The Emergence of the Well-Being Economy
Creating a Life-Affirming Civilization
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in… the art of words.”― Ursula K. Le Guin
“It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” — attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek
Despite sweatshops, ecocide, global food insecurity and systemic poverty, intellectual property wars, monopolization of industries and financial systems, loss of identity and culture in many Western countries to simply that of ‘consumer,’ invasions of sovereign nations for unfettered access to natural resources, assassinations and US-backed coups of democratically elected leaders to enforce US economic interests, cold-blooded murder of labor organizers, and countless other horrors of history driven by an economic and cultural paradigm that emerged in the late 1700s, capitalism is also responsible for many of our greatest triumphs as a species.
Capitalism has given us global communications and supply chains that move information and goods in a truly planetary system of coordinated value creation. Industrial innovations have allowed us to create at scales previously unimaginable, using a rudimentary form of distributed cognition we call ‘markets.’ Particularly when contrasted with other human organizing experiments like Soviet Communism and Feudal societies, capitalism has generated relative freedom of choice for some humans to craft and create their reality without explicit centralized limitations on what they choose to create. While markets are proving to be vastly insufficient at incentivizing collective well-being, capitalism’s incentives do reward certain forms of efficiency and innovation, creating conditions that make it possible for humanity to do more with less under some circumstances. Even as our existing industrial food system poisons our land and bodies and drives hundreds of thousands of farmers to suicide, we can’t help but acknowledge the immediate yet short-sighted necessity and benefit of the Green Revolution’s GMO, petro-chemical pesticide and fertilizer-induced boom in food production that may have saved over one billion human lives.
We can honor these contributions to the evolutionary journey of humanity while simultaneously acknowledging that our current economic paradigm is driving humanity at breakneck speed on a self-terminating trajectory. Excessive consumption, runaway growth, and a lack of systemic incentives to preserve the very ecological functions that make life possible and meaningful, are all tell-tale signs that humanity is in desperate need of a new story, a new socio-economic paradigm, and a new set of guiding principles that will allow us to preserve the immense gains of a global economy without losing the very foundation upon which our global system is built. Returning to ancestral wisdom traditions and worldviews, our own personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal desired experience of being alive, and our emerging scientific understanding of complex living systems, we can begin to identify the principles and protocols of a life-affirming society and economy. This article attempts to outline, through the work of indigenous and community leaders, public intellectuals, and forward thinking global politicians, a new paradigm of social and economic thinking that emerges from the interdependent, mutually informing experiences of well-being at the levels of self, community, ecosystem, and planet. This new paradigm is the Well-Being Economy.
From one perspective, our entire species is currently experiencing a planetary psychedelic trip, psychotic break, or “spiritual emergency.” Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist and early pioneer of psychedelic therapy, suggests that psychedelics act as ‘non-specific amplifiers’ of experience: indiscriminately magnifying the conscious and unconscious patterns embedded in our psyches. And much like psychedelics, COVID-19 has magnified the fragility and instability of our health, food, and economic systems. Most notably, our systems of communication, our capacity for shared meaning and understanding, have been shattered into millions of tribal identities and their corresponding filter bubbles. While it might be easy to assume our own perspective is more true or rational, at a fundamental level our society has moved from a mode of shared meaning through centralized broadcast of information into a completely distributed, chaotic, self-contradicting information ecology, weaponized by big tech platforms that are auctioning our attention and outrage to the highest bidder. Just as a psychedelic trip creates novel, often nonsensical, neural pathways in our brain, new neural pathways in humanity’s collective brain, the internet, are spasming into being, forming clusters of meaning that defy traditional logic and reason. Quoting psychedelic historian Erik Davis, “we’re in a lightly psychedelic state where there’s multiple narratives, multiple possibilities, multiple emotional reactions, that have an excessive, surreal, dreamlike quality even. These polarised political events have revealed that the media as some kind of coherent maintainer of consensus reality is just gone.”
