https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Screenshot-2019-08-20-at-14.04.42.png5891036lisahttps://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WEAll-logo-300x119.pnglisa2019-12-09 14:45:522019-12-09 14:45:52Food systems in a wellbeing economy: new talk by Katherine Trebeck
During her recent book tour around Australia, WEAll Knowledge and Policy lead Katherine Trebeck participated in a panel event in Perth.
The discussion was recorded and recently released as a podcast by Perth-based RegenNarration.
The episode – ‘Arriving at a Wellbeing Economy’ – is described as follows:
“Recorded live in conversation with a full room at The Platform in Perth, a few days after the global climate strike and as the UN Climate Action Summit began. This event launched Katherine’s book, as part of a national tour around Australia in collaboration with the New Economy Network Australia.
While everyday economics has assumed all growth is good, the richest countries already have plenty of wealth and resources — they have ‘arrived’. The Economics of Arrival urges us to move from enlarging the economy to improving it, exploring the benefits this could bring for all, and how it can be done.
Importantly in this context, Aboriginal people in this country might well ask when they’ll have the opportunity to ‘arrive’. And with all we continue to learn about the sophistication of Aboriginal culture in Australia throughout millennia, what other narratives of ‘progress’ and development are available for us to share in?
Hot on the heels of the Wellbeing Budget in New Zealand, just the latest in a raft of key developments around the world, we explore how we change systems, stories and measures, to transition to an economy geared towards shared quality of life, rather than sheer quantity of stuff.”
Listen below and check out the original podcast page here.
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WEAll Knowledge and Policy Lead Katherine Trebeck features in the latest episode of Policy Forum Pod, created by the Asia and Pacific Policy Society. She discusses the need for a wellbeing economy, her latest book ‘The Economics of Arrival’ (co-authored with Jeremy Williams), and what could be done differently by governments and society as a whole to deliver good lives.
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Arrival is the idea that sparked our book and gives it its title: The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown Up Economy. But what do we mean by it? What is arrival?
(Besides being a rather good sci-fi film that came out while we were writing the book and drank our Google juice, obviously.)
Arrival is the notion that development has a destination. Growth is a means to an end, and at some point its work is done.
Arrival is about having enough to, in theory, have one’s basic needs met, and having all the resources required for a good life. To use a phrase that Jeremy’s grandma regularly said at the end of a good meal, we could describe it as reaching a point of ‘ample sufficiency’ in terms of wealth and resources in the economy as a whole.
In the context of national economies, a country has arrived if it has a high enough wealth and resources to theoretically provide a high quality of life for all its citizens. It has the finances and the materials to ensure everyone has what they need. Whether everyone has a good life in reality is, of course, a matter of access and distribution. Those are questions of politics and institutional design. Having enough resources collectively doesn’t necessarily mean everyone individually has enough. But it could, if a nation chose to make it so.
With that in mind, reaching a point of Arrival doesn’t mean that all problems are solved. We’re not suggesting that there’s a magical threshold where everyone’s needs are automatically provided for. But we can imagine Arrival as a moment when a society has the means for this. Growth has reached a point at which a good life could, theoretically, be universal.
Arrival is therefore a possibility, not a promise.
We’re using a journey metaphor, where rising economic growth and human development take us ever closer to our destination. You could, as in the sub-title of our book in fact, also consider Arrival to be a process of maturing and reaching adulthood, a metaphor captured in the German word for ‘postgrowth’, ausgewachsen. Or a tree reaching its full size, finding its niche among its neighbours, optimized to the rainfall, soil conditions and sunlight in the place where it stands.
This growth towards maturity is present all through nature. What if we extend the principle towards the economy? What does an economy look like when it is all grown up?
That does beg the question of how we know if and when a country has Arrived – and which of the world’s nations might already be there. It also raises the important question of what a country’s priorities should be once arrival is reached (and recognized). That’s something we call ‘making ourselves at home’, and we’ll look at that tomorrow.
Arrival is useful as a concept because it unlocks these kinds of questions. It’s a provocative notion, one that prompts us towards new lines of thinking. And those are positive questions – maturity is to be celebrated. Arrival is a success story. It delivers on the hopes of our ancestors, and promises a less stressful, more secure future for the next generation. But that would require us to recognize it and embrace it, or risk losing the gains so far in the scramble for more.
Let’s ask those questions, and see where they take us next. Welcome to the Arrivals Lounge.
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WEAll’s Katherine Trebeck was a guest last week on the Futures of Work podcast, talking about the need to build a wellbeing economy, and her book The Economics of Arrival (co-authored with Jeremy Williams).
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Last week, an enthusiastic crowd in London attended the sold-out event to promote ‘The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown-up economy’ by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams.
Hosted by WEAll members CUSP (the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity) and GEC (Green Economy Coalition), the event attracted academics, civil society professionals, activists, journalists and more, all keen to understand more about the need for economic system change and to engage in the debate about how we get there.
Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams inspired the audience with an overview of the book’s themes and concepts. Williams explained that the concept of ‘Arrival’ is “not a promise but the possibility of having enough.” The authors argue that for many countries, there are now diminishing returns to growth and that they ought now to focus on ‘making themselves at home’ by prioritising human and environmental wellbeing.
Trebeck made the case that our global economic system is manifestly failing to deliver – on poverty, wellbeing, health, environment, and equality. “People feel their lives are out of control. The system isn’t working,” she said.
Sharing examples such as Japan and Costa Rica to demonstrate the potential of alternative economic approaches, and ending with a positive message that economic system change is possible, the speakers certainly got the room talking with this introduction to their work.
Questions and ideas came thick and fast from those in the room who were keen to delve further into the concept of Arrival.
A panel discussion featuring Professor Tim Jackson of CUSP and Irene Gujit of Oxfam GB, as well as Trebeck and Williams, gave an opportunity for more exploration, as the room considered the different applications of the book’s concepts in the global south as well as tangible ways to build a wellbeing economy in the UK.
‘The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown up economy’ is available from Policy Press here.
Watch a short video summarising the ideas in the book:
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The last century has seen unprecedented economic and social progress for many people in many parts in the world. In light of climate change, and social and economic instability, the challenge is now to make ourselves at home with this wealth, to ensure, in the interests of equality, that everyone is included.
By KATHERINE TREBECK and JEREMY WILLIAMS
In 1890 the political economist Jean Charles de Sismondi published Nouveaux Principes d’Economie Politique. It was a powerful work of humanitarian protest against an economy that saw wealth accumulation as an end in itself. Wondering if economic expansion looms too large in the political imagination is by no means a new idea, and in the 130 odd years since de Sismondi wrote about it, the problem has only become more acute.
Financial wealth can be a major tool in human development and emancipation. The 20th century saw decades of steady growth in the industrialised world, and unprecedented economic and social progress along with it. Between the economic collapse of 1929 through to the late 1970s, growth was accompanied by policies to close the gap between rich and poor. It was a time of economic equalisation, as union rights expanded and workers enjoyed a greater share of the wealth through their wages. Women entered the workforce in large numbers, reducing gender inequality. Levels of education rose, improving job quality and raising wages for low skilled workers. Progressive tax regimes were implemented, and social welfare programmes expanded. While poverty and hardship have not been eliminated altogether in industrial economies, many people are richer, healthier and better cared for today than previous generations could ever have imagined.
Having come this far, it is troubling to consider how much of this progress is threatened by climate change, inequality, environmental decline and extreme politics. After all these gains, the next generation may see achievements slipping away. Others, still on the outside of that progress, may find the door closing on them as competition for resources and the mounting damage of climate change begin to erode gains as fast as development can proceed.
Wealthy economies still pursuing growth are like a man in an orchard with an armful of apples, who can’t stoop to pick up any more without dropping what he’s already carrying.
Of course, it’s easy to say that a country has ‘enough’ wealth and resources, but that doesn’t imply that everyone has what they need. Wealth may be distributed very poorly—the richest 10% of households in Britain own more wealth than the first eight deciles put together.
Neither does it feel like an age of prosperity. The number of people on zero hour contracts has quadrupled since the financial crisis, and earnings can feel insecure and precarious. The little victories of consumerism are short lived. Our prized possessions rapidly lose their gloss – the iPad 4 came out just eight months after the iPad 3. We’re always one more purchase away from happiness, the advertisers tell us: just a gym membership short of physical perfection, one insurance policy short of the peace of mind we long for. But satisfaction through consumption is a false promise, and it marginalises those who can’t afford to participate.
De Sismondi argued that the world needed a new set of principles for the political economy, and that remains true today. One of those principles is what we call ‘Arrival’—the possibility that GDP-rich countries can reach a point of maturity where they have enough wealth and resources to provide a good life to all their citizens. Having arrived, they can refocus from quantity to quality, ensuring that everyone is included. We call this ‘making ourselves at home’.
We would argue that many of the world’s richest nations have indeed arrived and could be considered ‘fully grown’. The task now is to pay more attention to distribution and inclusion, pursuing improvement rather than enlargement. This would not be a mythical end of progress, but the beginning of a new chapter. J M Keynes hinted at this when he described a future people who would be free to cultivate ‘the art of life’, once the ‘means of life’ had been secured. With the survival priorities taken care of, they could look to other forms of progress, such as increased leisure time, more participative democracy, or a shift from consumerism to ‘experientialism’.
Despite its historical roots, this remains a provocative idea. The forces acting against such a shift are formidable. Political success is measured in GDP growth. The economy collapses into recession and job losses without it. International institutions ascribe voting rights or places at the table on the basis of economic power. And there’s our own psychology to contend with—there is a human tendency to think of more as better, and growth as good. Keynes warned that it would be hard to adjust.
