October was a “picture collection month” for us. We went back to both Scotland and Italy, to collect shots that would help us show the countries that we are speaking about in our film. And they are splendid countries indeed.
Since early 2018, we have spent a lot of time with our protagonist Katherine Trebeck. In the summer of last year, we also traveled to Costa Rica together, to film her while she was speaking at a conference about sustainable fashion, and while she met the Costa Rican First Lady.
On that trip, she told us about an idea that I forgot about later, and that I was again reminded of recently. It is a beautiful thought that very convincingly illustrates how much we must change our notion of what progress actually means.
You have a very tough challenge to overcome when you try to move away from an economy that is measured by the “growth” it produces, in terms of financially measurable output. Or, in other words, by how much it increases GDP every year. GDP is such an established measurement: Everyone has heard of it, it seems so incredibly familiar (even though most people have no idea what it really is), and that’s why people have a really hard time letting go of it.
Now, how does the growth of GDP tell us that a society is improving?
Well, it measures how much a society makes every year, in terms of how much money is being spent on things in that society. And then it assumes that we are doing better if more things are made and sold next year. And so on. Forever. More stuff is better. It’s as simple as that.
We are now finding out that more is not better. Up to a certain point, yes. But after that, more just hurts more: It hurts nature. It hurts equality in society. It hurts the psychological health in a population. It hurts the climate. Etc.
In the western world, and after we’d broken everything in World War II (“thanks” to the nation I come from, Germany), looking at the GDP was probably a good idea, for a while. We could simply count how much we are making and then assume that we’re doing better if we are producing more next year. It meant more people in jobs, more people could afford things, life was getting better. But those days are gone. We are no longer better off if the GDP keeps growing, we’re actually worse off, nowadays. And we’re clearly ruining the planet this way.
So we speak a lot about what might be a better measure. There’s not going to be a single thing that replaces GDP, of course. But if you ask Katherine which single measure she would pick if she could use only one, to analyse if a society is actually doing better year after year, she’ll say this:
Why not get countries to measure the number of girls who bicycle to school?
Ok, this may seem very strange at first glance. What? Rather than looking at how much economic output our country is producing, let’s count girls on bikes?
Think about it. It makes a heap of sense:
If more and more girls ride a bike to school, it means it’s safer and safer to cycle in traffic.
If more and more girls ride bikes to school, it means that bikes are increasinly accepted as a means of transport. And it means less parents’ cars — who are now doing the “parent taxi” thing (a big issue here in Germany) — are polluting the air and creating dangerous traffic jams outside schools.
If more and more girls cycle to school, it means that more and more girls are actually going to school and getting an education, period. That’s an important achievement in many countries.
If more girls are cycling to school, it means that they’ll get used to this mode of transport, it will translate to better health for them in the future, and to less pollution in society in the future.
If more girls go to school on bikes, it means that they are not afraid to be attacked by predators who do them harm.
If more and more girls ride bikes to school, more and more boys will do that, too.
If more and more girls cycle to school, it means that more of them are empowered and unafraid.
I think I agree with Katherine: This is an incredibly convincing measure of progress. And one that deserves serious consideration as a replacement for GDP. And I am not joking one bit.
Free photo by @luizmedeirosph.
I can hardly contain my excitement: the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave a TED Talk, and only two hours ago it was published on the TED.com website. In her talk, she makes the case for governments focussing the efforts of their work no longer on GDP, but on increasing the well-being of their citizens:
In early 2018, we decided to tell the story behind the Scottish and other governments who were trying to join forces, to move beyond GDP, in the documentary film that this website is about, that we are currently editing, and that we are hoping to release early next year. Not knowing if this would happen, and not knowing how it would play out. The fact that the Wellbeing Economy Governments now exist, and that Nicola Sturgeon just delivered this courageous message brings us incredible joy. And reason for hope.
I just read the text “Economic growth: a short history of a controversial idea” by Gareth Dale — and thought that some of its points merit mentioning here, as they relate to the core issue of our film project: the unhealthy obsession of most governments with GDP Growth, and how to end it.
Dale’s text is all about where this idea came from, originally.
The first key point he is making is rejecting Elias Canetti’s “will to grow”, which posits that the desire to (economically) “grow” — in other words, to accumulate “more” — is a human quality that sits inside our DNA. From wanting your child to grow, to wanting your power to grow, to wanting your riches to grow, to wanting your farm to grow, this is just how we are made, we always want more.