Unmoored from consensus reality and set adrift in a sea of new and terrifying possibilities, humanity is now free to look back at the underlying assumptions of our social and economic reality, previously deemed the only viable choice. With this 2020 vision, we can take an unflinching look at the ways in which our values, tools of measurement, and incentive models have been designed. In the space created by this new awareness, driven by the immediacy of our crumbling systems and the human suffering they generate, and understood through new ways of knowing what is true, good, and beautiful, we have the opportunity to redesign our economy with the well-being of the whole in mind.
Our Crisis of Purpose
Within the paradigm of extractive capitalism, each of us is an isolated, rational actor. Developmental psychology suggests that this mental model of a separate individual is actually an illusion of an adolescent human psychology, itself on its own evolutionary journey into higher order identity and maturity. Our identity frames of the separate individual, consumer, and member of nuclear families are being actively deconstructed by the planetary catalyst of climate change as we realize at scale that our choices impact one another and our individual identities are only possible through the underlying interconnected web of life. Life is teaching us through our changing climate and our interconnected ecological crises that we very literally belong to one another.
While capitalism deserves recognition for the ways in which it has created the very affordances that enable me to reflect upon our evolutionary potential and live a life insulated from the real challenges of growing food, building technology, and sharing information, our socio-economic narrative lacks the most critical component of any good story: purpose. The driving narrative of capitalism is the perpetual increase of efficiency and growth. This narrative fails to take into account the questions of: “efficiency at what cost?” and “growth towards what?” Post-capitalist narratives emerging primarily from the so-called ‘developing world’ call into question the very notion that ‘development’ leads to a higher quality of life and effectively meets the needs of people and the nature upon which people depend. Simon Kuznets, the economist who worked with the US Department of Commerce to define and measure Gross National Product (GNP), a metric based on the cumulative economic output of a nation and a primary indicator economists use to determine the health of an economy, himself noted that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”
Decontextualized from a shared purpose for our economic activities, GNP is a hollow metric that fails to track the actual quality of lived experience of human beings. Combined with capital market deregulation and the resulting extreme inequality of wealth distribution, we’ve seen that “growing the pie,” “raising the tides” and even “redistributing the pie” doesn’t equate with more meaningful, more joyful, more purposeful human experiences.
This hollow narrative of endless growth for its own sake reduces each of us to mechanistic cogs in an ever-refining yet purposeless machine that grinds down the human spirit of poor and wealthy alike, driving an existential meta-crisis that contributes to and catalyzes the crises of depression, addiction, suicide, ecological collapse, public health and chronic disease, information warfare, and tribal nationalism. Defining a new story that provides a shared purpose and sense of meaning for humanity’s existence, and the corresponding social and economic structures that emerge from that story, becomes a moral, ethical, and even spiritual imperative in the face of mass extinction and needless loss of precious life. This new story isn’t an argument for free markets or government regulation, it’s a calling forth of the soul of humanity to evolve from shortsighted, immature competition to shared stewardship of a thriving planet that supports our individual and collective potential.
Discovering what exactly this new story might be and what values and concepts might inform its systems and structures is less a final destination and more of a journey humanity must now take. The failures of modernism’s top-down approach to our political economy reveal the necessity of a plurality of perspectives whose synthesis can provide higher order insight on the complex and inter-subjective question of what it means to live a good life. As such, it would be hypocritical for this author to attempt to provide a definitive answer to this massive planetary question. What we can do, however, is provide an opening, a calling, and an invitation to engage in a multi-perspective inquiry process that can meet the complexity of this vast inquiry into humanity’s purpose and ultimate potential.