So did J K Galbraith. “To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man [sic] in his oldest and most grievous misfortune” he wrote. “But to fail to see that we have solved it and fail to proceed hence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”
It would be tragic enough if society failed to notice and appreciate the abundance it already has. But it could be worse. By pursuing the goals of the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st, despite them being ostensibly met, the economic models of developed countries may begin to undo the hard work of previous generations. To abuse that abundance, and in so doing pass on a poorer future to future generations—not to mention the ongoing injustice of so poorly sharing the benefits around the world today—constitutes a huge betrayal of the opportunities and possibilities of today’s world.
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‘A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell about themselves’ wrote Nigerian poet Ben Okri. ‘Sick storytellers can make nations sick’.
Our age seems to be an era of sick stories.
Not just the stories that appear on our TV screens or social media threads, but the deeper stories about how and why things are the way they are. These stories are the terrain in which our imaginations for a better world walk. If they are narrow and flawed, full of blindspots and miscalculations, our ideas for a better world will be narrow and flawed and full of blindspots and miscalculations.
The story of infinite growth on a finite planet is a sick story. So is trickle-down economics, or the rising tide that lifts all boats. Yet these stories pervade much of the public imaginary. They inform the articles of faith held by politicians in capital cities around the world, the policy advice offered to so-called ‘developing countries’ by international agencies, and the metrics that so often rank the success of a country and thus the prowess of its leaders.
These dead-end stories must be countered with another story, a better story.
The story of Arrival
A new story is found in the twin concepts of ‘Arrival’ and ‘making ourselves at home’. Arrival is a recognition that economies do not need to grow forever and ever. That there comes a time when no ‘more’ is needed, enough wealth and resources have been accumulated. From here the benefits of any growth to date start to tail off and pursuit of more and more risks causing harm and damage to people and planet.
Allowing a new story to be imagined would recognize that the benefits of growth are not only beginning to tail off in many respects, but pursuit of ever more growth is often driving more problems that require yet more resources to fix. This is called ‘failure demand’ in social policy terms. It also speaks to the notion of defensive expenditures used in ecological economies and underpins the concept of uneconomic growth in respect to the economy writ large.
The idea of Arrival does not imply that all problems are solved. It does not suggest that everything is resolved and everyone has what they need. It is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this.
Addressing such inequalities is a story of distribution, and that makes it a story of politics.
Blindness to the downsides of growth has consequences at planetary scale. Both non-renewable resources and the earth’s capacity to absorb economic effluent are wearing out. The Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that almost 60% of fish stocks are ‘fully fished’, and land-based wildlife is faring little better. The increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere has gone from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to over 400ppm today. The number of weather-related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years, with climate change shown to be a key factor.
Many in the poorest countries may never reach a point of Arrival, if economies and people in countries that industrialised first leave nothing for them. What a tragedy it would be if, in the rush for more, the fruits of progress rotted before everyone had a chance to enjoy them.
Making ourselves at home
Getting a sense of what making ourselves at home would entail is a matter of listening. There are clear commonalities from different corners of scholarship, religious texts, and more popular songs than one could mention. The answer is also innately within us as human beings. Whenever people are given time and space to reflect or when they are surveyed about what matters most to them, they point to things that are rarely connected to mountains of money. A suite of evidence also tells us that people are not happiest when they are consuming, but when spending time socializing and engaged in meaningful activity. Not when working longer hours to make more money, but when they are in nature, learning, and undertaking fulfilling activities. This is revealed in emerging research in neuroscience, epidemiology, and psychology. Neuroscience, for example, tells us that cooperative behaviour activates the reward areas of the brain, which suggests that human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to enjoy helping others, cooperating, and being kind. In fact, life expectancy; voice; government accountability; climate and natural capital are more important than GDP per capita in predicting mean levels of life satisfaction in 79 countries.
Making ourselves at home means allowing humanity to determine economics, rather than the other way around.
An economy that has Arrived and is focused on making itself at home will be one that enables people to build good, healthy lives. Using resources in a smarter, fairer way (rather than wasting or hoarding them) means getting things right for people in the first place, rather than having to constantly repair the damage created by an economy set on growth at all costs. It will not harm people and the environment, and so will avoid having to deliver expensive down-stream intervention to fix the damage caused by the growth-ist economic model. We see it in the cooperative businesses such as John Lewis, whose partners live longer than employees of comparable, but non-coopertive businesses. We get a glimpse of it in initiatives such as the Edinburgh Remakery that is teaching people to repair their gadgets and furniture rather than throwing them away and purchasing more. It can be inspired by enterprises such as Ishack in South Africa which is providing jobs and training while installing micro-energy generation. In politics there are also pioneers of this new agenda: New Zealand is launching a wellbeing budget and Wales has appointed a Future Generations Commissioner
The current regime of late, last minute, downstream intervention which seeks to cure and heal is an approach to progress and development that demands more resources, more effort, more political agreement, and more patience than is really needed. It is an inefficient approach to delivering good lives sustainably. And it is bumpier, has more distractions and diversions and flimsy political bridges to cross than the route economies could be taking.
