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Saamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.
It’s been rumbling for almost three years and it may well still rumble on for a little longer, but a little volcano may soon erupt in the tiny nation of… well, Luxembourg. The European Statistics Agency Eurostat last week declared public the outputs of a project we and others have been carrying out for them for two years on how to measure the well-being of people in Europe. The project will form the basis of a new set of well-being indicators to be published by Eurostat on a regular basis, alongside drier indicators on R&D expenditure, fishing boat stocks and, of course, GDP.
This might not seem like a volcano, but it could potentially be a huge fillip to the case for measuring progress differently – Eurostat have the resources and wherewithal to collect robust regular data across Europe. Collecting data obviously won’t change the world alone, but it’s a prerequisite to actually using data, and to supporting well-being as a public policy goal.
Over the next few months, Eurostat will be busying itself making sure well-being data meets their demanding standards and, implementing changes in conjunction with other parts of the European apparatus, member states and survey teams. A geeky success, but an important one nevertheless…
Saamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.
There are few who believe that all is well with the world and that we can just carry on as before. Where there is disagreement, it seems, is on how much needs to change. Amongst the leading political parties in the UK, it seems the answer is “as little as possible”. But at the 2nd Degrowth Conference (or Decreixement in Catalan), held in Barcelona this March, we got a flavour of a broader range of answers to this question and, indeed, potentially a new social movement. The concept of ‘green growth’ (investing in renewable and new technologies allowing economic growth without exceeding physical limits) has all but been abandoned by this community – demonstrated to be an insufficient answer to environmental crises by nef’s The Great Transition and Growth isn’t Possible and by the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity without Growth.
Rather the debate centres around what more should, or needs to change, along with an end to economic growth. Is capitalism compatible with degrowth? How about markets? Indeed the entire modern world and industrialisation were questioned by some at the Conference.
Two years ago, attending the first degrowth conference, the concept was somewhat an academic curiosity. Now, with 500 attendees from 40 countries, there is a sense of a degrowth movement, albeit one that is trying to find its direction and a common narrative. The range of attendees – from academics to activists – was a strength; the conference reminded me of the European Social Forum, and the changes degrowth calls for cannot be achieved without such a range of actors. But it was also a challenge, with expectations from the conference so disparate. Whilst some attendees work closely with public bodies to explore aspects of degrowth, others were disgusted that even academic economists had been invited to the event.
So what common narrative may emerge? Well, degrowthers certainly recognise the fundamental role economic systems play in the environmental, social and economic crises we face. Furthermore, groups within the conference lay at least partial blame on the economic system for several other issues, including war, gender inequality, cultural imperialism and, of course, flat-lining well-being. This ‘joining the dots’ is key. There are many rally calls for social change. Where degrowth appears to be different is that it brings together so many apparently disparate issues. It is, as nef fellow Nic Marks would say, a platform with many doors. People are brought to it for all sorts of reasons. The shared understanding is of the primacy of the absurdities of the economic system – one which values a prison above an ecosystem, one whose own success leads to the redundancy of labour, and one which relies on the myth that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet – and the futility of attempting to tackle other problems until this economic system is contested. This understanding may help unite these different causes and concerns into a single and potentially powerful drive towards a Great Transition.
Coming back to the UK from Barcelona by train, we stopped at Cerbère, the first town in France as you come up the coast. Sharing its name with the dog that guarded the gates of hell, there was a sense of a place on a knife-edge. On the one hand it’s a dump, a town that grew out of the need to change train gauges on the border with Spain. A once famous hotel now looms in disrepair over the train tracks, the path from the centre to the train station appears to go through a sewage tunnel and, while we waited for our connecting train, someone set fire to some rags and through them onto the train tracks. But watching two strangers, a young black Frenchman and on old, probably American, man, with a guitar and all the air of a blues player from the 60s, meet, jam together and seemingly become friends, I got that cheesy warm sense of the good nature of humanity. There may be some differences and disagreements within the degrowth movement, but overall, it stands out as the most radical yet robust attempt to mobilise support for a better world – a more intelligent and coherent successor to the anti-globalisation movement of the nineties and the noughties. If that’s true, then we might just be able to turn back from the gates of hell.