Many thinkers, spiritual leaders, and community practitioners have already begun to offer their own answers to this question and have arrived at a very simple yet powerful frame that holds the potential to unite all political philosophies and spiritual traditions. Emerging from the Bhuddist context of Bhutan and the indigenous cosmologies of communities in Ecuador and Bolivia, this frame proposes the purpose of human growth and development as a process of optimizing the quality of human experience in relationship to self, community, society, and nature. Despite the vast differences in cultural and social context between indigenous communities in South America and the remote Bhuddist communities of South Asia, what seems to unite these new and ancient stories is an emphasis on the mutually informing and interconnected levels or scales of well-being that include the well-being of the individual, the well-being of the community, the well-being of the society, and the well-being of nature. These interlocking levels of well-being are all measured differently and each of them raises many vital questions around incentives, enforcement, deployment, and systems design. As the longest standing experiment in actualizing these principles at a national scale, Bhutan has done the most of any nation to outline how this political philosophy grounds into tangible metrics like Gross National Happiness (GNH) and national development strategies targeted to provide essential infrastructure in areas like health and education while maintaining ecological health and cultural resiliency. Well-being and Gross National Happiness are still emerging from the domain of theory into practice, but in exploring the historical and practical contexts of nations already running experiments with these new value systems, metrics, and underlying sense of purpose, we can provide a conceptual basis for further experimentation in other communities and nations. There are endless questions and implications for this shift towards a well-being economy, yet by laying out the metrics and values that might inform the shift, we can begin to take meaningful steps towards an economy that works for all.
Gross National Happiness: Political Philosophy and Unifying Worldview
“Many people have also said that GNH (Gross National Happiness) and Buddhism are inextricably linked… I have disagreed with that. GNH is a political philosophy and Buddhism is a spirituality… I believe that any spirituality is inherently good… and I do believe that all of them can be used as a basis to promote a more wholesome political ideology, a political philosophy such as GNH.” — Tshering Tobgay — Former Prime Minister of Bhutan
The metrics we choose to measure and optimize for reflect what we value. For Bhutan, when faced with the imminent impact of globalization, their beloved King Jigme Singye Wangchuck saw the impending and unavoidable impact that would unfold from engaging in an industrial global economy. He also saw the needs of his people to receive education, health care, and the improvements to quality of life that come through electrical power, communications technologies, and transportation infrastructure. To safeguard his country’s unique cultural heritage and offset the potential harm caused by development for its own sake, he invoked a little-known economic metric, Gross National Happiness (GNH), as his nation’s ultimate yardstick and orienting principle as they opened to international trade and investment. Initially, GNH was broadly defined in four areas: sustainable economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the environment, and good governance, with a sequence of five year plans designed to meet goals in each area. In the decades following the king’s 1986 decree and corresponding five year plan that established GNH, the nation has become a modern parliamentary democracy and GNH has evolved into a sophisticated, ‘warm data,’ feedback process that measures 33 indicators under nine domains (see infographic). Data is collected and analyzed using a robust multidimensional methodology known as Alkire-Foster method.
After running their own experiments with the GNH survey and policy design, Bhutan brought a resolution to the UN General Assembly in 2011, with support from 68 member states, calling for a “holistic approach to development” aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and wellbeing. This was followed in April 2012 by a UN High-Level Meeting on “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” designed to bring world leaders, experts, civil society and spiritual leaders together to develop a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and wellbeing. After decades of internal refinement of this political ideology, Bhutan brought its leadership to the international stage, initiating a critical dialogue that has impacted the development strategies of many other nations and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
International criticism has been levied against the subjective and qualitative nature of measuring happiness, calling into question its validity as a useful metric of progress given how prone individuals are to cognitive bias and self-delusion. To a traditional economist, used to working in terms of balance sheets and purchase power analysis, the experiential approach to this metric may be confronting. And yet, there is ample psychological research that suggests that happiness measures, such as answers to open-ended questions and sociability, relate to biological measures of hormones, brain functioning and observable behaviour (Wood & Boyce, 2017). Furthermore, giving people authority over their own experiences, as opposed to allowing someone else to assert what constitutes a good life, brings a democratisation to the wellbeing agenda.
The structure and design of the GNH survey and strategy point towards a revolutionary political and ethical philosophy, akin to the Buddhist notion of “interbeing,” that connects the well-being of self, community, society, and nature. Connecting questions like “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” and “How would you describe your sense of belonging to your local community?” with questions like “How would you rate the government’s performance in the last twelve months?” and “Do you feel responsible for conserving the natural environment?” — reveals a politics of interconnected thriving that requires each piece of the whole to be healthy and cared for in order for the whole to rise into its fullest potential.
