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The global financial crisis, climate change, poverty and BP: the extent of the problem is clear. But what is the best way to solve it? This was the question asked at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in Leeds on June 19.
The conference was organised by Economic Justice for All (EJfA), a Leeds economics and sustainability debating group and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), with the aim of coming up with some concrete policy recommendations.
“If the leaders of the main political parties in the UK are not thinking seriously about an alternative to economic growth, then we the people must urgently start and develop the discussion,” Dr Lorna Arblaster, of EJfA, explained.
It was a discussion that was urgently needed. The conference attracted over 250 academics, economists, community organisations, activists, NGOs and business people who played as much a part in making the day a resounding success as the keynote speakers: Peter Victor, author of Managing Without Growth and Professor in environmental studies, York University, Canada; Andrew Simms, Policy Director at nef; Dan O’Neill, European Director of CASSE; and Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth and professor of sustainable development, University of Surrey.
Peter Victor opened the conference by challenging our “fear of a no growth disaster” and reminding us that until 1950 there was no discussion of economic growth as something to strive for.
“Can we have full employment, no poverty, fiscal balance, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions without relying on economic growth?” he asked. “You bet!” was his resounding reply, which he backed up with a detailed computer model.
Participants were then asked to put forward alternative policy recommendations in expert-led workshops on how this could be done in the UK.
These included eight policy-focused workshops: limiting resource use; stabilising population; reforming the monetary system; maintaining low unemployment; distributing income more fairly; changing business practices; measuring quality of life and achieving a successful UK transition within a globalised economy, as well as two process workshops: changing consumer behaviour and engaging politicians and the media.
Well-being and work-life balance were key themes of the day as was reconnecting with ourselves, reconsidering what it means to be human and deciding what we really want from our lives. And as Andrew Simms reminded us, not forgetting to have fun.
The conference was just the start. The ideas and proposals which were discussed in the workshops will be collated into a manifesto, which will outline how to achieve a steady state economy in the UK and will form the basis for the movement’s next step.
So what of Leeds now that the steady state caravan has left? There’s a buzz in the city; people who missed the conference feel that they’ve lost out and others who had never heard of a steady state economy have seen the local media coverage. With all the crises and government cuts they may even be starting to question whether there is another, better way.
We agree that when making policy, a broad account of flourishing — including autonomy, meaningful activities and strong relationships — is more useful than a narrow focus on happiness, which risks denoting merely momentary or passing pleasures (“The end of government”, leading article, Mar 27). But given the wide range of influences on our experiences of life, government policy — however it is shaped — will inescapably affect our wellbeing, for good or for ill.
This is very far from “forcing people to be happy”. The findings of an established body of research suggest that current policy, focused beyond all else on stimulating economic growth, crowds out from daily life the activities known to lead to wellbeing: connecting with others, learning new skills or giving our time.
Gauging government success, according to National Accounts of Well-being, would provide the incentives to create policy firmly focused on improving the lives of UK citizens. Our research, first published last year, shows how wellbeing, understood as a multifaceted, dynamic concept, could be robustly and systematically measured.
The inventors of gross domestic product (GDP) never intended it to become the compass that guides all policymaking. Today’s environmental crisis makes the shortcomings of GDP all too clear: it rises when forests are cut down or when money is spent cleaning up an oil slick. With both our natural and social support systems being pushed to breaking point, finding a better measure of progress has never been more urgent.
Juliet Michaelson and Saamah Abdallah
Centre for Wellbeing
nef (the new economics foundation)
The weekend papers reported that Vince Cable is in talks with HM Treasury about becoming Chancellor in the event of a hung parliament. Cable has been widely touted as the most trusted politician in the country, and would most likely to be a progressive choice for Britian’s economy, given his support for policies such as the Post Bank and the Robin Hood Tax.
But would Vince ever take the most radical step of all, and question whether economic growth is really the best compass to guide the progress of nations?
Sadly, it seems not. Speaking at a confrence last week, Cable took a swipe ‘environmentalists who advocate de-growth’. Explaining why environmental issues have slipped down the list of public priorities in recent months, the Shadow Chancellor for the Liberal Democrats said:
well, we’ve got zero growth in fact, we’ve got minus growth and it isn’t very nice. And I think people somehow wised up to this idea that all this puritanical non-consumption of resources we were being told was a good thing is actually really rather painful if you’re one of the people who was losing your job in the process. So recession has played very badly in terms of its environmental impact.
(Thanks to @adanylkiw for the transcript)
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.
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.
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.