The notion that growth cannot continue indefinitely is still a young idea. Yes, it’s been around since the 70s, with the book The Limits to Growth. But it’s had little resources to really develop answers to the challenge of how to achieve a successful economy that does not depend on growth. Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam GB, has written a blog criticising a recent event on Rethinking economic growth (also see my blog on it) which nef supported last month. He obviously agrees with the alarm call (that growth is not sustainable) – you can see that in his presentation of his to the Quakers Zero Growth Economy conference last year. But Duncan seems to expect solutions to these problems already and was disappointed at the scarcity of them at this event.
I shan’t attempt to stand up for all the speakers, but I would suggest that two of their publications at least (Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth and nef’s Great Transition) do start to touch on some of the solutions to what is very admittedly a difficult problem. André Reichel’s suggestions for companies that do not require constant throughput of material production were also real practical solutions. Here are three parts of the solution. Just three:
- Steadily reducing working hours. Increases in labour productivity have typically meant that economic growth is required to keep steady employment. If productivity gains were taken as more free time, this would resolve this challenge. Take a look at our new report, 21 hours.
- Re-structured ownership. An economy dominated by shareholders who only take a stake in firms so as to make a quick profit is driven relentlessly to growth (see the work of Mathias Binswanger on this). It doesn’t have to be like this. Many forms of ownership, including small family businesses, co-operatives, communities, and the state, are not predicated on ever increasing returns on investment.
- Re-focussing measurement. Of course I mention that partly because at the centre for well-being we’ve been working on alternative measures of progress such as the Happy Planet Index and how they might help shift us away from the folly of the constant pursuit of growth. But also, Duncan himself has highlighted this as a key part of the shift away from a growth focussed economy.
Of course, these three solutions alone won’t solve all the world’s problems, and of course there are many interests who would oppose such changes, but they’re a start. More research is needed to better understand how a no-growth economy would work. And more advocacy is needed to promote the ideas around a stable economy. But until recently, this is not been something that big money was likely to get behind. However, things are beginning to change and there are signs of some forward thinking governments starting to invest in exploring alternatives to growth. Maybe then we’ll be able to have a few more answers for the man from Oxfam.
“Economic growth cannot continue as before”. “We need to consider the possibilities of de-growth”. These were some of the concluding remarks at the Growth in Transition conference held in Vienna last week. The kind of thing you hear radical economists and think tanks saying more and more nowadays. But here the context was a very different. A conference organised by the environment ministry of a European nation (Austria), and sponsored and supported by seven other ministries including the Federal Chancellery, and the Federal Ministry for Finance, the nation’s leading banks, main supermarket chain and the Chamber of Commerce.
The event was perhaps the first time that such a broad spectrum of mainstream bodies have agreed to confront the challenge of our times – how to transform our growth-hungry economy into something more sustainable, stable and socially just. Of course, not everyone jumped at the solution of doing without growth – and the rhetoric of ‘green growth’ continued to be bandied about. But in plenary on the morning of the second day, over 40 minutes, Professor Felix Ekardt of the University of Rostock drilled home the message that such green growth was not enough – that we needed to stop growing. You could almost hear the audience wincing.
It’s clear that this is a message which will take some time to sink home. A representative of the Austrian National Bank spoke excellently on the need to shrink the financial system, reduce inequalities and reduce debt. But she quickly, and without much discussion, expressed the faith that economic growth could be decoupled from resource use. I approached her later and highlighted that, allowing for ‘business-as-usual’ economic growth, this would require a 95% increase in resource efficiency by 2050 (as nef has recently calculated in the report Growth isn’t Possible). When I asked her whether we can really gamble humanity’s fate on the ability to achieve such efficiency gains, she did something quite unusual. She squirmed. It was only momentary, and was soon followed up by a repetition of the same mantra of efficiency. However, I have hope for her.