Moving from a fragmented culture of atomized measurements and analysis into a rigorous, holistic and mutually informing framework of well-being is a critical cultural contribution made by the Bhutanese people and government to a world drastically in need of whole systems thinking and a rebirth of our democratic and economic institutions to represent what really matters to humanity. In the space opened by the Bhutanese, a diverse array of similar and additive well-being economy initiatives from South America to Europe have emerged onto the scenes of national and local governments, each informed by its own unique history and a unified commitment to the qualitative experience of being a living human being on planet Earth.
Buen Vivir, Good Living: An Ancient Future Way of Being
“Not only do human beings have rights, but mother earth should have them too. The capitalist system has made the earth belong to human beings. Now it is time to recognize that we belong to the earth.” — Evo Morales, Deposed Bolivian President
South America has arguably born the brunt of some of the most vast ecological, social, and political impact of globalization. From the US-backed coup that deposed the Democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, to the unimaginable destruction of the Amazon Rainforest driven by a global economic system that values a tree more when it’s cut down than for its vital contributions to the very oxygen we breathe, South America has suffered vast loss, violence and destruction in the name of development. The trap of natural resource ‘rent income’, developing a dependency and addiction within the elite business and political class on the money generated from extracting oil, minerals, and trees, makes it difficult for countries to escape the invisible hands of trans-national corporations. Internal conflicts naturally emerge between urban poor and rural indigenous and agriculturalists as urban communities pressure politicians to redistribute the wealth from resource extraction and rural communities fight to preserve their way of life. Relying on the wealth generated by exporting raw materials to buy manufactured goods traps the economic development of these nations from ever crossing the threshold of developing their own national infrastructure or re-investing in the long term well-being of their own people.
Emerging from this sense of neo-liberalism as a trap with “no horizon,” political theorists and civil society leaders from across Latin America have contributed an immense amount of thought and praxis for what a “post-development” or “post-colonial” political economy might be. Amidst the process of reclaiming national sovereignty from trans-national corporations, a reclaiming of indigeneity, indigenous wisdom, and indigenous leadership has emerged in parallel with other socio-political reforms. The first indigenous President of Bolivia, a nation in which 20% of the population identifies as indigenous, Evo Morales was the leader of the country during a Constitutional Assembly, which approved a new constitution. Among many structural reforms, the new constitution emphasized Bolivian sovereignty of natural resources, forbade foreign military bases in the country, and affirmed every Bolivians’ right to water, food, free health care, education, and housing.
Also enshrined in the landmark new constitution’s section devoted to the ethical and moral principles that define the values and objectives of the state is the concept of ‘Vivir Bien.’ The concept is multicultural, referring to a web of distinct yet connected indigenous cultural concepts like: harmonious living, good life, the land without evil, and the path to noble life. These ideas come from different indigenous cultures (Aymara, Guaraní, and Quechua) but all are presented together at the same level, without hierarchies. This constellation of indigenous values and principles are linked to other principles like unity, equality, dignity, freedom, solidarity, reciprocity, social and gender equity, social justice, and responsibility. This multi-cultural plurality of ethical and moral foundations are linked to the economic organization of the State. The Bolivian Constitution introduces an integrative multi-cultural approach to define the objective of its government as increasing quality of life and ensuring the Vivir Bien.
In Ecuador, the concept of Buen Vivir has taken root in a similar constitutional context, with perhaps further reaching implications. While the country struggles with the profound contradiction between Buen Vivir and its massive rainforest oil contracts, Ecuador’s Constitution refers to Buen Vivir as a set of rights, which include the human rights to health, shelter, education, food, environment, and also the rights of Nature. These concepts are drawn directly from the Quechua indigenous people’s concept of sumak kawsay.
