Agenda: Working towards an economy that is focused on wellbeing

By Dr Katherine Trebeck
The Herald, 22nd January 2020

I’M on the opposite side of the world from my home, watching it burn.

My friends’ kids in Canberra can’t play outside: the littlest ones don’t understand what is happening as smoke from bushfires continues to envelop their city.

The extent and ferocity of the fires in Australia is unprecedented, but entirely in line with what scientists have warned would happen. As we begin a new decade, watching land, wildlife and homes burn is the loudest wakeup call mother nature could send humanity. The wounds we have inflicted on her are taking an untenable toll.

The fires tell us it is more crucial than ever that we talk about and tackle problems at a systemic level. That means talking about and tackling the very nature of our economic system.

The economy is currently configured in a way that does not account for nature. The way it is measured is almost blind to distribution of resources. And the labour market does not reward the best attributes of people.

These are structures that have been designed – and hence can be designed differently, with a different purpose: that of collective wellbeing.

Here in Scotland – my beloved adopted home – we can be hopeful about the scope to forge a different path. Along with Iceland and New Zealand, Scotland is one of the founding members of the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership.

Speaking about her government’s commitment to this collaboration for economic transformation in a recent TED Talk, Nicola Sturgeon was clear about the limitations of GDP as a measure of progress. She said it “measures the output of all of our work, but it says nothing about the nature of that work…It puts a value…on illegal drug consumption, but not on unpaid care.”

Oxfam has put a value on unpaid care in Scotland this week: £36 billion is missing from the pockets of people in Scotland for unpaid household and care work.

Instead of ignoring the activities that make most difference to our wellbeing, building a wellbeing economy starts with the idea that the economy should serve people and communities, first and foremost.

Care is a fantastic illustration of what would be different if Scotland built a wellbeing economy. Parents would not need to choose between childcare and fulfilling careers. People with additional needs would be looked after – and those looking after them would have enough to live in comfort and dignity.

This week the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland is holding its second large-scale event. The First Minister will address experts and practitioners from across Scotland who are already transforming our economic system.

People like Kirsty and her team in Linwood, with their tireless efforts to put the interests of their community ahead of big business. They are building community facilities that are accessible, designed by the people who live there and that everyone in Linwood can be proud of.

The WEAll conference is entitled the Wealth of Nations 2.0. It reminds us that Scotland’s wealth is not its GDP or profit margins, but its people and its environment. We’ll know that Scotland has a wellbeing economy when that’s what matters most in how we measure our success.

Scotland also has a role to play on the world stage, demonstrating that humanity can determine economics instead of the other way around. The twin global crises of environmental breakdown and inequality (in all its forms) are impacting lives from Canberra to Cambuslang, and bold leadership is more important than ever.

Dr Katherine Trebeck is Policy and Knowledge lead with the Wellbeing Economy Alliance