But Dale disagrees and says that Canetti is throwing things together that don’t belong together:
Canetti’s ‘will to grow’ doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The diverse behaviours he describes can’t be reduced to a single logic. The ‘will’ behind creating babies is quite unlike the will to accumulate acreage or gold. And the latter is relatively recent. For much of the human story, societies were nomadic or semi-nomadic, and organised in immediate-return systems. Stashes of food were set aside to tide the group over for days or weeks, but long-term storage was impractical. The accumulation of possessions would hamper mobility. The measures that such societies used to reduce the risks of scarcity centred not on accumulating stores of goods but on knowledge of the environment, and interpersonal relationships (borrowing, sharing, and so on).
The next crucial point he is making is about data. It was only possible for humans to “want more” once they were able to properly count what they had. In other words, the development of statistical tools plays a key role for instilling this idea that we could “have more tomorrow” than we have today. This links directly to the discussion we experienced at the OECD Forum in South Korea, about new measurements and their political implications. Dale writes:
The same centuries experienced a revolution in statistics. In the England of 1600, the growth paradigm could scarcely have existed. No one knew the nation’s income, or even its territory or population. By 1700 all these had been calculated, at least in some rough measure, and as new data arrived England’s ‘material progress’ could be charted. Simultaneously, the usage of ‘growth’ had extended from the natural and concrete toward abstract phenomena: the growth of England’s colonies in Virginia and Barbados, the ‘growth of trade,’ and suchlike.
And as the advancement of science and the development of colonialism went hand in hand, the colonialists had a whole host of new quantitative questions to answer:
How profitable is this tract of land, and its denizens? How can they be made more profitable? Answering such questions was enabled by modern accounting techniques, with their sharper definition of such abstractions as profit and capital.
In other word, “growth of the economy” needed a lot of inventions before it could even be thought. And the idea was heavily based on thinking that originated from the development of colonialism. In the new colonies, it seemed even more important than anywhere else to count and “grow” the new properties that were being accumulated.
And what was the result of all that? A very simple story about how people evolved from barbarism to civilisation. Barbarism was the lifestyles of the people that colonialists found wherever their greed took them, civilisation was the way of living and counting and robbing and thinking in property terms that the colonialists brought. Since the invading nations were the “more advanced ones”, that gave them “the right” to control and harrass the others. And economic growth was always part of the story:
Through its marriage to progress and development, in the belief that social advance requires a steady upward ratchet in national income, growth gained its ideological heft.
And this takes us into the twentieth century. The idea of economic growth turned into a global competition and race, for power, influence and promises to the electorate. And in the fight between the political systems of the Cold War, it became the tool for everything:
Growth was firmly established everywhere: in the state-capitalist economies of the ‘Second World,’ the market economies of the West, and the postcolonial world too. It became part of the economic-cultural furniture, and played a decisive part in binding ‘civil society’ into capitalist hegemonic structures — with social democratic parties and trade unions crucial binding agents. It came to be seen as the key metric of national progress and as a magic wand to achieve all sorts of goals: to abolish the danger of returning to depression, to sweeten class antagonisms, to reduce the gap between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, to carve a path to international recognition, and so on.
And then to me, the most interesting conclusion can be found in the penultimate paragraph:
Growth, although the result of social relations among people, assumes the veneer of objective necessity. The growth paradigm elides the exploitative process of accumulation, portraying it instead as a process in the general interest.
It’s actually an incredible sleight of hand: The accumulation of wealth is redefined as the primary public interest. We are lead to believe that as long as a massive accumulation of capital happens, somehow everyone will be better off. Even though it’s overwhelmingly a narrow group of people benefiting from this type of accumulation. Because ever since the TINA years, so much taxation has been dismantled, bit by bit.
Not too long ago, this whole idea was also referred to as the “Trickle-Down-Effect” — an effect that doesn’t actually work in the real world. Just because the rich get richer doesn’t mean the rest are better off. Quite the contrary. Unless we rethink the way we distribute access to capital and resources: Wellbeing Economies.
In the past weeks and months, we’ve been excited to notice how the Wellbeing Economics Governments have been making progress.