The Quechua describe sumak kawsay as a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive. The indigenous wisdom embedded in the concept contributes a complex worldview to the very notion of well-being and its role in society. Eduardo Gudynas, a senior researcher at the Latin American Center on Social Ecology (CLAES) in Montevideo, Uruguay whose academic and political work focuses on the environment and alternatives to development, describes the distinction between well-being in a colonized context versus a post-colonial or de-colonized context: “With buen vivir, the subject of wellbeing is not [about the] individual, but the individual in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation” (Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America). Integrated with the concept of the rights of nature, Ecuador’s constitution emphasizes harmony with the natural living world as an essential part of humanity’s thriving. This powerful shift in perspective constitutes a holistic paradigm shift rather than a shift in economic development strategies alone.
When thinking of how to apply Buen Vivir in production, Gudynas proposes that businesses “use low levels of raw materials and energy, and [which are] orientated towards regional markets. This would imply a certain disconnection of South America as an exporter of primary commodities for the global economy. It also implies extracting only the amount of natural resources that we need to demand in the continent itself.” In terms of education, “Buen vivir wouldn’t design education programmes as forms of investment in human capital, but rather it would design them so that people become more illustrados [enlightened]”. Contrasted against the Western environmental notions of natural capital and bottom-line accounting for the value of Ecosystem Services, Buen Vivir proposes that the rights of nature make owning and extracting from nature an abuse of its rights to exist. “If you put a price on nature, then you’re suggesting an ownership of the planet,” Gudynas argues. “Furthermore, capital is something that is interchangeable between people. But if you destroy the environment, then it’s difficult to rebuild it, which undermines it being interchangeable.”
Late summer of 2015, Ecuador embarked on its most ambitious transition into the Buen Vivir socio-economic model through a project called FLOK Society (which stands for “free, libre, open knowledge” society), a concept taken straight from Ecuador’s five-year strategic plan called the Plan of Good Living, which was first published in 2009. The plan itself provides a path for transitioning away from Ecuador’s extractive, oil-reliant economic model toward one that is based on open and shared knowledge.
Through a collaboration with academics from Ecuador’s post-graduate-focused state school the IAEN, a Quito open-source software company, and Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, a group of international researchers, led by Bauwens, began to outline a vision and policy plan for a radically different Ecuadorian economy, based in shared prosperity, that operates in line with the Buen Vivir worldview and political philosophy. Drawing on the indigenous Quechua traditions of Buen Vivir in Ecuador, Daniel Vazquez, a researcher from IAEN, explains “For us, Sumak Kawsay is a product of Sumak Yachay, which means good knowledge. Shared economic prosperity comes from the sharing of knowledge, effort, and technology. The Plan of Good Living establishes a clear framework for the creation of a peer-to-peer, knowledge-based economy in Ecuador.”
While the project ended prematurely due to internal conflicts between Ecuadorian civil society, business elites, and the presidential administration, in FLOK’s short life it outlined a truly visionary possibility of how our world might be organized. Imagine a patchwork network of off-grid rural agrarian and indigenous communities, each with solar power, 3D printing and micro-manufacturing, access to satellite internet, all running cooperatively owned community enterprises that share knowledge, sustainably harvested materials, and finished products with their surrounding villages. No longer reliant on resource extraction to pay to import manufactured goods, Ecuadorians would be empowered to create their own value-added products using local resources and local collective intelligence. This vision represents a powerful integration of the ancient human technologies of village communities and reciprocal exchange networks with futuristic peer-to-peer information technologies like Holochain and interoperable distributed governance protocols. To Carlos Prieto, director of IAEN, nothingless than a “paradise of knowledge” in Ecuador is needed to “open the necessary political space for designing a set of public policies that will accomplish the political pact underwritten in the Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 [ie Buen Vivir].”
