The stock market is up, and unemployment is down. Yet, the wealth and income inequalities between the rich and poor are increasing. Which indicators display the well-being of all of us? Is it the country’s GDP (GDP = the total cost of goods and services sold in an economy in a year), the World Happiness survey, or neither? In 2017, US politicians told us that cutting the corporate tax rate would help GDP growth, and we would all benefit.
In 2007, in a press conference, President Bush explained that “charting a new course in Iraq” would “require difficult choices and additional sacrifices.” What we could do to help was to go shopping. Shopping is our patriotic duty, our 21st-century war bonds. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes ends when a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, along with a new breed of economists, maintains that shopping for growth to increase our well-being is a fairy tale.
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, the author goes undercover to find out first-hand if the old adage, “a job is the ticket to a better life,” is true. Barbara moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota. She worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and finally as a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Barbara tried working two jobs to improve her accommodations—instead of dilapidated motels in high crime areas, upgrade to a trailer park. She slept better at night, but her 50 plus energy came up short.
Discussing the plight of service workers with my friend, Becky, I shared what I’d learned from Kate Raworth’s book, The Doughnut Economy, that the stock market performance did not equate to better circumstances for low-paying employees. Becky wondered aloud (paraphrased), “if the well-paying factory jobs are not returning, how will these people’s well-being improve?”
We don’t enhance our well-being — no matter what the advertisers will have us believe — by consuming more stuff. And pumping up growth through buying is contributing to a warming climate. Third world countries need opportunities to grow, while we shift to a focus of thriving (people and Earth) with much less focus on GDP growth. It takes 17 years for health-related information, such as fats contribute to heart disease, to reach most of us, so overcoming our addiction to growth will be tough. In the meantime, a question we could ask ourselves: is time on our side? Can we continue to look the other way or suggest that new technology will save the planet and provide basic needs for all?
Referring to the work of W.W. Rostow, a 1960s economist, Kate explains economic growth with the metaphor of a plane. The plane takes off going higher and higher. Our buy buy buy is the fuel keeping it airborne. Rostow understood that at some point, the plane would run out of fuel. But what is that point? He did not say. Unguided, unaware, and too often, indifferent, pieces of the answer have already arrived on our shorelines, forests, and in the air we breathe.
“The economy has become incredibly degenerative, rapidly destabilizing this delicately balanced planet on which all of our lives depend.” By 2050 when there is more plastic than fish in the ocean, will the convenience of plastic bottles and the inconvenience of carrying a cup for our Starbuck’s tea lose its charm? The carbon footprints of cruise travelers triple and causes serious health issues for the natives eager to sell trinkets to tourists.
What about Becky’s question? How does the economy provide living wages for those at the bottom? And if the GDP is not a reliable indicator of our well-being, what is? We “choose a higher ambition” Kate explains, “a far bigger one, because humanity’s 21st-century challenge is clear: to meet the needs of all people within the means of this extraordinary, unique, living planet so that we and the rest of nature can thrive.” With this goal in mind, she created a “doughnut” economic plan illustrating how all of us can prosper without turning the planet into barren land and oceans into junkyards.
First, instead of a money measure as in one size fits all, several indicators demonstrate progress. On Ted, “…when I sat down to try and draw a picture of what that might look like, strange though this is going to sound, it came out looking like a doughnut.” But this doughnut will be good for us even if we are on Weight Watchers. “That hole in the middle is a place where people are falling short on life’s essentials. They don’t have the food, health care, education, political voice, or housing that every person needs for a life of dignity and opportunity.” The goal is to get everybody out of the hole and into the surrounding doughnut part while being mindful of the ecological ceiling.
The 21st-century economies will be about the rehabilitation of the planet and a more even-stephen approach. Kate explains: “This century, we can design our technologies and institutions to distribute wealth, knowledge, and empowerment to many. Instead of fossil fuel energy and large-scale manufacturing, we’ve got renewable energy networks, digital platforms, and 3D printing. Two hundred years of corporate control of intellectual property is being upended by the bottom-up, open-source, peer-to-peer knowledge commons. And corporations that still pursue maximum rate of return for their shareholders, well they suddenly look rather out of date next to social enterprises that are designed to generate multiple forms of value and share it with those throughout their networks. If we can harness today’s technologies, from AI to blockchain to the Internet of Things to material science, if we can harness these in service of distributive design, we can ensure that health care, education, finance, energy, and political voice reaches and empowers those people who need it most. You see, regenerative and distributive design create extraordinary opportunities for the 21st-century economy.”
Cities around the world are already designing places with people and the Earth in mind. Oslo, the Electric Vehicle Capital of the World, is committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. Its public transport is powered by renewable energy. It’s made improvements in cycling lanes, the ecological environment, and is making rehabilitated streams and rivers accessible to the public. Putting people first is a common trait in progressive communities.
Vancouver, Canada, renowned for green thinking, has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050. Copenhagen, Denmark, the leader in wind power continues to be ranked among the world’s greenest cities, has set its goal for carbon neutral for 2025. Essen, Germany, went from a coal and steel town into one of the greenest cities in the world and will have cut carbon emission by 40% in 2020.
Fort Collins, Colorado, puts people first. The city provides wifi for all residents (paid by residents’ taxes). It treats its homeless with respect and care, offers extraordinary services for seniors, was voted best bicycle city in the US, and has green open space areas (14% of city land areas) with ten minutes of all new homes. In September of 2019, partnering with car companies, residents could purchase a new electric vehicle for 50% off.
It takes political leadership, social innovations, and funding to overcome our short-sighted focus on growth, “so that we can instead focus on thriving and balance within the social and the ecological boundaries of the doughnut.” But it can be done.