The alternative is avoiding the collateral damage created by the growth economy in the first place. This can be done by attending to distribution, focusing on how resources are shared and what is done with resources in terms of how they impact the natural world. This means taking a long-term perspective and applying measures and goals that align the purpose of institutions and businesses with the needs of people and planet.
Safer routes home
For those economies that do not yet have the ability to meet the basic needs of their citizens, any reading of the journey of GDP-rich countries reveals a cautionary tale. If development is taken to be a linear and one-size-fits-all process, this risks everyone following in the dirty and alienating footsteps of the GDP-rich nations. But if the world can imagine that other routes to development are possible, then there is no need to follow. Countries that are trying, even if imperfectly, to chart a different course show the ideas are there – just look at Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living and its constititon that talks of vivir bien, Bolivia’s National Development Plan or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.
Instead, the story can be one of ‘leapfrogging’: learning from the failures of GDP-rich nations and bypassing them altogether – for example, building renewable energy, circular economy industries and employee ownership from the start.This means pioneering a better path to Arrival – a gentler path that is more conducive to making oneself at home when the time comes, and one that is less harmful for people and planet along the way. That doesn’t diminish the role of growth – low income countries do need morein order to boost the standard of living of their citizens in a material sense. Like laying the foundations of a house, growth is necessary here, and of course it needs to be good quality and shared well.
Importantly though, for this growth to happen in places and communities where it is needed, GDP-rich countries need to make room – quite literally in an ecological sense. GDP-rich countries shifting towards making themselves at home can facilitate the Arrival of others.
From new stories to system change
Arrival and making ourselves at home fundamentally offer a success story in which fighting for survival could be over if the economy were to engage with a new challenge: building ourselves a lasting home in this place of plenty.
Embracing this story shouldn’t be seen as an easy option – simply dreaming it into being. Aspects of it will be difficult. Shifting gear, from an economy based around pursuit of growth to one making the most of what it already has, will encounter resistance. It will be susceptible to regression and mistakes. It will be an ongoing project. It seeks to transform a system built on an ideology that itself took several decades to emerge. Re-focusing on making ourselves at home represents a deep cultural shift, let alone an economic and political one. The progress narrative runs deep and is constantly reinforced. Mainstream, marketised and corporate conceptions of a good life are currently defined by a capitalist system that defaults to constant expansion. Dominant Western institutions and ideology have come to suggest that this is even inherent in human nature, using a blend of free market doctrine and misappropriated Darwinism. But that is a reductionist philosophy, a modern construct premised on the discredited notion of ‘rational economic man’.
While there are many instances of businesses, projects and policies that show what making ourselves at home entails, going beyond simply tallying up good examples demands tackling the thorny, but ubiquitous question of ‘how?’. Insights come from systems thinking, from political science, from behavioural science, and from movements and change agents themselves. They suggest that with sufficient agitation, amplification and attention a shift to an economy that makes itself at home is not an idealistic dream, but a possible alternative to the current state of affairs.
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Humanity is a long way from where it was 100 years ago. There has been so much good news to report as people have lifted themselves out of poverty and prosperity has spread around the world. Many people are able to live the kinds of lives their grandmothers could only dream of.
But, people are now also beginning to have nightmares about the lives their grandchildren will face.
Material progress has been a mixed blessing, and it has brought profound social, political and environmental problems. A lot of the apparent progress is revealed to be horribly skewed when one looks underneath the headline figures, takes account of distribution, and is a little more ambitious for anything beyond the most minimal of daily incomes.
Some of those challenges are reaching critical turning points – climate change is certainly one such looming catastrophe that is showing its face in unseasonal and record temperatures and more extreme weather patterns. Persistent poverty alongside inequality and its corrosive effect on democracy is another, seen in the widespread disenchantment with political systems and the rise of more extreme politics, born out of a sense that the ‘system’ isn’t working for everyone.
This is a key and unprecedented moment in history. Yes, the last few decades of growth have brought immense benefits, but those gains have been unevenly shared and are at risk of slipping away as the environment and society come under increasing pressure. The fruits of growth are rotting on the vine as economies remain geared to the pursuit of yet more growth.
The answer to this crisis is not to hark back to the past, whether that be a stalled vision of socialism or an imagined simpler time.
Neither is it necessary to imagine some further destination, either a techno- or eco-topia just beyond the horizon, if we simply press down on the accelerator a little further.
Humanity already has what it needs in a materials and wealth sense. ‘Enough’ is impossible to define, but many nations have arrived in a place where they have more than enough to meet basic material needs and secure a good life for all their citizens. The reality is, however, one of a world which is patently terrible at sharing and cherishing those riches.
Writing almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes foresaw a future time of abundance of the sort our world now has. But he also wondered if humans would find it hard to adapt. Survival has been a primary goal since time immemorial. So Keynes was thinking ‘with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man [sic], bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades’.