New York Times About New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget
The most visible example may have been the New York Times article about New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget. We were excited to see this in part also because in January we had the chance to interview the very same Grant Robertson who is mentioned in the article for our film — he is New Zealand’s Finance Minister. And some of what he told us then was pretty much verbatim repeated in the article. The text provides an inspiring view-from-the-outside picture of what the current New Zealand government is trying to do differently, and it’s encouraging to see that the NYT is taking note.
The First Wellbeing Economy Governments Policy Lab
Even closer to our film’s subject was the first meeting of the WEGo policy lab in Scotland on May 1st of this year — in a house that Adam Smith himself had lived in.
Back in November, we were in South Korea as the WEGo — the Wellbeing Economy Governments initiative — was first publicly presented at the OECD Forum in Incheon. What may be the crucial part of this project is said Policy Lab. If governments want to move towards a holistic approach to Wellbeing of People and Planet, they need to do a lot of things very differently. And that is hard.
So in order to figure out how to make this happen, they are trying to learn from each other, by organising these policy labs. In the words of First Minister Sturgeon:
But we know that we don’t have all the answers. We know that we have got a lot to learn – and a lot to gain – from working with other like-minded countries.
That’s why the Scottish Government established the Wellbeing Economy Governments initiative and it’s why we’re so pleased to be hosting the first of these Policy Labs. And it’s why we’re delighted to have such a wealth expertise represented here today.
Our film’s protagonist Katherine Trebeck attended the opening session, where both the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Prime Minister of Iceland, Karin Jakobsdottir, gave speeches (New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was not at the lab, but NZ sent representatives). And Katherine published a blog post about what that was like, on the Wellbeing Economy Alliance website. Here is how she explains in her text what the WEGo are about:
WEGo is about governments rolling up their sleeves, linking arms, and walking together down a path that sees national success as being defined by the quality of life of citizens rather than the growth rate of a country’s GDP. As the Chief Economist of the Scottish Government said, WEGo is about driving the wellbeing agenda in economic, social, and environmental policy making.
First Minister Sturgeon’s speech from the event is available online, and some of her statements show where the WEGo are headed, particularly when it comes to their stance on the role of the GDP:
GDP has too often come to be seen not just as an indicator of a country’s wealth, but as the main measure of its success.
As governments, we see the promotion of sustainable and inclusive growth as a vital way of raising living standards for all. But we also understand that growth is only of any real value if it makes people’s lives better, it is not, and never should be seen, as an end in itself. We have to test whether we are creating a fairer, healthier, happier nation in the process.
And then I cannot help but notice: The heads of these three Wellbeing Economy Governments are all strong and inspiring women. I’m beginning to doubt that that’s a coincidence. And instead a sign of a future that needs a lot more female leaders.
We’ve taken too much time off this blog — but it’s not because we were idle. Quite the contrary.
At least a month and a half were filled with us doing two fairly tedious jobs for this film, much of which we couldn’t share — because it is simply way too boring: We had to review all the material that we’ve shot, and log every clip and its content in one endless long spreadsheet. The result: 3913 entries so far … This was necessary for two reasons: One, the person who has done this (that’s Nick) now actually knows our material, has remembered again scenes we had shot and forgotten, and can now spontaeously find things that can become useful for the edit. And two, before we only had countless film clips — now have a searchable database with all our material.
The second job: We had to transcribe the important interviews with our two main protagonists, Katherine and Lorenzo. For Katherine, that was 4 hours 37 minutes, and for Lorenzo a whole lot more because we also included a few of his speeches and TV appearances, and we also spent a bit more time with him than we did with Katherine: 12 hours and 16 minutes. And I had to turn all of that talk into written words … but now that that’s done, it gives us our second searchable database! And we can now really work with the material, it’s great! A lot more fun to edit when you can search and access every single clip you’ve filmed.
And then we’ve been busy with a few more things: We produced a short documentary film together with our friend Ben from “Wolf & Wonder Productions” — it was designed as a pitch to Netflix about a climate change initiative. And we worked very hard on the collaborative climate change show “vollehalle” (in German) that we began developing back in 2017. In early May, we performed it live at the big German Web & Society conference re:publica, and the result is now on YouTube.
