LONDON — For a small but growing network of countries, the world’s go-to metric of economic health is no longer fit for purpose.
Mostly led by women, Finland, Iceland, Scotland, Wales and New Zealand are all members of the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership. The coalition, which is expected to expand in the coming months, aims to transform economies around the world to deliver shared well-being for people and the planet by 2040.
That means abandoning the idea that the percentage change in gross domestic product is a good indicator of progress, and instead reframing economic policy to deliver quality of life for all people in harmony with the environment.
“The need for a new economic model has never been clearer,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told CNBC. “Which I think is why we’re seeing such growing interest in the well-being economy approach, both here in Scotland and around the world.”
Encouraging other policymakers to consider an economic approach centered on well-being, Sturgeon said multiple global crises, such as the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and the cost-of-living crisis, “raise fundamental questions about what we value — and what our economies are actually for.”
“Building a wellbeing economy is a huge challenge for any country, at any time, and the current crises we are facing make it harder — but they also underline why we need to make this transformation as a matter of urgency,” Sturgeon said. “We’ve made progress over the past five years, but we still have much more to do.”
In just the last few months, New Zealand published its first national Wellbeing Report; the European Union recognized the need to shift to a well-being economy; and the World Health Organization launched an initiative that calls for well-being to be at the heart of economic recovery.
Australia, Canada and Costa Rica are among some of the countries to have worked closely with the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership in recent months, and “post-growth” advocates believe it is just a matter of time before more countries embrace the well-being movement. A post-growth society is one that resists the demand for constant economic growth.
‘Building the plane as we fly it’
Dominick Stephens, chief economic advisor at the Treasury in New Zealand, hailed the country’s first well-being report as a “landmark moment,” saying it aims to provide lawmakers with a big-picture view of what life is like in the South Pacific nation.
“We want to look beyond GDP to understand progress, but we don’t have a singular measure of wellbeing — so we need to look across a range of indicators and evidence to understand progress in this broader sense,” Stephens told CNBC.
“This helps us all to understand where New Zealand is doing well, where we are lagging and how wellbeing is experienced differently for different people in our country.”
Among the findings published on Nov. 24, the report highlighted the wide and growing gap between the well-being of older citizens and that of younger citizens, with older citizens faring better on a range of metrics.
The Treasury identified three priority areas in need of improvement: mental health; educational achievement; and housing affordability and quality.
Stephens said that while the report would not be the final word, it’s now up to New Zealanders to decide on the extent to which they are concerned about those issues and the actions needed to address them.
“We do not have a silver bullet in New Zealand on how to do Wellbeing Reporting well,” Stephens said. “Different countries have taken different approaches. We are, in some ways, building the plane as we fly it.”
“More countries trying different approaches to integrating wellbeing analysis into policy means more opportunities for New Zealand, and other countries, to learn from the experiences of others,” he added.
The ‘Limits to Growth’ — 50 years on
The gathering momentum for a transformation of the current economic system comes half a century after the Club of Rome think tank published its groundbreaking “Limits to Growth” report.
The 1972 book warned that the planet’s resources would not be able to support the exponential rates of economic and population growth and would therefore collapse before the end of this century. Broadly speaking — and following a sharp backlash to its dire predictions at the time — the world has gone down the path that the book’s authors predicted it would.
Academics and economists told CNBC that an ultimatum from the world’s top climate scientists about the dangers of exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius of global heating — a critically important temperature threshold beyond which dangerous tipping points become more likely — underscores the need to end an obsession with growth at all costs.
“If they hadn’t realized it 50 years ago that we already needed to shift, I think now is the time because we are confronted with a polycrisis,” Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome think tank, told CNBC via telephone.
The term “polycrisis” refers to crises that occur in multiple global systems and become entangled in such a way that they produce harms greater than those crises would in aggregate.
“Not only is our planet sick from continued growth scenarios, because we have gone way beyond a healthy use of natural resources, but our people are getting increasingly sick, and our young people are making less and less money,” Dixson-Declève said.
When asked whether that means she believes there is no alternative to a well-being strategy, Dixson-Declève replied, “Yes, absolutely. I often say that we need to shift from power, profit and patriarchy to people, planet and prosperity.”
Just how important is GDP?
U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy once said a country’s GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Critics of GDP, which represents the total value of goods and services over a specific time period, argue that the indicator is misleading because it measures “the good, the bad and the ugly” of economic activity and calls it all good.
GDP does not, for instance, take into account unpaid work, nor does it distinguish between economic activity which contributes positively or negatively to the health and well-being of people and the natural environment.
In the U.K., Rishi Sunak said in his first speech as prime minister that his predecessor Liz Truss was not wrong to want to improve economic growth in the country. “It is a noble aim,” Sunak said outside Downing Street on Oct. 25.
Three months earlier, opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said Britain needed three things to fix its broken social contract. “Growth. Growth. And growth.”
“I think it just shows our lack of imagination. We can’t even imagine an economy that is better than growth,” said Katherine Trebeck, co-founder of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a network of academics, businesses and social movements.
“The best we can do is put some nice adjectives in front of growth — sustainable growth, green growth, inclusive growth, shared growth — but we are almost not allowed to entertain the prospect that a growing economy is a 20th-century recipe,” she added.
“High-income nations have got enough in overall terms but there are huge profound inequalities within the richest countries. So, what they need to do is think about how to share and cherish those resources,” Trebeck said.
“I use the phrase that they need to recognize that they’ve arrived. The job of growth has been done and they need to now move to a second project which is about making themselves at home.”
Trebeck described well-being economics as a “picnic blanket term,” which encompasses movements such as “degrowth,” “doughnut” economics or circular and regenerative models rather than an alternative policy.
“I think there is a profound moral obligation [on high-income countries] because they are taking up more than their ecological fair share which is implicitly saying that countries around the world that don’t have enough to meet the basic material needs of their citizens are effectively going to stay there,” Trebeck said.
“It is about really saying how do we live fairly on this one finite planet?”
‘GDP is not a way to measure richness’
The push to look beyond economic growth comes at a time of growing calls to end fossil fuel production worldwide.
“Basically, with a growth commitment, you have a commitment to more energy and material use which then consequently results in environmental impacts — and it makes decarbonization harder,” Julia Steinberger, ecological economist at the University of Lausanne, told CNBC via telephone.
“What you need to do for decarbonization is you need to stop using all fossil fuels and replace energy demand with renewable or low or zero-carbon energy sources and that is harder to do [and] it is going to take longer to do if we have constantly growing energy demand,” Steinberger said. “That’s the climate case for it.”
The South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu last month became the first country to use the U.N.’s annual climate summit to push for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. The European Parliament, the Vatican and WHO have all backed the proposal.
But only a handful of small countries have endorsed the initiative to date, and the fossil fuel industry has typically sought to underline the importance of energy security in the planned transition to renewables.
The burning of fossil fuels — such as coal, oil and gas — is the chief driver of the climate emergency.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also recently joined a chorus of voices calling for GDP to be dropped as the world’s go-to indicator of economic growth, pushing instead for policymakers to shift to a circular economy.
This refers to an economic system that is based on the reuse and repair of materials to extend the life cycle of products for as long as possible and moves away from the world’s current “take, make, throw away” model.
“We need to change course — now — and end our senseless and suicidal war against nature,” Guterres said at a major international environmental meeting in early June.
“We must place true value on the environment and go beyond Gross Domestic Product as a measure of human progress and wellbeing,” Guterres said. “Let us not forget that when we destroy a forest, we are creating GDP. When we overfish, we are creating GDP. GDP is not a way to measure richness in the present situation in the world.”