Unfortunately, 50 years of environmental policy has not been able to prevent us from now facing more or less impossible tasks. In particular, dangerous climate disruption, dramatically reduced biodiversity and the spread of harmful substances are far from resolved. Can the transition to a wellbeing economy bring about a turnaround?
It’s the Economy, stupid…
For decades it was not recognized that the ever-growing economy is the major driver behind the natural and environmental problems the world is struggling with. What also doesn’t help are the occasional serious policy mistakes, for which we don’t have to go back very far in time. I recall the ill-considered heavily subsidized co-firing of wood in coal-fired power plants, pellet stoves and biomass plants. These are now responsible for enormous emissions of ultra-fine particles and CO2, now even more than from coal firing!
Within the nature and environmental movement there was not much attention for a long time on the negative effects of the liberal growth economy. Economic issues were indeed discussed at the former Dutch National Environmental Consultative Committee (LMO), for example the desired tax shift from labour to energy and raw materials and the ‘polluter pays principle’, but unfortunately the proposals often fell on deaf ears in the political arena. Fortunately, this has changed in recent years. Slowly but surely, everyone seems to be figuring it out: It’s the Economy, stupid… Economic growth does not offer a solution, it is in fact the problem.
Limits to growth
Ever since the publication of the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ report in 1972, a new economy has been sought at home and abroad, as the rapid growth of both the global population and the economy were both seen as the main causes of the damage to nature and the environment.
The magazine De Kleine Aarde (The Small Earth), which also started in 1972, published extensively about new visions of economy over the years, including Ernst Schumacher and his book Small is beautiful, Herman Daly’s Steady State Economy, and also about the work of Roefie Hueting. In 1991 Hueting was awarded ‘The Green Plume’ by De Kleine Aarde for his pioneering work in the economic field. Hueting made calculations at the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) of various forms of damage that you actually should deduct from the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But in the meantime GDP growth continued uninhibited.
Economy of enough
In the meantime, a new economic concept was being developed on many fronts. Prof. Bob Goudzwaard has been called the architect of “The Economics of Enough”. In 1985, together with Harry de Lange, he published the book Enough of Too Much, Enough of Too Little. Willem Hoogendijk too championed for many years in the Earth Foundation a new economy and fulminated in words and writings against profit maximization and the hasty growth compulsion of the current financial system. We still do, by the way. All these critical publications led us at De Kleine Aarde to conclude that if the reckless growth economy did not change, all our work would have been for nothing…
Dashboard with indicators
In 2006 I had the pleasure of presenting the first copy of my Footprint book to Bob Goudzwaard in The Hague, during a conference on new indicators in the Provinciehuis. The Platform Fair and Green Economy emerged from that conference. The already active economy group ‘Voor de Verandering’ (For The Change), with, among others, the Tilburg economist Lou Keune, merged into the Platform, which is still active today. One of the spearheads of this thinking is the criticism of GDP and the plea for the use of a dashboard with more indicators. Many times this has been discussed in The Hague circles, including under pressure from letters, memos and petitions.
Eventually, through a temporary committee of the House of Representatives, the decision was made to use more indicators, so in effect, a dashboard. CBS and the planning agencies then went to work. In 2018, the first Broad Welfare Monitor appeared. This is now published every year in May, followed by a debate in parliament. To feed this debate, the Platform does provide some points of criticism every year. For example, hardly any concrete new policy is being made in response to the Monitor’s finding that our global Footprint is far too large. Others on this planet are short-changed by this and experience great misery as a result. Action is therefore highly necessary.
Internationally, the American Hazel Henderson had been active for many years for a new, sustainable and social economy. Her central theme is also criticism of GDP growth – Gross Domestic Product. She has written many articles and books on the subject. In 2007 she was invited by the European Commission to actively participate in a large conference to launch the European Beyond GDP project in Brussels. Thus began the international search for a set of indicators also within the OECD. The pressure from abroad also helped to get the Netherlands slowly moving. A lot has happened, especially in the last 10 years, not only with new indicators, but also with criticism of the growth economy. An internationally important player in this context is Prof. Mariana Mazzucato, who accuses the capitalist-economic system and also many companies of being purposeless, because their social return is negative. Recently Frank Dietz, working at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), also showed himself receptive to this. In an article in Economisch Statistische Berichten (ESB) he wrote that it is perhaps not so bad that GDP is not growing if we score well on other indicators.
Our household globally
With the growth of liberalism over the last 30 – 40 years, slowly but surely the term ‘economy’ has been narrowed to money, even within economics courses. Many now quickly think when they hear the word ‘economics’ that it is about the pennies. That in itself is dramatic. On the contrary, it should be about very different things. Because economics is about our common household, at home, in the municipality, provincially, nationally and globally. How do we deal sustainably with the available natural capital (energy, land, raw materials, nature), and with our knowledge and skills. Linked to that is the question of whether that interplay is indeed beneficial for all of us and for future generations. That is what it should be all about! In this sense the goal of ‘Sustainable Development’ was already formulated in 1987 in the UN report ‘Our Common Future’.
Wellbeing Economy Alliance
In the meantime, fortunately, many people internationally are now pointing out the negative effects of GDP growth, both socially and environmentally. Notable in 2019 was the clear stance taken in the Global Assessment Report of the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecological Services. This recognized that we need to move towards a different economic system! A powerful global movement for a wellbeing economy has also grown, prioritizing other than GDP growth: the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAII, see weall.org). It is a broad collaboration of more than 200 active economy groups and organizations. It also includes, for example, Kate Raworth of the Doughnut Economy and Christian Felber of the Economy for the Common Good (ECG), as well as organizations such as the Club of Rome, the Global Footprint Network, the New Economics Foundation and Oxfam International. From the Netherlands, 13 organizations are now formal members of WEAll, including Our New Economy, the Platform DSE, the Thrive Institute and Triodosbank. In addition, over 135 Dutch ‘Citizens’ have already become personal members. In a nutshell, WEAll’s shared objective is social justice on a healthy planet.
What is special is that the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) have also joined the alliance. WEGo was started by New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland, perhaps not coincidentally, all three with a female Prime Minister! They was later joined by Finland and Wales. And Canada now wants to become a member. The WEGo countries explicitly prioritize wellbeing issues over GDP growth. Work is now underway on a WEAll-Netherlands hub; see weallnederland.org. This will increase the attention paid to social and ecological issues in our country. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to effectively tackle the major challenges of nature and the environment in time. But the opportunities to do so will undoubtedly increase significantly.
This article was recently published in the magazine ‘Milieu’ of the VVM, the Dutch network of environmental professionals.
Teaser photo credit: The Estates General of the Hague. By Prasenberg at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6092434