That insight describes the challenge of today – to avoid squandering this prosperity and to ensure it is shared a lot better than the current regime allows – individuals, societies and economies will have to change their habits. And by habits, think of the questions we ask, the priorities we make, the ways people balance their time, their spending, their energy, the ways businesses price and pay, the policy decisions politicians take, and the overriding purpose of the economy.
Changing these habits and re-configuring the associated processes, assumptions, policies and so on is about getting better at making ourselves at home with what we have, rather than trying to cram in more. Instead of growing more fruit that is unevenly distributed, the invitation is to savour what has already been grown – and to share it better with those who have too little.
In the industrialised world, the great challenge is not to remain competitive (after all, who do we want to lose that competition?), or to increase efficiency or production. The task is to shift gear without derailing, to reimagine progress beyond more of the same – the way so many thinkers, activists, entrepreneurs, and a handful of politicians already are.
There is plenty more to do, infinite opportunities for progress – but what comes next is improvement, not enlargement. The challenge is to make ourselves at home in the world.
By Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams, co-authors of ‘The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown-Up Economy.’
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The launch of new book ‘The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a grown-up economy’ by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams this month provided a great opportunity for WEAll Scotland to engage with the public on how to create a wellbeing economy by putting on launch events in collaboration with Oxfam Scotland.
Sold-out audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh listened to an inspiring talk by the authors on the idea of ‘Arrival’ – the point at which economies can stop focusing on growth and instead focus on how to make ourselves at home in this place of plenty.
The concepts in the book resonated with participants, who were full of questions and ideas. Can Scotland follow in New Zealand’s footsteps and create a wellbeing budget? What can Scottish businesses do right now to contribute to this agenda? From a local councillor, what can councils do to encourage more participation? And, from the youngest participant who was just 9 years old, how can we make sustainable solutions more affordable for everyone?
All these questions and more were discussed in interactive sessions after the talks, with people contributing ideas and solutions for how Scotland can become a ‘grown-up economy’.
As with previous WEAll Scotland events, the diversity of perspectives in the room was very encouraging, with not only politicians, activists and business people taking part but also citizens who are increasingly concerned about the current system and keen to contribute to making change.
As one attendee put it: “I’m just a mum with a normal job, but recently my daughter has helped me realise about inequalities and unfairness and I want to play my part.”
Another, a student at Edinburgh University, said that the event and the connections with people there helped him feel hopeful for the future at a time when it seems like there’s a lot of cause for despair.
‘Arrival’ is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this. Growth has reached a point at which a decent standard of living could, theoretically, be universal – and countries like Scotland could lead the way. This week’s events certainly helped the WEAll Scotland team feel like this is not only possible, but already starting to happen.
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The breakdown of the climate will only be averted by rapid and radical action, but political courage and imagination are blunted blocked by narrow definitions of success. In their new book, The Economics of Arrival, Katherine Trebeck of the Rapid Transition Alliance member organisation, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and Jeremy Williams propose a new story:
Countries come in all kinds of political colours and stripes, legacies and histories, with important or marginal roles in global affairs. But whatever their stage of development, their governments (almost) all operate with one central measure of success: economic growth measured by GDP.
If the economy is growing, then the country is doing well, is the assumption. Wealth is increasing, so presumably people are being lifted out of poverty, jobs are being created and citizens are enjoying greater freedom, so the thinking goes.
If only it were so simple. Indeed, if it were, it is likely that many of the challenges facing the world wouldn’t be as acute.
Of course, in lower income countries, growth has a vital role to play. Where people don’t have enough to meet their basic needs, more is obviously necessary. Used well, economic growth can unlock opportunity and build out the infrastructure and services that people need. But is it such a legitimate goal in GDP-rich countries?
Previous generations in Britain would look at envy at our time, when poverty could be eradicated by fairer distribution – by sharing its great wealth better. In a sense Britain has arrived in the place its ancestors hoped for. Yet the central purpose of government remains economic growth, not better sharing of our bounty. Growth was the government’s “number one priority” according to Gordon Brown. David Cameron boasted of a “relentless focus on growth” and Theresa May promised to “drive growth up and down the country”, which makes it sound like a bus.
When growth is universally viewed as positive, expansion goes unchallenged and the downsides are ignored: the business media celebrate a rising housing market despite growing numbers of low earners and younger generations who are priced out. High levels of new car registrations are reported as good news regardless of the implications for traffic, CO2 emissions, air pollution and personal debt. Supermarket firms open new branches and increase their market share, but in GDP metrics no heed is paid to dying town centres or bankrupt farmers.
Most of us would agree that we want thriving town centres, clean air, low congestion, a stable climate, affordable homes and equal opportunities for young people. Some of the solutions to those problems are compatible with growth, and some aren’t. Anything that may result in lower economic growth is off the table.