While Bolivia and Ecuador’s conceptual and legal contributions to the field of well-being have been vast and visionary, their implementation has been fraught with challenges and hypocrisy. After failing to convince the international community to pay the Ecuadorian government to keep its Amazonian oil reserves in the ground, in line with the demands of local indigenous communities fighting to preserve the fragile ecosystem, the government has embarked on an extractivist policy against its own promises and plans, disbanded oppositional civil organisations like the Pachamama Foundation, and exerted pressures against critics in the press. According to Bauwens’ after-action report analysis of where the FLOK society project failed, “there is a growing schism between the beautiful and enthusing political programs and principles as expressed in the Constitution and the National Plan, and the actual policies that are often contrary to it, and many of those that believed in these ideas are… losing power and influence. The radical sounding ‘neo-socialist’ language of the government is not matched by structural reforms that go into the direction of anything beyond capitalism. On the contrary, the real policies are essentially redistributionist and actually aim to create better conditions for capitalist development. The poor are less poor, a middle class is being created, but the economic policies do not fundamentally challenge the global political economy. The current direction seems to be towards more adaptation to the demands of the global system. But there is no doubt that the situation of the country and its people has improved.” Similarly, Bolivia has been fraught with internal conflict between civil society, business, and government actors.
These systemic blocks to the success of an otherwise well-designed and transformational project like FLOK highlight the inescapable interconnectedness of the current global economic paradigm and the colossal influence it holds over sovereign nations that attempt to instantiate a new socio-economic order. This failure and the other forms of governmental failures in Bolivia and Ecuador to live up to the intentions of Buen Vivir point to the need for a trans-national alliance that could lead to a planetary culture and implementation of the well-being economy.
Wellbeing Economy Alliance: WE All Deserve a Seat at the table
“This is a call to ensure that everyone is included, that no one is marginalised. ‘Leave no one behind’ implies that it is the system, our collective institutions and their interactions, which does the ‘leaving’ — not that it is those left behind who are to blame. Taking this system-wide viewpoint enables a conversation about the interconnected nature of people’s opportunities and conceptualisations of development, how they interact with the environment, and how shifts in one sphere have consequences in the other.” — Katherine Trebeck, A new economy for all — Katherine Trebeck writes for UN Association
Founded in 2018, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) is a blending of initiatives, building upon the work of organizations and individuals like ASAP (the Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity); L4WB (Leading for Wellbeing); and NESI (New Economy and Social Innovation). With 100 organisational members and over 50 renowned academics in their network, WEAll is attempting to provide the connective tissue between the different elements of a planetary movement for a wellbeing economy.
At the OECD World Economic Forum hosted in South Korea in 2018, New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland together launched the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) Alliance, with Wales joining in 2020. Linking government leaders, each committed to a new form of holistic populism that transcends the left/right divide, Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership (WEGo) is a collaboration of national and regional governments promoting sharing of expertise and transferrable policy practices. The aims are to deepen their understanding and advance their shared ambition of building wellbeing economies. Interestingly, with the exception of Wales, all leaders of these jurisdictions are women. Without creating unnecessary meaning from this phenomenon, it does point to perhaps a third wave feminist approach to inclusion and care within the domain of politics and economics.
Motivated by their participation in the WEGo Alliance, many European nations and local governments are beginning to establish state budgets and metrics that center around human well-being. Most notably, the city of Amsterdam announced that its COVID economic response would be guided by the Donut Economics model, initially proposed by Kate Raworth in her 2012 work with OXFAM. The premise of the donut model, while not explicitly linked to the traditions of Bhutan or South American indigenous cultures, relies on similar interlocking levels of well-being at the scales of the individual, community, and society.
INTERACTIVE DIAGRAM: Doughnut Economics
The model suggests that human economic pursuits must fall within a ‘doughnut’ of the foundational quality of life for all people and the environmental ceiling of what the Earth’s living systems can sustain. Raworth outlines the environmental ceiling as “nine planetary boundaries, as set out by Rockstrom et al, beyond which lie unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems.” The WWF adds that, “these environmental boundaries are set on a planetary scale, which implies we have to respect them collectively”. At the lower boundary of the donut are the twelve dimensions of a social foundation as “derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.” Raworth concludes, “between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive.”
