Scotland hopes to lead a global transition to become a more equitable, resource-friendly society

Could we replace a world in which good business means being profit-driven and money-oriented with a society that puts people and planet first? Yes we can, argues Glasgow-based author and academic Katherine Trebeck; it's called degrowth 

What is the Wellbeing Economy Alliance?

It brings together organisations and individuals that recognise that we need to transform the economy to have a fighting chance of dealing with the challenges that exist in the world today, that recognise that our economic system is the root cause – not of everything, we’re not unilateralists – but of a hell of a lot of the problems we face.

We call ourselves The Amplifiers – we amplify the work of others. We don’t see ourselves as the experts. We want to roll out the red carpet for our members to dance. We are working to build a knowledge base – the why and the what of economic systems is often hidden behind paywalls, or obtuse academic language.

We’re also working on the stories we tell about the economy, to help ordinary people to understand and get excited about the possibilities, to open the imagination. We hear, so often, that the way things are now is the only way forward.

How should we measure a successful society?

We are taught to measure success based on how quickly a country’s GDP grows compared to others. If a country’s GDP falls for two successive quarters, we call it a crisis; everyone panics.

The micro-equivalent is businesses’ fixation on quarterly profits. So-called economic fundamentals are trained on numeric goals that bear very little resemblance to people’s lives and how they feel and see things are going. There’s this idea that GDP growth automatically benefits education and healthcare. In fact, we have to spend a lot of money fixing the things that the economy has failed.

We’ve known this for decades. Robert Kennedy delivered a poetic critique of GDP back in 1968. But GDP is entrenched in the minds of economists and policymakers as the definitive measure of progress to which everything must bend, whether that’s gender equality or diversity policies.

We need to flip that on its head, to ask what growth we need, for whom and in what circumstances, to deliver social justice and environmental health. Once you reorient policy to that world view, you enable good things to flow from that; decisions about what we tax, what we subsidise, local planning and procurement and education to repurpose our economic decisions.

One example of that is co-operatives, which have been around for centuries, whose goal is less about extracting profit than about sharing the benefits among a community.

How does the 2008 financial crisis support that critique?

An OECD report published last year concluded that the blinkered response to the crisis has worsened financial insecurity for large numbers of people – an inappropriate response that has driven deep-rooted political changes.

Austerity, perceived as the way to get GDP back on track, tended to the needs of the banks above the needs of women, or children, or communities. That helps to explaining the political trends we’re seeing now, around the world. And this comes from the OECD.

How do we change that, to create a fairer, more sustainable economy?

Over the last year, we’ve seen a confluence of science and economics. Scientists have been more robust in warning about the threats that face the environment, and how economic growth is contributing to that breakdown. We see fear on the faces of the young people walking out of school on Fridays. This has raised levels of public awareness in ways we haven’t seen before.

We’re seeing people like David Attenborough start to make links with the way we manage the economy. There are new proposals on the table now – the Green New Deal is one example of that.

Even businesses are starting to change. There’s growing awareness that they must, whether to attract young talent, or to win over the discerning customer, or to lower their risk profiles. The insurance industry is looking at the implications of climate breakdown – what does investing in company X mean, from a risk perspective? And more people are less willing to accept work at odds with their personal values, which can create advocates for change.

What’s been missing from this is government. Which raises questions about the nature of democracy, of short-termism within the electoral process.

Are there examples to show how things might change?

Pockets of good practice are emerging. The Scottish government is leading the Wellbeing Economy Governments Partnership (WEGo). It’s a government initiative based on the view that we cannot quantify success based on how big our GDP is. That in the era of sustainable-development goals (SDGs), we need to look at environmental impacts in the ways that we measure progress.

WEGo includes Scotland, New Zealand and Iceland. It’s still small, but it’s very exciting. We hope it will emerge as an alternative to the G7. Scotland also has exciting circular economy initiatives, through Zero Waste Scotland. The challenge is that ese pockets of good practice are working against the grain of current economic models. They’re still exceptions, not the rule.

How do you challenge the premise that GDP growth equals good?

A lot of civil servants get it. But we have to engage the media. On the day of a new budget, the media should be pressing the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Scottish minister of finance about the impact of the package on mental health, or air quality, or youth employment, or loneliness.

As long as journalists only want to know about the impact on the next quarter’s GDP, we’ll be no further forward. We call it narrow cognitive bandwidth. It’s another reason the Wellbeing Economy Alliance focuses on telling these other stories – it’s about opening a new kind of conversation.

Which projects and initiative are you excited about?

One is the [US-based] Next System Project, which focuses on community wealth building, challenging the notion that wealth creates trickle-down opportunities. Instead, it’s working from the bottom up. In Cleveland, Ohio it is working with hospitals to procure community-based laundry services.

It recognises that ownership matters, promoting community-owned goods and services to keep money circulating locally. That creates a virtuous circle. A similar project has started here, in Ayrshire. It asks questions about how local bodies decide how to spend their money.

Recently, Scottish Enterprise decided to shift how it chooses which businesses to support away from growth potential and towards potential to deliver human rights and decent work and social equality. That’s the shift that comes when we start to repurpose the economy.

Then, there’s the collaborative economy – the rise of car-sharing, tool and toy libraries and community repair shops. These things are small, but point towards a new way of doing business. They are sparking people to think differently – challenging the idea that we need to own so many things. It’s about having access when you need it.

Will greener, more sustainable economies be more local than global?

The Belgian peer-to-peer theorist Michel Bauwens puts it this way: if it’s heavy – a car, a power tool – share it locally. If it’s light – ideas, energy, solidarity – share it globally. That’s a really lovely rule of thumb.

I would hate us to hunker down into small, inward-facing communities. What the world needs now is connection and collaboration. But we can’t expect to eat pineapples flown in from Kenya in January. We definitely need to produce more locally, and to price goods to reflect the costs of carbon from transport, just-in-time delivery and labour. But we also need to address social justice, to avoid passing on the costs to those least able to afford them.

Katherine Trebeck is head of policy at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and senior visiting researcher at the University of Strathclyde. She is the author of The Economics of Arrival – ideas for a grown-up economy, published in January by Bristol University Press. WEAll is a global coalition of international organisations advocating that our economic system is incompatible with the health and wellbeing of people and the planet, and that promote other ways than GDP growth of measuring governments’ success

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