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This article was first posted on Open Democracy

A few weeks ago I spoke on a panel at an economics conference alongside an academic who specialises in analysing results from surveys that ask people how they feel. These are the kind of surveys that ask people to rate how happy or anxious they are on a scale of 1-10, which in turn inform the evidence base of ‘subjective self-reported wellbeing’.

The results from these surveys certainly matter, but they do not depict the whole story of how a society is doing. To put it simply, you could report being very happy in an economy that is doing a lot of damage to the environment, becoming more unequal, or failing to ensure everyone has their basic needs met. But that’s another story.

What was interesting (and irksome) was his response to my suggestion that we need a new economic system. A system that does not see nature as simply an input to the production of things and a waste sink at the end of the production processes; but one that enables people to collaborate and build strong communities; that attends to reducing the inequalities that separate people from each other. In response to this, the academic declared that this was “fluffy bunny stuff”, and that I was being naïve.

This was not the first time I have been called naïve. As with this panel, every previous instance has been from a man older than me who seems to pride himself as a defender of the current economic system. The naïve insult is hurled to give the impression that to even think that things might be done differently is daft, and that serious and sensible people do not talk about changing the economic system.

My fellow panellist told the audience that if they “look at the data” they will see that things are fine in the UK, that the welfare state is working well, that people are naturally competitive, and that inequality doesn’t matter.

The problem is that just as only looking at how happy people say they are does not provide the whole picture; by only looking at selected pieces of information, defenders of the status quo effectively turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence against it.

There are many examples of this. For example: data is often subject to the tyranny of averages, as is the case with GDP per capita which masks the extent of inequality. Moreover, looking at headline employment statistics misses that many of those in work are not earning enough to live on and are turning to food banks. And while average subjective self-reported wellbeing in countries like the UK might be relatively high compared to other countries around the world, it misses the growing number of people self-harming or feeling stressed or lonely.

Furthermore, those who say that we are in an era of unprecedented prosperity conveniently disregard the impact that the creation of this ‘prosperity’ has had on the natural world. And even if, when pushed, they recognise that the environment matters, they tend to point to ‘green growth’ or casually say that things are fine due to the potential of decoupling CO2 from GDP growth. But that again ignores other aspects of environmental breakdown, and that decoupling is often achieved by offshoring to other countries – like a child sweeping their toys and books under the bed in order to tell their parents their bedroom is tidy.

As my intellectual hero Maja Gopel says, the burden of proof now sits with those who claim the current economic system is working fine or – perhaps worse – that it is the best we can do.

The defenders of the status quo need to explain why ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ will sufficiently attend to the interlocking crisis: how it will give people a sense of control over their lives; how it will ensure they are optimistic about the prospects of their children; how it will stop the world plunging into dire climate change; how it will bring people together rather than push them apart behind gated communities and twitter bubbles.

Fortunately, those of us working on building a wellbeing economycan do this. We can explain how a new economic system which is geared up around the purpose of human and ecological wellbeing will attend to these questions, and how it will be better for current and future generations. That, of course, doesn’t mean that shifting to such an economy will be easy, it just means the possibility is there.

Returning to that panel.

As an Australian, from a country where rabbits were introduced and did great damage to native flora and fauna, I’m not the biggest fan of bunnies.

But in the context of asking who really is naïve in discussions about the economy and the future of society and the world, then I am proud to be a fluffy bunny.

By Katherine Trebeck, WEAll Knowledge and Policy lead

Image by Joe Brusky, CC BY-NC 2.0

This blog was first published by Open Democracy

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.

Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams are co-authors of The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown-Up Economy, published by Policy Press.