And in the past few weeks, a couple of new opportunities opened up — after re:publica, we’re now getting a bunch of requests for our show; we are in the process of discussing the show with some investors who might donate to help us fund its development; we’re beginning talks with a few movers and shakers in the German entertainment industry, about further developing vollehalle; and finally we hope to establish a collaboration with a larger and more established film production company for this very documentary film project — they very much like the project, and want to help us with financing, post production and distribution.
So … a lot has happened these past few weeks and months, but we’ll return to working on the actual film now, and we’ll also try to figure out how to return to sharing more of that experience with you — now that the phase of shooting it is over, and the post production phase has begun. Which may seem less interesting, but it is actually the really fun part: Now we’ll assemble the film from all the material that we’ve collected — now we get to actually make the film!
Our final trip to Rome, Jeffrey Sachs about Wellbeing vs. Trump, a prime minister bailing out, and a Tesla breaking down — all in under four minutes!
It’s been over a month that we’ve published our last post here on the blog and on Facebook, when we introduced our new “partner in crime” Rou Reynolds. We didn’t really mean to take that long a break, but there was just a lot going on in other areas of our lives, and the work we started doing for the film at the beginning of the year is maybe a little less interesting now: We now need to review and transcribe all the material that we have collected, i. e. carefully look at and write down everything that we’ve filmed. The biggest task in that may be the transcription of all the interviews that we’ve done — writing down word for word what our (key) protagonists have told us. Only then can you properly work with all that content.
If we only look at the key conversations with Katherine Trebeck, cutting it down to only the things she said to us (in other words, taking out our questions, etc.), we still end up with over four and half hours of footage. I’m almost done transcribing that. The next job will be to transcribe everything that we’ve got from Lorenzo Fioramonti, and with him we did a whole lot more interviews, so … I’ll be transcribing those for weeks.
But this week, we’re back on the road. It’s the last regular filming trip that we’re taking to Italy — Lorenzo and his team are putting on a “Wellbeing Economy Conference” here in Rome on Thursday, and we’ve come down one more time to follow Lorenzo, spend time with him, and film at the conference.
During the week, we’re staying at Nicoletta’s and Daniele’s place — Nicoletta is Lorenzo’s personal assistant, we’ve known her for quite some time now, and we’ve become friends with her and her boy-friend Daniele. And for this week, they invited us to stay with them, which is incredibly generous. The apartment outside Rome where they live has an amazing terrace with an incredible view, and that’s where we had breakfast this morning (see the photo above). In a few minutes, we’ll travel into the city, and then it’s back to work, filming and trying to figure out how to best capture what we see before us.
The central themes of our film are often reflected in the lyrics of British rock band Enter Shikari. We talked to Rou Reynolds, the band’s singer and frontman, about his political views, and asked him to collaborate with us.
In some parts of Africa, poor families are cutting down wild trees so they can live their lives — for cooking and heating; they have nothing else to burn. As a result, the vegetation goes away, the desert expands, and slowly but surely it is making more and more land uninhabitable. Additionally, those trees that are cut can no longer take CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, so the process also contributes to climate change.
The German non-profit Atmosfair have found a way to help: They provide families in these parts of the world with very energy-efficient ovens that only need a fraction of the wood to provide the same amount of heat and cooking power.
On this blog, we’ve mentioned a number of times that we are trying to limit the climate impact of making this film (and of our lives in general). In terms of our travels, we do our long journeys with all our equipment in an electric car which we charge with renewable energy. And only in rare instances, when there is no other way for us to do it — let’s say because we need to go to South Korea for our story, or because we have to go to Scotland and have only two days for it because of other commitments — we do take a plane.
And when we do, we compensate for (or: offset) the CO2 emissions from these flights — by paying for these ovens that Atmosfair is bringing to these families.
Many people who are concerned about the climate believe that offsetting CO2 emissions is actually a bad thing — they believe it makes people feel good about something bad that they just shouldn’t be doing. And that it does not solve any climate problem. It just makes everything worse because people who compensate keep up their bad lifestyle, rather than becoming part of the solution for a better world.
There is a lot of truth to that. Flying, in particular, is especially bad for our climate. And it’s important to seriously consider any flight anybody wants to go on, and whether there is not another way to achieve the same objective. A return flight from Rome to Reykjavík, for instance, emits roughly the entire yearly CO2 budget that a human being on earth can afford to produce in a year if we want to live sustainable lives. In other words, if you’ve done that flight, theoretically you cannot really consume … well, actually, live after that.
