.

Social capital is eroding due to runaway inequality and political polarisation. People around the world recognise that life is not getting any better. Levels of anxiety, depression and burnout are skyrocketing across the Western world. Full-time employees unable to pay rent, people turning to precarious gig work to make ends meet, employers cutting staff and increasing workloads – all have become normal in this system, which extracts natural resources, energy and time.

The root cause of these crises is our societal addiction to an outdated economic paradigm based on the single-minded pursuit of GDP growth at all costs. This paradigm claims that all people want is more income and consumption without limit, that the market economy can grow forever, that massive inequality is justified to provide incentives to promote growth, and that any efforts to address climate and other environmental problems must not interfere with growth.

The EU conference, in contrast, emphasised what has long been recognised in parts of the academic and policy communities – that GDP was never designed to measure societal wellbeing, since it only measures marketed production and consumption, conflating positive and negative outcomes. It also says nothing about the distribution of income, unpaid work, or damage to the environment. Continuing to misuse GDP as a policy goal is driving our societies towards an unsustainable future that benefits an increasingly small fraction of the population while impoverishing the vast majority.

All of these things must be considered in any attempt to measure true societal wellbeing.

The Beyond Growth conference had several sessions on alternative indicators that do just that. In fact, it showed that the number of experiments with societal wellbeing indicators is in the hundreds. These experiments can help us move towards a broad consensus on what needs to be included to form a more complete and useful picture of societal wellbeing that can replace GDP as a societal goal.

It also emphasised the need for models that incorporate the complex dynamics of the economic system embedded in society and the rest of nature. These models would allow projections into the future to assess the sustainability of various policies aimed at providing societal wellbeing. They could build on many recent efforts, including the Canadian economy’s LowGrow model and the global Earth4All model of the Club of Rome.

The conference also recognised the pioneering efforts of several governments, including the EU and the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) group – Canada, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales – to begin to implement measures of sustainable wellbeing and the policies needed to achieve them.

What are these policies? An open letter, signed by more than 400 leading economists, scientists, policy makers and activists provides the following list of some of the key elements:

Biocapacity: Fossil fuel phaseouts, limits to raw material extraction, nature protection and restoration measures for healthy and resilient soils, forests, marine and other ecosystems. For example, a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty; a resource justice and resilience act including a binding material footprint reduction target and real, area-based nature restoration.

Fairness: Fiscal instruments to foster a more equal society by eradicating income and wealth extremes, as well as super-profits. For example, a carbon wealth tax; both minimum and maximum incomes.

Wellbeing for all: Secured access to essential infrastructures via an improved and ecologically sensitive welfare state. For example, Universal Basic Services (including the human rights to health, transport, care, housing, education and social protection); job guarantees; price controls for essential goods and services.

Active democracy: Citizen assemblies with mandates to formulate socially acceptable sufficiency strategies and strengthen policies based on ecological limits, fairness and wellbeing for all and a stronger role for trade unions. For example, local needs forum; climate conventions; participatory budgeting.

Finally, the conference recognised that vested interests in maintaining the current system – including billionaires, the fossil fuel sector, the defence sector, Big Pharma and industrial agriculture – will continue to fight to prevent the transformative changes needed.

Overcoming our societal addiction to the current system will require a broad consensus and a movement of movements around the shared goal of sustainable wellbeing for humans and the rest of nature. This conference will, hopefully, be remembered as one of the early sparks of the movement to create the world we all want.

Teaser photo credit: Mangrove replanting in Mayotte. By Lizot pierrick – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72167050. Marine restoration is one of the policies needed to achieve sustainable wellbeing, experts say.

Robert Costanza is Chair of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He has authored or coauthored over 350 scientific papers, and reports on his work have appeared in Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The Economist, The New York Times, Science, Nature, National Geographic, and National Public Radio

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