Politics in Britain today is failing to recognise the need for a radical updating of capitalism. At the heart of this is a need for a new macroeconomics with people and planet not wealth and growth as its focus.
Wellbeing economics is a fast moving and game-changing subject, it is at the vanguard of debate about the updating of values, capitalism and macro-economics. It’s where the ecological economics of Professor Herman Daly meets Nobel Laureate welfare economist Amartya Sen’s work and that of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s hedonic psychology and behavioural economics. Similarly, in the UK, Professor Tim Jackson is breaking new ground around Prosperity Without Growth and wellbeing economics and Dr Tom Crompton of WWF, likewise, around values, www.identitycampaigning.org/about/. Senior leaders in business are also active in these exciting debates.
These thinkers are daring to imagine a new future defined not by ‘wealth and growth as prosperity’ but by ‘wellbeing as prosperity’. Language is important here. Growth is a quantitative measure. Our economy has been growing exponentially for far too long and every extra unit of growth comes in lockstep with more throughput of resources. If growth continues at current rates to 2050, in those next 40 odd years we will use more resources than the human race has used since we first evolved. As any examination of peaking will show, we are clearly at the edge of peaking in many of these crucial resources of oil, metals and certainly atmospheric overload of greenhouse gases.
Development, on the other hand, is qualitative in nature. A shift from the language of growth to one of development denotes a shift from a heavy-handed ‘stuff’ based quantitative economics to a far more mature and sustainable economics based on quality. To link the words ‘green’ and ‘growth’ seems odd in this light. Twenty or forty years ago we might have had time to attempt the journey to absolute decoupling. But the scale and urgency of our task shows that we are too late for that. The macroeconomy can grow no more, at least until we discover something akin to a perpetual motion machine. For the sake of the world’s poor this is the morally right view to take. Indeed for the poor world to develop, we in the rich world need to find a reverse gear.
No new economic measures can be ‘comprehensive’ without factoring both the ‘means’ and the ‘ends’. Some think we need to merely look closer at the means: our one and only, damaged planet. But we have also to focus on the ends and develop a sophisticated understanding of what it means for nine billion people to equitably achieve high levels of wellbeing and ‘bounded capabilities for flourishing’.
A wellbeing perspective represents an opportunity to frame things as a ‘yes we can’ rather than a ‘don’t do this don’t do that’ sustainability narrative. Nietzsche taught that human history moves in three stages of Camel, Lion and Child; The Camel just sits there and moans. We did that for four millennia. The Lion says ‘no’. We have said ‘no’ to poverty, plague and ignorance; western politics, since perhaps 1776, has lived as the Lion. Finally, the Child asks ‘To what can we say yes?’ As Professor Seligman says in Flourish, we can all say ‘yes’ to more wellbeing, positive emotions, engagement, better relationships, more meaning and positive accomplishment. We need to frame things in this way and find out how this does not have to cost us the earth.
Yes a Great Transition will be hard and will test the mettle of all of us as well as our leaders. But we’re in a nosedive, and our pilot is asleep at the controls. I’d rather listen to the person with an inconvenient but fact-based new vision than those whose approach is seems merely framed by what is perceived as politically acceptable and convenient.