Take the example of aviation, which should not be expanding in an age of climate change. The trade-off was starkly expressed in the airport town of Luton recently: “I quite take on board the air quality point being made”, said the council leader in a debate about pollution. “But we’re not going to not grow the airport… We’re not going to stop economic growth. It’s not going to stop, is it?”
There’s a striking powerlessness in that statement – ‘it’s not going to stop, is it?’ Like a runaway train or an avalanche.
The unstoppable demands of growth are apparently a given. It’s common wisdom, part of the guiding mythology of our time. But it’s a story, a shorthand way of making sense of the world: the economy will grow, and we will all be better off as the rising tide lifts all boats.
But what if we took growth to its logical conclusion? All growth leads somewhere. Nothing grows forever, but proceeds to maturity. If we prize economic growth, shouldn’t we look forward to a point of ‘arrival’, at which the economy is fully grown?
This Arrival would be something to celebrate. It would be the fulfilment of hopes, and the start of a new purpose. It would defuse the drive for more that slows down genuine solutions. New priorities would emerge beyond growth: inclusion, participation. Industry and business would focus on the resources it already has rather than extracting more, creating a regenerative circular economy. Politics would look to the wellbeing of citizens to measure their success. Having arrived in a place of plenty, nations could now make themselves at home.
To see what this might look like in practice, we can look at cooperative and employee-owned businesses that know that creating good workplaces and decent incomes are as important – or more important – than profits and expansion. We can see cities using participative budgeting or community planning processes to give residents a voice. There are businesses finding new opportunities in sustainable materials. Democratic forms of energy are emerging in the confluence of renewable technologies and community business models. The internet is facilitating a shift from consumerism to ‘experientialism’, and opening up all kinds of spaces for shared ownership or exchange. Governments are experimenting with new metrics. From Vivir Bien in Latin America to the traditional notion of ‘Nuka’ in Alaska or the ‘sufficiency economy’ in Thailand, people are drawing on older and more holistic visions of success.
Many of these are isolated examples, and they need to be amplified, scaled up and championed. But there’s no question that all the tools we need for a fairer and more sustainable world are already out there. A transition is possible – and necessary too. Without some sense of Arrival, of enough, the richer countries of the world risk throwing away all the gains so far. Prosperity would be eroded by debt, inequality, climate change and extreme politics. The hard work of previous generations would be wasted, leaving a poorer future for those who come after us. And that would indeed be a tragedy.
https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/adventure-blur-close-up-346885.jpg13652048lisahttps://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WEAll-logo-300x119.pnglisa2019-01-28 16:49:522020-10-02 16:20:44New economic stories are needed to unblock the political embrace of rapid transition – by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams for Rapid Transition Alliance
In 1890 the political economist Jean Charles de Sismondi – whose work has been described as a humanitarian protest against the dominant orthodoxy of his time – published Nouveaux Principes d’Economie Politique. This was a powerful and poetic rage against an economy focused too much on wealth and its accumulation as an end in itself.
Rather than heeding his warning, that misplaced focus has become all the more acute.
Of course, monetary wealth can be helpful when used thoughtfully. The last century saw unprecedented economic and social progress. From the economic crash of 1929 to the 1970s, the industrialised world enjoyed a sustained period of economic equalisation as the gap between rich and poor declined. Union rights expanded, and gender inequality fell as women stepped into new roles in society and the economy. Workers enjoyed a higher share of the global economic pie via increased labour share. Education raised skill levels, boosting job quality and remuneration. The tax system became more progressive, and a lot of the revenue was spent on social welfare. Many people in many places are richer and better educated than ever before and can look forward to longer lives.
Looking at this progress, what would surely alarm de Sismondi is that so many aspects are now threatened by climate change, inequality, extremist politics, and environmental degradation. Having achieved so much, the next generation may see achievements begin to slip away. Others, who can only dream of the living standards of the rich world, find themselves shut out as competition for resources and the consequences of climate change erode economic gains as fast as development can proceed. In the rush for more, the fruits of progress risk rotting before everyone has had a chance to enjoy them.
De Sismondi would also surely be dismayed at how much of this damage to people and planet is driven by the pursuit of a narrow definition of ‘progress’.
In the rush for more, the fruits of progress risk rotting before everyone has had a chance to enjoy them.
Many countries have more than enough material and monetary resources, but do not operate in a way that appreciates them or shares them very well. Economic inequality is higher than it has been in decades, levels of loneliness and anxiety are rising as trust in each other and in institutions is declining.
In the GDP-rich world we may be living through an age of prosperity, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like it. Life feels insecure and precarious. Small victories are short lived – the iPad 4 came out just eight months after the iPad 3. Advertisers tell us that the route to wellbeing and happiness simple and just one more purchase away. Not only is this a false premise, it is an agenda that marginalises those who, even in GDP-rich countries, cannot afford to participate in consumerism.
Just as de Sismondi thought when he wrote his Nouveaux Principes, today the world needs a new set of principles for the political economy. GDP-rich countries need to recognise that they have more than enough wealth and resources but are poor in terms of efforts to share and cherish them.
