‘Wellbeing’ is a term that has come into frequent use during political and everyday discourse in recent years. It is defined (though not officially) as ‘the state of feeling healthy and happy’ and, if we are to believe our respective governments, it is among their aspirations for their citizens—improved wellbeing, health equity, social and environmental justice and an eventual 2030 utopia. The concept of the wellbeing economy is, of course, not a new one.
In 1970, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fed data into a global computer model. The data comprised of figures for population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output and pollution generation. The result was a prediction that the Earth cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, even with advanced technology. The non-technical report of their findings was published in the form of a Club of Rome-sponsored book entitled The Limits to Growth in 1972. One purpose of the book was to warn of the likely outcome of contemporary economic and industrial policies, with a view to influencing changes towards a sustainable lifestyle.
Around thirty years later, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2001 produced a report, The Well-being of Nations; The Role of Human and Social Capital. Its executive summary stated that it was to explore the role of human capital and social capital and how both relate to overall wellbeing and economic growth. Human capital includes knowledge, skills and attributes such as perseverance. Social capital is described within as ‘taken to include the networks, norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.’ Research is said to link social capital with improved health, greater wellbeing, better care for children, lower crime and improved government.
It was the 2008 financial crisis which led to the focus upon wellbeing as a driver of policy and development, both nationally and locally, according to the World Health Organisation’s paper on Health in the Wellbeing Economy.
As a result, 2010 saw the Office For National Statistics in the UK launch a programme to measure ‘national wellbeing’ and set up a national debate in order to gather views about what matters to people and what influences their wellbeing. Jill Matheson (National Statistician at that time) stated in her report of July 2011, Measuring National Well-being, that this was in response to an invitation by Prime Minister David Cameron. A supplementary paper published by the ONS, entitled Measuring Economic Wellbeing, contained the following:
Since the early 1970s, researchers, national statistical agencies, and international agencies like the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Eurostat, and the United Nations Statistical Division have been working to produce more accurate and comprehensive measures of well-being.
The search was given fresh impetus following the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (CMEPSP) (CMEPSP, 2009). Commissioned by French President Sarkozy and chaired by two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, the commission concluded that, “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.
Essentially, the wellbeing economy debate is all about a shift towards a ‘Beyond GDP’ philosophy, advocated by many organisations and NGOs, notably the World Economic Forum’s series on the subject. Traditionally, Gross Domestic Product has been used to measure the volume of goods and services produced by a nation. One of the reasons for the wide use of GDP by the public and policymakers is that it allows the whole economy to be described by a single number.
In July 2019 a report was presented by the then secretary general of the OECD Jose Angel Gurria to the European Council. Mr Gurria stated that the OECD had been working on the measurement of ‘well-being beyond GDP’ since the 1970s. He defined an economy of wellbeing as a ‘capacity to create a virtuous circle in which citizens’ well-being drives economic prosperity, stability and resilience[,] and vice versa those good macroeconomic outcomes allow to sustain well-being investments over time’. He described a well-being economy as having several key characteristics:
- Expanding opportunities for upward social mobility and for improving people’s lives along the dimensions that matter to them.
- Ensuring these opportunities translate into well-being outcomes for all society, including those at the bottom of the income distribution.
- Reducing inequalities.
- Ensuring environmental and social sustainability.
Mr Gurria went on to state:
Well-being is a shared European value, as recognised by Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union. The EU has a unique opportunity to lead by showing how an economy of well-being can work. Doing so can enhance people’s well-being across the continent, revitalise the European project and highlight the competitive advantage conferred by the European Social Model. Promoting fundamental rights and increasing opportunities for all constitute the heart of an economy of well-being. They are also key for meeting the aspirations of the Core European Treaties, the objectives of the European Pillar of Social Rights and the commitments embedded in the 2030 Agenda.
A few months later, in October 2019, the OECD held a two day international workshop—Putting Well-being Metrics into Policy Action—at the OECD Conference Centre, Paris. The opening address by Mr Gurria mentioned how the OECD had been monitoring wellbeing in member countries for over ten years. He stated that around 40% of the population in OECD countries are ‘economically vulnerable’, meaning that they would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo three months of their income. Curiously, this actually happened several months later, when most of these OECD countries reacted to Covid–19 by enacting containment policies.