The model emphasizes the need for a “degrowth” process within wealthy nations due to the trans-national impact and exported consequences of high consumption rates. While degrowth might seem like a tremendous loss to citizens of so-called “developed” nations, research shows that “there is… a negative association between a broad array of types of personal wellbeing and high levels of consumption”. And further research, “found that once our basic needs are fulfilled, additional income and consumption growth adds very little to personal and community wellbeing, when compared to non-economic aspects of our lives.” Degrowth in this context doesn’t mean reducing the quality of life for those in so-called “developed countries,” but rather shifting from focusing on the quantity of the economy’s output towards focusing on the quality of the “non-economic aspects of our lives,” i.e. community, health, education, culture, nature, democracy etc.
Eduado Gudyanas, the Uruguayan academic and environmentalist cited in the previous section, has called into question the “western” nature of the donut model and its reformist relationship to so-called “sustainable development” , yet Raworth could also be seen as a bridge between the Bhutanese, Ecuadorian, Bolivian, and European well-being economy strategies, a critical step towards the implementation of a trans-national well-being economy.
Similarly, WEAll has attempted to provide a Western, rational-materialist, scientific, and sociological approach to the well-being economy narrative. Their theory of change calls for collaboration in order to create impact, articulating a form of ‘togetherness above agreement’ that is informed by a shared sense of what a wellbeing economy is.
WEAll agree with aspects of Gudyanas’ critique of the unsustainable, unfair, unstable, and unhappy nature of the ‘neoliberal’; ‘market fundamentalist’; ‘overly financialised’; ‘extractive’; and ‘toxic’ dominant economic model, but they have developed their own framework that draws more on Enlightenment ideals of democratic values and classical Liberalism than it does on traditional spiritual or ecological knowledge. Trebeck describes a wellbeing economy as “a regenerative, collaborative and purposeful economy in service of human and ecological well-being, which aims at meeting the needs of all, rather than the wants of a few.” She defines a thriving society as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
WEAll have proposed the pillars of a well-being economy as
- Dignity: Everyone has enough to live in comfort, safety and happiness
- Nature: A restored and safe natural world for all life
- Connection: A sense of belonging and institutions that serve the common good
- Fairness: Justice in all its dimensions at the heart of economic systems, and the gap between the richest and poorest greatly reduced
- Participation: Citizens are actively engaged in their communities and locally rooted economies,
at the interconnected scales of
- Personal wellbeing –how a person feels about their own life; often thought of as happiness or life satisfaction of having a good quality of life
- Community wellbeing –what we need to live well locally, within our communities. This goes further than aggregating personal wellbeing, bringing in concepts of social capital and democracy and the quality of the local environment.
- Societal well-being –what we need to live well together as a society, now and into the future. This goes further than personal and community wellbeing by asking us to consider inequalities between people and places, and our responsibility to future generations and our natural environment.
Notably, while the model refers to restoring the natural world and the necessity of ecosystemic health for all levels of well-being, it stops short of the cosmological context of “inter-being” or the rights of nature. Still, it provides a useful tool for traditional Western economists and politicians to begin the transition into a well-being economy. Overall, the transitional measures proposed in many European countries have an early approval rating that suggests the potential popularity of macroeconomic shifts that support the well-being of all citizens, particularly in the context of COVID response and economic recovery. Groups from diverse socio-economic and political backgrounds are able to find “alignment beyond agreement” through WEAll’s emphasis on human rights, equality and equity, and personal agency.
Promisingly, WEAll’s work seems to be having an impact in the mainstream worlds of media, academia, and international politics. Between the Gallup World Happiness Poll, OECD’s Better Life Index, and the New Economics Foundation’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing, the world seems to be waking up to the failures of GDP, the urgent necessity for new values and metrics, and the viability of an economy based on collective well-being. With the additional scrutiny of the concept on the international stage, combined with the challenges of implementing policies designed to generate community and societal well-being in places that have become extremely atomized and polarized, important gaps and questions about well-being oriented policies are coming to the surface. These questions include:
- How do we address and reconcile the conflict between a person’s own pursuit of happiness at the potential expense of others’ happiness?