What solution do primary school children propose for the high energy use involved in floodlighting football matches? Simple – stop playing matches at night. Of course, such a change would require greater working flexibility, so that typical working hours don’t get in the way of spectators getting to the match, but we needn’t expect primary school children to get into these details…
Working with three local authorities in Wales (Caerphilly, Torfaen and Carmarthenshire), nef is developing a website for children on how to live good lives that don’t cost the Earth. So as to get a better picture of what makes children happy, Jody Aked and I have been running workshops with children about happiness and sustainability. We’ve discovered a quiet revolution. In schools around the country, children are getting the environmental issues in a way that makes Swampy look like Susan Palin. They spout facts about recycling, they name and shame energy-guzzling teachers, and – ok – she said carbon ninoxide instead of carbon monoxide, but I still think knowing about either is pretty impressive for a 9 year old.
And do they get the message about well-being? Do they believe that you can have a good life without costing the Earth. Here the message is a bit more mixed. Yes, some children highlighted receiving an iPod or playing on their Playstation as the last moment they felt ‘on top of the world’. But many mentioned scoring goals, acting in a play, or simply the snow. And when we asked them to give their top tip for feeling happier whilst saving the planet, they had no difficulty – many bigged up turning off the telly, and doing sport. But only during the day of course.
Kenneth Boulding puts it as succinctly as possible: “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman, or an economist”. And yet our governments continue to desperately pursue growth at any cost. The call for an alternative approach is not new. In the 70s, a ‘limits to growth’ movement built up, and as far back as the 19th century, John Stuart Mill expounded the idea of a ‘steady-state economy’ – one which remained stable without growth.
But with the current crisis cocktail – economic, environmental and social – it is perhaps not surprising that calls for rethinking growth are becoming more frequent than ever. In France, Spain and Italy, a strong ‘degrowth’ movement has developed and one can even hear some elected politicians, such as the député of the 11th district of Paris, Yves Cochet, advocating a degrowth economy.
The event at the Hub in King’s Cross last week, organised by CEECEC (Civil Society Engagement with Ecological Economics) and supported by nef, was intended to bring a flavour of décroissance to the UK. The word ‘degrowth’ perhaps doesn’t sound as good in English as in French, but the UK has seen a couple of key steps in the search for a new economic model – included the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity without Growth and nef’s Great Transition – authors of both publications spoke at the event. And there is clearly appetite – with little advertising, the event had booked up a week in advance, and people came through snow and ice to attend.
One audience member blogged that there was an element of preaching to the converted at the event and that we need to ‘move the debate from the margins’. Whilst this is true, as with any new movement, there is still a need to bring people together. The discovery that one is not alone in one’s heresy gives the heretic strength to work harder. Furthermore, as Leida Rijnhout, one of the speakers, noted, large NGOs have to some extent co-opted governments’ commitment to growth – until people like this rethink growth, there is little hope for convincing the mainstream of business and the private sector.
Having said that, a recent business trip reminded me that perhaps the heresy of questioning growth isn’t that unpalatable for most people once they give it a moment’s thought. At a workshop for local government types in Cornwall on measuring progress and well-being, over half disagreed with the statement that growth is necessary for a successful society. And in conceptualising progress, everyone saw the economy as, at most, a contributing factor to success – no more. There’s hope…
2010 looks set to be a key year for well-being. Just over ten years ago, whilst well-being made sense in the scientific community, it was still almost unheard of amongst policy-makers. Since then, however, we’ve had policy documents recognising the importance of well-being from many departments from Defra to the Treasury. The end of 2009 saw two other think tanks, Demos and the Young Foundation, using the language of well-being. The Department of Health’s New Horizons strategy boldly puts well-being at the heart of mental health. nef act as secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on well-being, the UK government is set to fund a major new centre for well-being research, and the Office of National Statistics is starting to explore how they can measure well-being. Meanwhile, whilst the Chinese welcome the year of the tiger, the City of Liverpool has declared 2010 the ‘year of health and wellbeing’.
