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Blog by Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir, WEAll Ambassador and Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Iceland

June 2, 2020

A few years ago a  guy called me up in Iceland and asked: “Why do the leftists own the environment?“  My answer was: “They do not but they have taken environmental issues to the forefront of their politics.  All parties should do that.“ He went on to found the Right Green Party which never took foothold in Icelandic politics.  But it was a step in the right direction.   Healthy environment and sustainability is tantamount for everyone’s wellbeing.

I was party to a similar discussion in an international WhatsApp group recently:  “Why is it that left-wing governments are promoting the wellbeing agenda?  In doing so it will be rejected by those to the right in politics.“

My response was: “In Iceland there is a broad political base behind the new wellbeing policy which has a focus on prosperity and quality of life and is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development goals.“

Our Prime Minister is from the Left Green Movement, but her coalition government encompasses the whole political spectrum – with the Independence Party (conservative right wing) led by Bjarni Benediktsson who is Minister of Finance and and Economic Affairs, and  the Progressive Party led by Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson and is Minister of Transport and Local Government.

This broad based coalition government agreed the Wellbeing policy agenda in April 2020.  It has 39 wellbeing indicators that are to be collected and followed by Statistics Iceland.  This is very important when considering what may happen in the next election – when the Left Greens may no longer lead the government.  Then the wellbeing agenda is already engrained in policy with civil servants and public institutional support.

What about the other countries in the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership?

In Scotland, the wellbeing economy agenda is being supported and followed by the National Performance Framework (NPF) which was presented to the Scottish Parliament by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon is from the Scottish National Party (SNP) – which is considered to be a centre-left party and wants Scotland to become independent and and have closer ties with Europe and the EU.

Importantly, the NPF was passed unanimously with support from all five political parties in the Scottish Parliament.  Again, with this broad base of support in parliament the wellbeing economy agenda has a chance to survive if the next elections do not return the SNP as the leading party.

In New Zealand, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set the first wellbeing budget world-wide in May 2019 with a central question – how well are our people? The focus is on five priority areas where evidence indicates greatest opportunities to improve the lives of New Zealanders.  The PM´s political party is Labour (left).  Labour is in a coalition government with the New Zealand First Party (right wing) and the Green Party (left wing).  This again, is a broad-based political coalition, giving strength to the wellbeing agenda.

Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand are all members of WEGo – the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership – which is an offspring of WEAll.  A new member has just joined WEGo – Wales.  The First Minister of Wales is Mark Drakeford and he leads the Labour (left wing) government in Wales.  Wales has had the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act since 2015 that has seven wellbeing goals.  Therefore the wellbeing agenda is firmly in Welsh policy – and has been set in law for five years.

The Wellbeing Economy agenda is therefore neither left wing nor right wing.  It is for us all, so that all people and our planet can prosper.  Now that governments across the globe are finding their feet to lead their nations out of the COVOD-19 health and economic crisis – let us remember that pandemics hit us all, wherever we stand in politics. We also know that we cannot go back to business as usual.

In the worlds of professor Frank Snowden, a historian:  “By creating the myth that we could grow our economy exponentially and infinitely, by almost 8 billion people living on earth, excessive travel, environmental pollution, by pushing back nature more and more, we created almost ideal conditions for the coronavirus to emerge, spread and hit us especially hard.“

Let us join hands across political spectrums and make the Wellbeing Economy the new economy for the 21st century.  Would you like to learn more? Then see the WEAll ten principles of Building Back Better.

WEAll was honoured to be part of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Limits to Growth at the UK Parliament this week.

Chaired by Green MP Caroline Lucas, and convened by the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity, the APPG provides a platform for cross-party dialogue on shared and lasting prosperity in a world of environmental, social and economic limits.

This session was the group’s AGM and it had a special focus on Wellbeing Economics. Professor Tim Jackson, a WEAll Ambassador, had prepared this briefing paper on tackling growth dependency.

The paper sets out a three-fold strategy for moving beyond GDP by: changing the way we measure success; building a consistent policy framework for a ‘wellbeing economy’; and addressing the ‘growth dependency’ of the economy.

In particular, the briefing recommends:

  • a determined effort to develop new measures of societal wellbeing and sustainable prosperity;
  • the full integration of these measures into central and local government decision-making processes;
  • the alignment of regulatory, fiscal and monetary policy with the aims of achieving a sustainable and inclusive wellbeing economy;
  • the establishment of a formal inquiry into reducing the ‘growth dependency’ of the UK economy;
  • the development of a long-term, precautionary ‘post-growth’ strategy for the UK.

A packed room of MPs and peers from all political parties was addressed first by Peter Schmidt, rapporteur to the European Economic and Social Committee’s (EESC) recent ‘own initiative opinion’ on The sustainable economy we need, then by Lisa Hough-Stewart, Communications and Mobilisation lead at WEAll.