- Is it necessary for some people to be less happy than they otherwise could be, for the good of the whole?
- How might ethnocentric conceptions (the idea that one’s own group is superior) of happiness be used to justify harmful choices that lead to the subjugation of different peoples throughout the world or to environmental degradation?
- How do we account for the effects of our choices that we may not directly see, such as on carbon emissions or on the happiness of future generations?
These unanswered questions point to the challenge and the promise of a world that works for all. Katherine Trebeck’s book, The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown Up Economy, holds a possibility that the answer to the question of capitalism vs. socialism is actually a matter of growing up as a species and arriving at a world in which our collective potential might be realized. We may disagree on how to create that world, but a revolutionary first step in the journey is realizing we have the common interest and responsibility to optimize our civilization for the well-being of all people and nature. Through indexes like Gross National Happiness, constitutional rights of nature and collective well-being, and awareness of our ecological limitations and social imperatives, we have a foundation upon which to test experiments that might hold the possibility of not only preserving life on earth but creating a thriving planet, economy, and society.
“A Trimtab moves directly into the currents that oppose it. It actually uses opposition, adversity, and resistance to accomplish its goal. A Trimtab relies on the forces pressing against it to leverage its power. Using opposition in this way is uncommon yet extremely powerful. A few questions now…How do you engage with opposition? What new possibilities might arise if you shift your mindset to embracing resistance instead of fighting it or ignoring it?” — Val Jon Harris, The Power of “Trimtabs”: What Bucky Fuller Taught Me About Human Greatness
Instead of leaning out of politics and economics as we watch our democracies and global supply chains quiver and quake in the face of systemic collapse, we have the opportunity and responsibility to future generations to lean into the most tragically flawed and vitally important aspects of our civilization and reboot the base code that has shaped them into the crumbling behemoths we experience today. Beneath the chaos, confusion, and violence that many can see unfolding in their streets and communities, there is a vision for a thriving world that has the potential to unite all of humanity around a common purpose: a world in which people and nature are free, healthy, and whole. Perhaps this vision is powerful and moving enough to transcend our partisan, cultural, racial and class divides and invite us to come together as a species to define “what is a good life?” and “how do we ensure a good life for all?”
Instead of worshipping the religion of the all-mighty dollar, choosing a religion of collective well-being might be the most critical choice any human being, policy maker, or social change advocate can make. Religion comes from the latin religare, meaning to bind or to return again. Many human beings have been traumatized by religions that have bound them in ways that didn’t honor their essential worthiness and humanity, and yet a religion that binds us all together around our shared commitment to our own thriving, to each other’s thriving, and to our planet’s thriving invites us on an endless journey of refinement towards building a world that works for all. At this dire moment in human history, such a bold, devotional commitment to our most positive future feels both urgently necessary and ultimately fulfilling. As we each discover our own purpose in service to the whole of humanity and our planet, our lives take on a mythic quality that imbues even the smallest action with a sense of meaning as a critical contribution to something greater than ourselves.
It will truly take all of us, working together, to create an economy that values life as much as our current paradigm seems to value profit. That work begins within each and every one of us as we unwind the ways in which our own sense of worthiness and security has been connected to our productivity within a GDP-centric economy. But as we define what truly matters to us and we begin to organize with others who share those values, the choices we make as individuals, communities, neighborhoods, and bioregions will send ripples across the economy as a whole. As we each take actions that improve our quality of life with an awareness of the quality of life the whole, we take the small yet necessary steps towards a world in which all can thrive.
Our present crises can be the catalyst that drives a renaissance in new civic and religious cultures of wholeness, belonging, and well-being of our world. A world in which all have enough, a world in which we all feel connected to a meaningful purpose greater than ourselves, a world in which our families, communities, and nature are safe and thriving is within reach if we each choose to create it.