So they have arrived in the sense of having sufficient material foundations for a good life and the priority now is to make themselves at home – a very different task from that of pursuing more and more without regard to quality or distribution.
The forces acting against such a shift in gear are enormous – political success is so often measured in GDP growth and the structure of the economy itself is designed around it: in current configurations, crisis ensues without growth. Even in our minds there are barriers: the cognitive bandwidth that shapes how people think about the economy and the expectations they have of themselves have become saturated with a sense that more always equates to better.
John Maynard Keynes warned that survival has been a primary goal since time immemorial, and so adapting to a new context of prosperity is a big readjustment. Like Keynes, JK Galbraith saw an end to the ‘economic problem’ and that in its place a new challenge was emerging, but:
“To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man [sic] in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and fail to proceed hence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”
If in the rush for more society failed to notice the abundance that humanity has created, this would be tragedy enough. But there is a bigger risk. By pursuing the goals of the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st, despite them being ostensibly met, the economic models of developed countries may begin to undo the hard work of previous generations. To abuse that abundance, and pass on a poorer future to future generations – not to mention the ongoing injustice of inequality around the world today – constitutes a huge betrayal of the opportunities and possibilities of today’s world.
https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/The-Economics-of-Arrival_FC.jpg20481309lisahttps://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WEAll-logo-300x119.pnglisa2019-01-22 16:58:212020-10-02 16:20:44Still raging against the economy? – by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams for Open Democracy
Dividing global food production by population andyou get 2,870 kcal per day each – enough to feed everyone with room to spare, but one in nine is undernourished.
Fixing these inequalities will need a better story of shared prosperity, a shared prosperity that is a matter of politics in the sense of how Aristotle described it – the art of living together. This better story is the focus of our new book, The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown-Up Economy.
The inequalities are a product of an economic system that is underpinned by a legitimizing story. It’s a story that pervades much of the public imaginary, telling us that things must be this way, that we are all better off when the rich do well. It informs the articles of faith held by politicians in capital cities around the world, the policy advice offered to so-called ‘developing countries’ by international agencies, and the metrics that so often rank the success of a country and thus the prowess of its leaders.
The art of living together, has, in the past, seen monetary wealth used thoughtfully to deliver unprecedented economic and social progress. From the economic crash of 1929 to the 1970s, the industrialised world enjoyed a sustained period of economic equalisation as the gap between rich and poor declined, even through the tragedies of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Union rights expanded, and gender inequality fell as women stepped into new roles in society and the economy. Workers enjoyed a higher share of the global economic pie via increased labour share. Education raised skill levels, boosting job quality and remuneration (and raising wages for low skilled workers as their labour became more valuable). The tax system became more progressive, and a lot of the revenue was spent on social welfare. Many people in many places are richer and better educated than ever before and can look forward to longer lives in a fairer and more tolerant world.
However, many aspects are now threatened by climate change, inequality, extremist politics, and environmental degradation. Having achieved so much, the next generation may see achievements begin to slip away. Others, who can only dream of the living standards of the rich world, find themselves shut out as competition for resources and the consequences of climate change erode economic gains as fast as development can proceed. The story of progress as economic growth is faltering.
The possibility of Arrival
If humanity is to ensure it can live together into the future, it needs to embrace a new story found in the twin concepts of ‘Arrival’ and ‘making ourselves at home’.
Arrival is a recognition that economies do not need to grow forever and ever; that there comes a time when enough wealth and resources have been accumulated, albeit if still far from being shared sufficiently.
After Arrival the benefits of growth start to tail off and turn negative. Pursuit of more and more risks causing harm and damage to people and planet and requires yet more resources to fix. This is called ‘failure demand’ in social policy terms. It also speaks to the notion of defensive expenditures used in ecological economies and underpins the concept of uneconomic growth in respect to the economy writ large.
A new story is due – one about making ourselves at home.
Making ourselves at home
Describing what “making ourselves at home” entails is, in fact, a matter of listening.
There are clear commonalities from different corners of scholarship, religious texts, and more popular songs than one could mention. The answer is also innately within us as human beings. Whenever people are given time and space to reflect about what matters most to them, they point to things that are rarely connected to mountains of money.
A suite of evidence tells us that people are not happiest when they are consuming, but when spending time socialising and engaged in meaningful activity. Not when working longer hours to make more money, but when they are in nature, learning, and undertaking fulfilling activities. This is revealed in emerging research in neuroscience, epidemiology, and psychology. Neuroscience, for example, tells us that cooperative behaviour activates the reward areas of the brain, which suggests that human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to enjoy helping others, cooperating, and being kind. In fact, life expectancy; voice; government accountability; climate and natural capital are more important than GDP per capita in predicting mean levels of life satisfaction in 79 countries.