But we would like to explain why we still go on flights, and why we believe that compensating — at least the way we are doing it — is a good compromise.
When it comes to compensating CO2 emissions, there are a lot of climate-destroying habits that should absolutely not be compensated. A good example is a steak house telling its customers that their food is “climate neutral” because they pay for compensation for their meat production. That is truly a bad idea. Our current meat consumption habits cannot go on, and there is no way of solving that problem by compensating. Instead, it falsely suggests to customers that somehow this meat isn’t so bad. Instead, we simply must get used to eating other things than meat, in order to keep earth inhabitable for humans. And we can — we do not need meat to live. The same goes for CO2-emitting cars, or for any other activity that can be carried out with alternative means.
That is a little different with flying. We cannot really live without it anymore, if we assume that encounters with people in other parts of the world and experiences abroad are good for us: Arguably, our world becomes a better place when we meet each other, when we see other places and people in far away countries. The more we establish human connections across borders, continents, disparate parts of the world, the more we will (hopefully) be able to understand that we are all part of one big family, and that our lives are connected and intertwined. If we decided to ban all flying (if that was even possible), the effects would be very negative — and I don’t mean just in terms of economic impact. I mean in terms of the effect on us as open, connected, curious human beings.
So the first point is: A lot of flying is truly and substantially wrong — a business man who thinks he needs to be flying from Frankfurt to Hamburg and back for a business conversation which could also happen by video conference is simply an idiot, climatically speaking. And so is the hipster couple that decide they “need” a weekend in Mallorca just to relax. And don’t get me started on people who fly to Paris for a day just to go shopping. But Brasilians who live in England should be able to visit their families in Brasil. A person living abroad to make money for the family back home must have a chance to go and see them. And (arguably), if we are making a documentary about how we need to change our economic system, we should be able to fly to South Korea if the story demands it.
Yes, these are moral choices. I fully acknowledge that I am making a call on what is good and what is bad travel. We must get to a point where we can have this conversation, otherwise we’re not going to make progress. “I need my freedom and anything goes as long as I can pay for it” is not a position we can maintain in a world with limited resources. We need to start arguing about what’s needed and what isn’t.
Secondly, flying will become climate-neutral. What’s necessary to make that happen are synthetic fuels — they exist already today, and they are made by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, and combining it with other molecules, to create fuels that, when they are burned, simply return that CO2 to the atmosphere, rather than adding more CO2 to it. The problem with these fuels is that they are still very expensive to make, and for that reason, they are not widely available yet. Mass production needs to be developed. But we really have no choice — we need to make that happen.
So a CO2-neutral solution is actually already available for flying — and in that respect, flying is different from a steak. Unless we truly find a way of making synthetic steaks (which people keep talking about, but they still seems a bit far from reality), our meat consumption needs to change. Our flying habits, on the other hand, can become sustainable.
This is why we think flying is an acceptable thing to do if three conditions are in place:
- Any flight is carefully considered, and only done if there is no other means of achieving the same outcome.
- A flight is understood as what it is: something profound and rare, and not a thing we do as easily as taking a subway or a bus.
- The CO2 emissions of the flight are compensated with a provider that understands that CO2 compensation is only the last resort.
The people at Atmosfair don’t think that compensating is a good solution — they consider it only the third-best option. They consult with companies and individuals, and they primarily focus on avoiding CO2. If that cannot be done, then they will try to reduce CO2 emissions. And only as a third response to CO2 emissions, they propose to compensate. (And they will not sell compensation to the steak house mentioned above.)
As it says on their website:
For climate protection reasons, CO₂ avoidance should have priority over other measures. If it is not possible to avoid CO₂ emissions, at least measures should be taken in order to reduce them as much as possible. atmosfair can offset unavoidable emissions for you through high-quality CDM Gold Standard climate protection projects.
So, we do acknowledge that flying is currently still a very dangerous thing for our world. We believe that flights should only be taken if absolutely no other option is available, and if their meaning is truly appreciated. And finally, when we do fly, we compensate with Atmosfair, because we have met with them, and they do take this issue very seriously.
And we cannot wait for synthetic fuels to become widely available.