However, to paraphrase the wise words of Yazz, given the concept’s earlier obscurity, ‘the only way was up’. Ten years on and well-being is no longer seen as a cute side-policy, and is becoming an issue for heated discussion. Some writing in the national media suggest a backlash. Some people read well-being as simply happiness and therefore consider it hedonistic and silly. Or there is a fear that encouraging people to be happy may just be a way to silence the masses without actually improving their lives. Or there are concerns over whether it can genuinely be measured. Or a feeling that affecting people’s emotions should not be within governments’ remit.
Some of these concerns are easily dismissed. We know that well-being can be measured robustly and meaningfully (see, for example, last year’s National Accounts of Well-Being, and the New Scientist). Also, as the National Accounts of Well-being stress, well-being is not just about happiness or satisfaction. It is a dynamic and multi-dimensional concept embracing, amongst other things, our social relations, vitality, and sense of meaning. Seeing Government’s role as supporting well-being for everyone does not imply a belief that government should keep everyone happy all the time. Being upset because you have failed a job interview is natural and healthy. It is when this then leads to long-term depression, or when our lives are defined by our job interviews, that we need to worry.
Worthy of more thought is the response that, even if well-being is important, and we can measure it, government should not be meddling with our well-being. This is where the science of well-being needs to mature into a politics of well-being. It would indeed be unsavoury for the government to be making people happy, especially if this is solely through positive psychology tricks that ignore root causes of low well-being, such as inequality and bad jobs. But in the same way that their current focus on economic growth does not lead to governments forcing us to get rich, a focus on well-being would not lead to forced happiness. Rather it would just mean that, in making a policy decision, government would give greatest weight to likely impacts on well-being (in all its multi-dimensionality), rather than just its impacts on GDP – which is what tends to happen. For example, a reduction in working hours is considered crazy as it would lead to reduced economic activity. However, if it were seen to lead to observable improvements in well-being, even despite reducing our national income, isn’t it actually a good idea? To be able to make such decisions, government needs an evidence base on how policies impact well-being. Growing this evidence base is the challenge for 2010, and nef’s forthcoming work will be a key step on this path. Watch this space.
Although you wouldn’t have known it from the media coverage at the time, President Sarkozy did something far more remarkable in January 2008 than get engaged to the singer and model Carla Bruni. While angry French leftists were burning Bruni’s CDs on public bonfires, her new fiancé announced his intention to challenge our most intractable economic orthodoxy: Gross Domestic Product.
Soon enough, the President had set up an impressive commission of Nobel Prize-winning economists and social scientists to address the question of how to move beyond GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress. The group was to be led by former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, and would include development guru Amartya Sen, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the economist-turned-climate-change-hero Lord Stern.
A year and a half on and the Commission has published its final report. The vision is bold – it recognises that “new political narratives are necessary to identify where our societies should go” and advocates “a shift of emphasis from a ‘production-oriented’ measurement system to one focused on the well-being of current and future generations”. Specifically, it recommends that governments should measure subjective well-being – people’s experience of their quality of life – and recognises that these should be textured and multi-dimensional.
These calls are admirable, and echo what nef has long been calling for, particularly in our National Accounts of Well-being report from January 2009.
But there’s a problem. The report carries many recommendations, and there’s a risk that politicians will latch onto the easier ones, without really taking home the big message: namely, that we need to radically shake up our understanding of progress and success. For example, the report shies away from suggesting an overall measure of progress, such as nef’s Happy Planet Index, leading to the risk that GDP will remain unchallenged as the de facto indicator of overall success, despite it never being intended that way.
But for now the Commission, and indeed, dare we say it, Sarkozy, deserve plenty of praise for their boldness. Let’s see if he and other politicians put into practice the advice they are given by the world’s best economists: to move beyond GDP and measure well-being.
International meetings of statisticians are hardly the most likely place for one to find passion and drama. Yet, in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, home to one of the major banking families of the 13th century, Juliet Michaelson and I took part in a debate which could be changing how we measure progress.
When nef started advocating subjective measures of well-being – i.e. asking people how they feel their life is going – as a tool to guide policy, we were entering almost virgin territory. But it seems that the world of government statistics has started to catch up with projects such as our Happy Planet Index. Subjective well-being is part of official statistics in several countries including New Zealand, Canada and even the UK. nef is currently advising Eurostat, the EU’s official statistics body on the feasibility of including well-being indicators in their official sets. And the OECD is the unlikely home of a major Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, championed until now by the organisation’s Chief Statistician, Enrico Giovannini.