An economy that has Arrived, and is focused on making itself at home, will be one that enables people to build good, healthy lives. Using resources in a smarter, fairer way (rather than wasting or hoarding them) means getting things right for people in the first place, rather than having to constantly repair the damage created by an economy set on growth at all costs. It will not harm people and the environment, and so will avoid having to deliver expensive down-stream intervention to fix the damage caused by the growth-ist economic model.
https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/dfc6d9fe-bfd1-4a9c-a7f0-59d227402f2a.jpg7471328lisahttps://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WEAll-logo-300x119.pnglisa2019-01-22 16:55:102020-10-02 16:20:44When humanity determines economics, rather than the other way around – by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams for SDG Transformations Forum
https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Katherine-Trebeck.jpg667667lisahttps://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WEAll-logo-300x119.pnglisa2019-01-18 13:50:182019-02-26 18:54:55Long BBC Radio Scotland interview on wellbeing economy issues
Blog by WEAll’s Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams to mark the launch of their new book “The Economics of Arrival: ideas for a grown up economy” on 15 January 2019. Blog originally published on Policy Press.
As we enter 2019, there is one thing that all the commentators and punters seem to agree on: no one can really predict what will happen as the months unfold.
What form will Brexit take? Will Trump’s trade wars lead to hostility between nations or will he pull off a peace deal with North Korea? What will the gadget be that people flock to? Will 2019 be the year that plastic bags increase to 10p each in the UK and plastic straws become a thing of the past?
“So many of the factors that shape one’s life are determined in realms beyond your control.”
Against these multilayered uncertainties is the uncertainty that the majority of people have been dealing with for some time: so many of the factors that shape one’s life are determined in realms beyond your control. In boardrooms that decide your pay and hours. In algorithms that shape political decisions. In weather that is more extreme due to the pollution and emissions of the richest. In navigating social interactions charged with pressure to look a certain way, own certain things, or even to pose and pout in a certain way.
It is no wonder that more and more people are grasping for something different, whether it is apparently simple solutions offered at the ballot box or stepping outside the mainstream into alternative lifestyles.
This individual searching is mirrored in the economy writ large, which also needs to find a different direction. It needs a new project that recognises that the growth-oriented economy of the 20thcentury has delivered, but that now, many parts of the world are entering a period where growth is bringing a diminishing suite of benefits and often even increasing harm. The institutions and policies that once rendered growth positive (such as progressive taxation, collective provision of health services and education, or labour market arrangements that balanced power more equally between workers and the owners of capital) are being eroded. This is leaving the benefits of growth to be enjoyed by fewer and fewer people. Pursuit of ever more growth is often driving increasing problems that require yet more resources to fix.
“The pursuit of more poses ever greater risk for people and planet – and yet it, the idea of growth, has a stranglehold on our political and economic systems.”
The pursuit of more poses ever greater risk for people and planet – and yet it, the idea of growth, has a stranglehold on our political and economic systems.
It is time for such economies to recognise that they have arrived.
‘Arrival’ is about adequacy, being able to meet basic needs. It is primarily a material notion, a matter of having the resources to deliver a good life.
It confronts the ostensibly forbidden question of whether development has a destination.
Crucially, however, having enough resources collectively does not necessarily mean everyone individually has enough. Arrival does not imply that everything is resolved and everyone has what they need. Rather, it is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this.
“Failure to share the world’s harvest, both within and between countries, is one of the most enduring frustrations and tragedies of our time.”
Failure to share the world’s harvest, both within and between countries, is one of the most enduring frustrations and tragedies of our time. It is the cause of so many of the challenges and uncertainties that people, politicians, businesses and communities are wrestling with as 2019 unfolds.
Perhaps 2019 will be the year in which people recognise that growth has reached a point where a high standard of living could, theoretically, be universal.
Realising that possibility demands a new project – using resources in a smarter, fairer way, rather than wasting or hoarding them; focusing on the quality and distribution of economic activity and material resources. That is the task of ‘making ourselves at home’.
Once the delusion of growth as both an end in itself and the best of all possible means is discarded, discussion can then turn to what sort of economy we can create, to making better use of what has already been accumulated and, perhaps more than anything, ensuring it is fairly distributed.
Many aspects of this ‘grown up’ economy are already in existence – and indeed flourishing. From pro-social businesses to the ‘remakeries’ that are popping up in high streets. From policy makers creating incentives for the circular economy, to the city mayors using participatory budgeting.
Making ourselves at home is an economy in which there is scope for continuous improvement. Science and technology will advance. Human creativity and imagination are boundless. The economy will remain dynamic.
What changes is the ultimate goal. Making ourselves at home is an ethos of qualitative improvement that is a very different system-wide goal to the sometimes meaningless, sometimes harmful, and sometimes unnecessary, pursuit of more.
https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/The-Economics-of-Arrival_FC.jpg20481309lisahttps://wellbeingeconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/WEAll-logo-300x119.pnglisa2019-01-15 15:29:102019-01-22 12:27:10Time to make ourselves at home – The Economics of Arrival launches today