Are we ready to quit playing games with our well-being?
Growth mentality is exploding our planet, so why do we try to keep things as they were?
In theory, the role of a nation is to promote the welfare of its citizens. I know, in practice all around the world that does not seem to be working so well. For instance, if this was true, then why is the main metric we keep track of still the GDP? The metric in question keeps track of economic growth based on total output, and not on happiness or distribution or welfare.
The concept of GDP as we know it was developed in 1934 and adopted as the primary tool for measuring a country’s economy in 1944. At the time, its creator, Simon Kuznets, warned against its use as a measure of welfare, for GDP is an oversimplification, and economic welfare cannot be measured without considering personal distribution of income. Many others have heavily criticized GDP for a diversity of reasons: it does not take into account our impact in the environment, it does not reflect political liberty as we can see in countries like China. The critics not only scrutinized the method but also created alternatives, such as the Human Development Index.
Before we go any further, let me say that I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of a good economic situation to one’s well-being. However, other factors play an essential role in our welfare and happiness. By focusing so much on economic growth we are missing the point about what a society is about, and we reduce ourselves to market players.
The fact that it was developed in the ’30s points out that the market economy as a dominating factor of society is a considerably new phenomenon. It is a human construct, not something that exists naturally, which is good: that means that just as we created it, we can change it.
Our lives revolve around the KPI’s we choose
Key Performance Indicators such as the GDP are tools that support us in prioritizing our efforts. If you want to lose weight you can set your KPI to the amount of weight lost. However, you might end up doing things that are not that good for your health, given that you don’t put the same priority on the nutrition content of the foods you eat. KPI’s ensure we keep focus and don’t get distracted. They shape our mindset. As long as GDP is the main index, what is most important is consumption, investment, and spending, for that is what is taken into the equation. Changing KPIs means changing our frame of reference.
In your personal life, what are the main indicators of your happiness?
The case against economic growth
Here we are, generating 27% more wealth than a decade ago, and with a spurring increase in wealth inequality, in a culture of consumerism and waste. We have never created so much wealth, and yet we still find slavery practices, malnutrition, and illegal deforestation. It doesn’t matter how well off we are in absolute terms there is always more to be made — we can always get a bigger apartment and travel more. It’s never a good time to rethink how we live unless we are forced to by external factors such as losing a job or an economic crisis.
Especially when global warming becomes a serious threat, our relationship with money and wealth becomes vital. It doesn’t matter how green you think you are and how well you mean: if you have a surplus of money, you will spend it. The meeting that Google did to discuss climate breakdown last July where its delegates came in 114 private jets and who knows how many megayachts is a clear example. The Amazon deforestation is a consequence of our economic model, where we expect never-ending economic growth. Endless growth shapes how we think and speak about the natural world, as we reduce it to resources to be exploited. Meat, soy, wood, minerals. Without growth, our current system collapses.
The game of pursuing never-ending economic growth, with almost every nation playing the same game is a considerably recent one, thanks to globalization. A game, for growing more means “we win,” and not growing means “we lose,” compared to what we see in the global leading board. It’s a game we play not only as nations but on our personal lives, as changing jobs for less or the same salary would be considered a stupid move for most. We want life to be a ladder.
So my question is: is the economic growth and GDP game one worth playing? Given that everything is a game aren’t there better games? A more generous game? Can we ask ourselves if economic growth is the best game to make us better people, or a happier, more functional and sustainable society?
Criticisms of the culture of “more, more, more” are far from new. But even though we might know this in our minds, we still have difficulties getting out of the game. First, because we have internalized it in such a way that it is just part of our culture. Understanding something mentally is not enough to change behavior. Second because we care too much about all the others playing the game. We want to belong, we want status, and we don’t want to be losers. We don’t want to play the game, but we want everyone else to stop playing at the same time. Nations don’t change for the same reason we people don’t change: we are scared of being left behind. The only thing stopping us from playing a better game is ourselves. Too bad we are trapped in our own game.
In 2009, the European Commission held the conference “Beyond GDP” from which came a set of indicators to complement the GDP. The most famous intervention was the adoption of the Gross National Happiness in Bhutan in 2008. Already In 1972 had the then King of Buthan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” In 2011, the UN passed a resolution urging nations to follow Buthan, calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.” But now, seven years later, not a single country has followed suit.
Economist Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute published an alternative idea for our current system, one that evaluates economic performance based on the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s ecological ceiling. She called it Doughnut Economics. Alternatives are popping up.
Shifting to another metric doesn’t mean ignoring the economic benefits of reduction in poverty, employment, and dept, as well as the improvement of public systems. The World Happiness Report, first released by the United Nations in 2012 includes not only GDP but also social support, health, corruption, generosity, and freedom. Again: focusing on happiness doesn’t dismiss economic well-being, it just reshifts its place, from being a KPI with a royal seat to being a component of well-being. It brings other metrics, such as corruption and freedom, that were calculated separately before, and shows how they are all part of something bigger, our well-being, our guiding star.
Let's stop avoiding big questions and expand
Going mainly after economic growth also shows another human flaw: one that goes after what is concrete and easy to grasp and avoids more profound questions. When we go after an increase in sales capacity or a new apartment we can picture what we want. But self-realization and happiness? We often merely avoid such questions, not even putting much time in self-reflection.
We keep busy, working, consuming, traveling. We fail both on a personal and on a collective level. Maybe it is a chicken-or-egg kind of question. But not knowing the answer is no excuse for not putting effort into figuring it out. The GDP calculation did not even exist 100 years ago. Then somebody came up with the method that was adopted by all, even though the creator himself alarmed all about its limitations. Today we not only have Buthan’s practical case to learn from but also UN’s Happiness Report to guide us through changing our frame of reference.
We went from foragers to ruralists to feuds to metropolises. We were extremely poor, we discovered agriculture, we didn’t have enough for everyone, we created markets and look at us now. We are bigger than our creations. If society has never changed as fast as it does now, then we also have to adequate our parameters and goals accordingly, to question our culture more often, to update our game, to shift our frame of reference, and reorganize. The main barrier is mental; it is breaking social constructs, mental frameworks, and, of course, dismantling power structures. The system as we have it today is a human invention, and what we invented can be destroyed and transformed. It all begins with a vision of the world we want to live in. In the short term, it is not convenient for all nor efficient. Yet, our energy could be better channelized to create new narratives instead of maintaining that which no longer serves.