Lisa focused her remarks on the need for new economic narratives, and the role of policy makers in helping shape those narratives. Explaining the work of WEAll and its members, she also gave details of the Wellbeing Economy Governments initiative (WEGo) which has Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand collaborating towards their shared goal of promoting economies based on wellbeing.

A robust and positive discussion followed the presentations, with clear interest in wellbeing economy ideas from all attendees and encouraging suggestions for driving the agenda forward at UK level.

Caroline Lucas has raised an Early Day Motion in Parliament in support of the findings on the EESC opinion, and the principles of a wellbeing economy. It is garnering support with more MPs across the political spectrum – you can view the motion here, and if you live in the UK, share it with your MP asking them to support it.

This article was first published by New Statesman

By Sarah McKinley, Democracy Collaborative

Against a backdrop of Brexit uncertainties, Labour members this week launched a grassroots campaign urging the party to adopt a Green New Deal. Their campaign calls for an economic stimulus programme to decarbonise the economy, create green jobs in struggling regions and invest in public infrastructure. It was a welcome respite in a week of disaster news.

As one of the Labour group’s organisers told the Guardian newspaper, “climate change is fundamentally about class, because it means chaos for the many while the few profit.” Indeed, the “Green” in Green New Deal can be misleading. This isn’t just an environmental proposal, but one designed to protect peoples’ livelihoods and confront economic inequality.

The only way to address the climate crisis is to fundamentally change our current political economy – something that people including Gus Speth of the Democracy Collaborative have long argued. While partisan political rhetoric pits environmental concerns against economic growth, proposals for a Green New Deal opt instead to secure employment and confront structural inequities.

For those of us who have been working for years on economic and climate justice, it’s exciting to see these proposals capture public imagination and enter mainstream political discourse.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement have championed the Green New Deal in the US, but this set of ideas is by no means new. Since 2007 the UK’s Green New Deal Group has argued for a transition towards a clean energy future that puts job protection and human rights at its centre.

The group, whose members include economist Ann Pettifor, tax campaigner Richard Murphy and the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, first published its Green New Deal proposals in July 2008, months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ten years later, after a decade of austerity and political and social upheavals, it seems the world is finally ready for their ideas.

We cannot talk about climate change as a “long-term” prospect any more: the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change warns that there are less than 12 years left to avert climate disaster. The world’s most vulnerable communities are already bearing the unjust brunt of environmental breakdown—as seen in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-Maria Puerto Rico and, most recently, Cyclone Idai in Africa.

Tackling the climate crisis with the kind of rehashed neoliberal tactics attempted by French President Emmanuel Macron, with his policy of “green taxes”, is a recipe for double disaster. Carbon taxes are both inadequate for addressing environmental breakdown and guaranteed to exacerbate tensions in an increasingly unequal economy. It is time to stop tinkering around the edges and present comprehensive and systemic solutions to the onset climate crisis.

Movements intent on transforming our economy have gained traction in recent years; community wealth building efforts are overhauling local economies on both sides of the Atlantic and broadening ownership of capital and resources. New networks like the Wellbeing Economy Alliance are examining alternatives to our current economic system.  These initiatives articulate a new economic paradigm that confronts inequality and encompasses nature and community, rather than merely focussing on short-term profit and GDP.

To truly address environmental breakdown, we also need wartime-levels of investment and state intervention. If the Green New Deal were to become government policy, it would represent a huge victory for pro-environmental politics and a fusion of economic and environmental justice on a scale unprecedented in Europe. It would commit governments to an economic model that put planet above profit.

Some national governments are taking tentative steps towards a new economic paradigm: New Zealand has unveiled a wellbeing budget, Finland has an Economy of Wellbeing strategy, and Scotland is convening a group of progressive governments through its Wellbeing Economy Governmentsinitiative. Wales has recently introduced a Community Wealth Building Fund, and Labour has created a Community Wealth Building Unit to support towns and cities implementing local solutions.

But electoral cycles (to say nothing of Brexit cliff-edges) do not lend themselves to tackling systemic problems. As the climate strikes of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and other school students have shown, young people are fearful that politicians are ignoring the impending crisis. With eyes firmly fixed on the future of their planet, their protests have magnified government silence.

To confront climate change, we can’t leave it all up to politicians. We need civil society, business, local government, finance and academia to mobilise and collaborate; to cross borders and build regional and international networks and platforms. Gatherings such as the New Economy and Social Innovation (NESI) Global Forum, the World Social Forum of Transformative Economies and Ctrl+Shift in the UK provide a collaborative space to replicate local experiments.

Let’s encourage politicians to champion a just transition to a better future, but let’s not leave it all up to them. To build an economy that is appropriate for life on a finite planet, we need to listen to the young climate strikers and implement their rallying cry.

Sarah McKinley is Director of European Programs at the Democracy Collaborative.

Image: Getty Images