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The case for a well-being economy

In an era of polycrisis, economic transformation should be top of the political agenda.

By Katherine Trebeck

Empirical evidence shows the need for a fundamental rethink of the economy. Despite the promises of economic growth, for too many around the world, work does not bring fulfilment and dignity, let alone a decent standard of living. This is certainly the case in the UK. According to research published last week, Britain is one of the most miserable nations in the world, second only to Uzbekistan.

There is no shortage of vision regarding what such an economic transformation could entail. Yet, so far, none of these ideas have been sufficient to bring about economic and social change at the scale and pace that our economic and ecological crises demand. Few, if any, political leaders, have fully grappled with the extent of the overhaul that our economies need – despite agreeing to manage climate change and restore nature in international treaties, such as the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

Around the globe, however, countries are adopting the idea of the well-being economy – where growth for its own sake is not the only measure of success. This time last year, Finland published its “National Action Plan for the Economy of Well-being”. Iceland does something similar – and famously has a good track record of gender equality and progress on renewable energy.

Closer to home, Wales was the first country to mandate a commissioner for the well-being of future generations to think about the long-term impact of policy. A Well-being of Future Generations Act was passed in 2015. Scotland’s government has stated its objective to build a well-being economy and has various examples of institutions and policies that show promise, such as the sustainable procurement duty and Zero Waste Scotland, a quasi-government body charged with supporting Scotland’s move to a circular economy.  

Long predating all the above is Bhutan, which has had a Gross National Happiness index (inspired by Buddhism) for decades. Costa Rica, meanwhile, is renowned for its robust provision of basic services, reforestation, biodiversity and conservation work. The Central American nation regularly tops or out-performs in indices such the Happy Planet Index and the Social Progress Index.

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But these achievements remain fragile, and ideas are often added to the existing system rather than built in. Some politicians and business leaders may publicly acknowledge the importance of change, even its urgency, to better manage the climate crisis and improve quality of life. Just before Covid emerged, the US Business Roundtable – an association comprised of the CEOs of major companies including Apple, Walmart and Pepsi – published a statement that countered the teachings of business schools around the world. As well as advancing the interests of their shareholders, they said, companies “must also invest in their employees, protect the environment and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers”. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum published a report that opened with the question of how “growth can be better aligned with other important priorities”.

But a better status quo remains elusive. To get real change on to the political agenda and keep it there, we need active champions across all sectors of the economy. These champions must be as confident with cooperation and education as they are with persuasion and contestation. They must be able to present a consistent critique of the implications of business-as-usual and to celebrate the benefits of an economic paradigm shift.

Moving away from the linear extractive economy is often dismissed as a form of loss. Change champions must therefore be able to convince others of the benefits that a well-being economy would bring – from more dignified work and homes that are cheaper to heat and cool, to thriving local businesses serving their communities. Potential benefits are not being sufficiently communicated to those communities in high-income countries that would be better off, like the so-called left-behind towns in the US and the Brexit-voting “Red Wall” constituencies in England. These are communities in which populist promises are touted, but where there is insufficient engagement with the ideas of the well-being economy.

Great change involves risk, and there will always be those who block it, from vested interests to those who are complacent or fear transformation. Collective vision-building and designing policies with people who will be affected by them is vital to the success of such bold and transformational policy. Citizens’ assemblies are a great example of such processes, as are initiatives like Climate Fresk – a French organisation that promotes climate awareness, with activities in more than 130 countries.

Today’s economic system has created a world where politicians rush from one crisis response to the next and where the natural world is treated as a sink and a source of inputs to the economy. But policymakers should be confident that support for a different system is growing. People are starting to realise that business-as-usual is not an option.

[See also: How Wales could save the world]

Getting wellbeing ideas on the policy table: theory, reality, pushback and next steps, by Katherine Trebeck, is published by The Club of Rome and Earth4All

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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