It was the OECD that arranged the meeting aimed to encourage chief national statisticians to take subjective well-being measurement seriously. Chief statisticians and presidents from the statistics offices of the USA, Canada, Ireland, Spain and many other countries were present. The meeting was timed to follow on the heels of the ninth annual conference of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS), ensuring many of the leading academics working on subjective well-being were also present.
The meeting showed that there was still work to be done. Many statisticians recognise that measuring subjective well-being is a central part of informing governments how well they are doing. They also see the benefits that subjective data provide in terms of understanding other areas. For example, well-being data can tell you something about the impacts of high or low social capital in an area. Academics such as Prof. John Heliwell at the University of British Columbia in Canada made a plea for statisticians to include a few subjective well-being questions in as many different surveys as possible. Meanwhile nef, alongside Prof. Felicia Huppert at the University of Cambridge, called for more textured measures of well-being, such as the National Accounts of Well-Being, so as to provide policy makers with a better understanding of the ways in which the nation’s population is doing well or not so well.
Some statisticians, howeever, were still very resistant to the idea of taking up precious ‘real estate’ on their surveys with questions about how people feel. They argue that they measure what they are told to, and that they are not being told to measure well-being. As Dr. Munir Sheikh, Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada put it, “It’s not my job to decide which data is more important. It’s the users.” Other statisticians disagreed, highlighting that statistics offices do have some flexibility to pre-empt data requests. Meanwhile, the academics argued that there is a chicken-and-egg situation: government bodies will not ask for well-being data until statistics offices collect it, and vice versa.
But, perhaps, for the sake of statisticians such as Dr. Sheikh, it is important that we make it clear that well-being is important. A recent UK poll found that 81% of people supported the idea that the Government’s prime objective should be the ‘greatest happiness’ rather than the ‘greatest wealth’. Given that’s the case, and given that statistics offices are public bodies whose duty it is to provide information to citizens on how our Government is faring, perhaps we all need to tell them just how much we’d like to know the state of well-being in our countries.
Today sees the launch of the second global Happy Planet Index, which measures how nations are faring in terms of what matters to people – having long, happy, meaningful lives – and what matters to the planet – our rate of resource consumption. The Happy Planet Index brings these concepts together into a single indicator, a measure of the ecological efficiency with which each nation supports good lives.
Like with the first Happy Planet Index, HPI 2.0 reveals that no country is achieving the triple goals of long life, high well-being, and a sustainable ecological footprint. Indeed Western countries, usually considered to represent the pinnacle of development, are some of the furthest away from that target. Out of 143 countries, the highest ranking Western country is the Netherlands in 43rd place – the USA is as low as 114th.
And the countries that score highest? That are closest to good lives that don’t cost the Earth? Perhaps surprisingly, they are mostly Latin American countries. 9 out of the top 10 countries in terms of HPI are in South and Central America, or the Caribbean. The highest HPI score belongs to Costa Rica – a nation famed for being an island of peace in troubled Central America, and which is now leading the green revolution in the developing world, producing a staggering 99% of its electricity from renewable sources.
But even Costa Rica is not quite achieving one-planet living – it’s ecological footprint of 2.3 global hectares per capita is marginally above the 2.1 global hectares per capita that one calculates if everyone on the planet was to have a fair share of the Earth’s resources. It looks like something quite profound needs to change to achieve good lives that don’t cost the Earth for all. The first step to doing so is the new HPI Charter which sets clear targets for where we need to get to by 2050.
On the new HPI website you can download the report, sign the charter, and explore some of the data online. Over the next few weeks, I will be highlighting some of the stories of the HPI in this blog – countries that do particularly well, changes over time, steps we need to take to change the way things are going, and some of the things that are happening already.
Oscar Wilde said ‘a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at’. The HPI may not tell us exactly where utopia is, but it at least tells us in which direction we need to travel.