A couple weeks ago, I had to summarise the “Wellbeing Economies vision”, for an internal document that we needed. I am neither a scholar nor a practitioner of wellbeing economics, but I still felt that the exercise of writing down what I had understood in our project to be valuable. Clearing one’s thoughts by putting them into writing is often quite helpful. Here are the results. Interestingly, the real experts in the matter — the team at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) – also just happened to put out a document about the very same thing. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet. But it may be fun for some to contrast and compare.
The concept of Wellbeing Economies (WE) does not attempt to explain the world through a central foundational economic model, nor does it recommend a particular path for achieving its goals. Rather, it is essentially a very pragmatic approach that begins not with a “system”, but with the end goal: an economy that serves people and the planet as a whole.
Five central concerns are to be achieved:
- Dignity: Everyone has enough to live in comfort, safety and happiness
- Nature: A restored and safe natural world for all life
- Connection: A sense of belonging and institutions that serve the common good
- Fairness: Justice in all its dimensions at the heart of economic systems, and the gap between the richest and poorest greatly reduced
- Participation: Citizens are actively engaged in their communities and locally rooted economies
One of the reasons why there is no central (mathematical) model for Wellbeing Economies is that advocates of the “Wellbeing Economy” idea embed economics deeply in the social sciences and reject a purely model-driven, number-oriented approach — which tries to give Economics a false semblance of a natural science.
Rather, they acknowledge that the very particular social science “economics” is about the question of how the earth’s resources are to be treated and allocated in the best possible way, in order to achieve the above goals. And while there is no question that mathematical skills are required for this, at the same time it is also necessary to recognize that philosophical questions about the meaning of life, normative ideas about law and justice, and an understanding of human irrationality, emotionality and spirituality are just as important. And they are all factors that have no or only a very limited place in the traditional data-driven approach to economics.
Even though this may not always be explicit, a foundation of WE seems to be that they start from a different view of humanity than capitalism of the neoliberal school does. The latter assumes that the central driver of all human activity is personal benefit maximization (greed), which must be put at the service of economic development. WE, on the contrary, see a number of different needs in people, which are expressed, above all, in our social and cooperative behaviour. In the current design of our economy which is essentially based on greed, these do not come into their own. It is now necessary to change this orientation, in order to give other central human qualities more justice in a our economic logic.
But in order for this to happen, it is fundamental to acknowledge that every economic system is man-made and can therefore be rebuilt or readjusted.
For this readjustment, the Wellbeing Economies see a particular need in redefining the key measures of success of our economic systems: politics and the economy are profoundly influenced by what is measured as success and recognized as desirable.
A core requirement is therefore to abandon the goal of continued economic growth in the sense of a steady increase in gross domestic product (GDP) and instead to define and measure the prosperity and progress of our world’s societies in new, different ways. It is acknowledged that GDP growth in the western world after the Second World War certainly helped increase prosperity and improve living standards. But the resulting obsession with steadily rising GDP is now seen as a central cause for our world becoming more and more unjust and dealing with nature in an completely destructive manner.
The fight against the apocalyptic climate crisis, which results from the unlimited growth of the carbon industry in the post-war economic growth logic, is a central motive for many to work towards Wellbeing Economies.
Politically, Wellbeing Economists are therefore trying to convince governments to use other indicators, better suited to the goals of the WE, rather than classic indicators such as GDP, unemployment figures or stock market prices, to help define and verify the true goals of policies made for people and nature. Examples of implementations are the Scottish National Performance Framework or the New Zealand Wellbeing Framework.
A second demand on policymakers is that ministries in governments abandon their silo roles and understand that they can only create a better society in the sense of Wellbeing if they collaborate and cooperate intensively with each other. Many central problems in economy and society are at the same time the task of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Economy, Finance and Environment. Egoism or struggles for budgets within a government are very counterproductive. In a complex interrelated world, problems need to be approach jointly from all perspectives and then joint solutions need to be developed.
Further demands of the WE are:
- Decentralized economies: Instead of relying on huge central production facilities, whose products or services must then be shipped all over the world, local production close to people should be the goal. This applies just as much to energy production (local, sustainable, citizen-driven) as it does to sustainable production or provision of physical products (repair shops, 3D printers, recycling, etc.) and services.
- Plurality of approaches: The WE recognise that the objectives of the WE can be achieved in different ways around the world and that these different ways enrich the concept.
- Democracy and participation: There seems to be a general consensus that a WE can only be enforced if it involves the local people in its emergence and thereby makes them partners and co-shapers of the new economy.
- Experimenting and learning from each other: Wellbeing economies can only develop if we learn from each other – because much of what is not yet understood in one place has already been tried out in another. And we must experiment – because we still have to invent some aspects of how these Wellbeing Economies may function.
- Wellbeing as a social task, not as a private project: One concern of the pioneers of the Wellbeing Economy is that the term “Wellbeing” could be adopted by neoliberalism and made its own. This would turn the concept against itself: Wellbeing would no longer be a political project, but would be interpreted as a task for each individual within the existing system. Mindfulness approaches in start-up companies, yoga retreats and other concepts that try to strengthen the individual in the struggle within the existing destructive version of capitalism can easily be misinterpreted as a wellbeing approach, while they are the exact opposite.