A lot has been written about the need for dramatic change in the economy and the nature of that change. Examples of how such change manifests in practice ranges from businesses harnessing their commercial viability to deliver social and environmental benefits, to local communities working together to build an economy that delivers for local needs, not those of someone (or something) further afield. Such examples (and many more) constitute a glimpse of the sort of practices that would be prevalent in a wellbeing economy: an economy concertedly designed for meeting the needs of people and planet.
So amidst the increasing number of crises playing out around the world and ploughing down on communities and individuals, there is cause to hope that the changes already showing the way will gain momentum. This hope, tenuous though it may feel at times given the magnitude of change needed and the forces hampering progress, is premised on some deep seated, almost ‘first principle’ dynamics. These align the need and nature of necessary change with realities of how humans and societies best function. They could constitute what might be thought of as the ‘scaffolding’ of a wellbeing economy.
Scaffolding of a wellbeing economy
Economy as subservient to society and nature
Firstly, more and more people are taking on board the reality that the economy is a sub-set of society and both are a subset of nature. First Nations have been embodying this for millennia. Feminists and ecological economists have been saying this for decades. Recently, however, this thinking went somewhat mainstream with a major report on biodiversity, commissioned by the UK Treasury, explicitly describing the nested nature of the economy, society and nature.
The implications of taking this awareness of ‘nested systems’ seriously are considerable and warrant a fundamental rethink about the role of the economy. Even just moving the current depiction of sustainable development away from the idea of three parallel – and thus disconnected pillars – with the economy a goal in its own right, and towards visualizing the economy as nested within society and nature is a profound shift. Understanding the economy as a subset of society and nature opens up a conversation about the economy as something that needs to be designed to meet the needs of people and protect the planet, rather than the other way around, as currently so often seems to be the case.
Secondly, history tells us that it is our collective institutions which tend to deliver most for humankind. The role of publicly funded research and public health systems in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic are just the latest example. Businesses know that the knowledge and skills imparted by education systems shapes their financial performance. Even Jeff Bezos has acknowledged the importance of public infrastructure in his business (albeit to justify his space ventures).
Recognising the vital role of this shared provision is part of the necessary system-wide outlook that transforming the economy requires. It enables different modes of provision – on the basis of need, rather than ability to pay – to be mobilised to ensure everyone has sufficient to live with dignity. Appreciation of the role of collective institutions also means that markets can be appreciated as a possible mechanism, potential useful in a many circumstances and scenarios, but not necessarily something to be ‘unleashed’ in an uncritical, unilateralist way.
Finally, although people differ, there are innate needs common to us all: for competence, autonomy and relatedness (see, for example, here and here). In all societies, when people are given the time to reflect and consider, fulfilment is described as being derived from social activities and from relationships, not from lonely consumerism (see, for example, here and here).
This means the task is less about changing people, but changing the institutions that serve them. It is not about inculcating a new suite of values as is sometimes argued, since people in fact hold far more in common than is realised. Working from this premise actually means that our task is primarily one of ensuring the economy enables those values to be lived and realised, and making sure those fundamental human needs are met. An economy built to meet these common innate human needs will be better for everyone, not just those most visibly struggling with the economy of today.
Securing that scaffolding
Recognising the economy as nested within society and environment; celebrating collective institutions; and aligning with common needs are planks of a scaffolding that can secure the suite of changes and new policies and practices needed for economic system change. The shifts include:
- Changes in how taxes are levied and on what
- Support for a plurality of ownership and governance models in business
- Rural, urban and city planning orientated for people and communities, rather than petrol and consumerism
- Production and consumption systems that are circular and collaborative, and which cherish the natural world rather than blindly extract from it; and so on.
The reality that these planks of the necessary scaffolding are out there, deeply engrained and already quietly proving themselves, gives hope that a better way of doing things is possible. They mean that the changes needed to build a wellbeing economy, one aligned with what people and planet need, are going with the grain of these dynamics.
They also mean barriers to change are political and perceptual, not a case of the ideas themselves being absurd or too-far fetched. Political and perceptual challenges are, of course, significant, but perhaps they too can be unlocked by building conversations that begin with the scaffolding of hope for a wellbeing economy?