It seems that the Wellbeing Economy is inextricably linked with the ‘One Health approach’. Since Covid–19, the United Nations has been advocating this approach (see especially the video in the link) to bring together medical, veterinary and environmental expertise. This is due to a report by UNEP (UN Environmental Programme) and ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute) describing how Covid–19 is part of a growing trend of emerging zoonoses (diseases that jump from animals to humans).
The drivers of this trend supposedly include climate change and an increased demand for meat.
The WHO definition of One Health can be seen here. This appears to fit well with the new Universal Wellbeing Economy Initiative (U-WE) launched by the WHO in July 2022 to put wellbeing ‘at the heart of economic recovery’.
Here in Wales, the devolved Labour government is so altruistic that wellbeing has even been enshrined in legislation—the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015. A supplementary report published in 2019, entitled Wales and the Sustainable Development Goals, highlights the relationship between the UNSDGs and the ‘action we took in Wales to prepare us for Agenda 2030’. Fifty national wellbeing indicators (originally 46) are in place to measure progress towards the seven wellbeing goals of the WoFG Act.
As well as being the first nation in the world to declare a ‘climate emergency’, Wales was also the first to appoint a Future Generations Commissioner, a post hailed by the Guardian as the first ‘minister for the unborn’. Taken together with the Public Health Wales collaboration with the WHO—the International Health Coordination Centre—it certainly feels like Wales is the UK testbed for many of the UN’s policies.
At the end of April 2020, just four weeks into the first ‘lockdown’, Wales joined the Wellbeing Alliance. Jane Hutt, then Deputy Minister and Chief Whip in the Senedd (Welsh Parliament), was very certain that Covid would ‘have a lasting and profound effect on all of us’ and that ‘we cannot go back to business as normal’. It certainly was a very convenient opportunity for Wales to promote its Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, as I have previously written. Not only is the UN advocating a ‘One Health’ approach; so too is the Welsh Government’s chief medical officer, Dr Frank Atherton.
Scotland is also a member of WEAll (the Wellbeing Alliance), and a recent article promoted how business groups are apparently ready to work with the Scottish government towards a wellbeing economy. Indeed, former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was advocating a wellbeing economy just a couple of weeks prior to the ‘pandemic response’.
So, what might be the implications of the systemic shift from the ‘old’ economy model to the wellbeing economy?
The Wellbeing Alliance defines a wellbeing economy as one which serves people and the planet, not the other way around; and this WeAll page demonstrates a comparison between the ‘old way’ and the ‘new way’. It certainly makes interesting reading, peppered with all of the predictable new normal vocabulary—sustainable, justice, community, citizens and so on.
The ‘new way’ includes cohousing: publicly-owned and community-owned hosuing stock mixed with privately owned homes (as opposed to the ‘old way’, which we are told includes homes being uninsulated and energy inefficient and ‘used as investment devices by rentiers’). It also means ‘taxing things we want to discourage’ and being consistent with Article 26 of the UN Charter, which demands disarmament and reduced military expenditures.
A wellbeing economy also includes the circular economy model, and this is something that Wales has taken action on since the pandemic partially ‘necessitated’ it. There is now a ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’ policy to be achieved by 2025 in Wales. Scotland has a Circular Economy (Scotland) Bill currently at Stage 1 in the devolved parliament. In the Welsh Government’s Zero Waste Strategy document, one circular economy model featured includes increasing hiring, lending and leasing.
In a wellbeing economy, how will small and medium enterprises (SMEs) cope if they are unable to reduce their ecological footprint? With 2023 being the worst economic environment in 15 years and future economy trends looming, at least the charity shops of the UK’s high streets will fit the circular economy agenda.
Given that the top five of the ‘Most Polluting Industries 2023’ re the most essential industries—energy, transport, manufacturing & construction, agriculture, and food retail—what changes will be foisted upon us? With clothing retail coming a close sixth, will we be ‘renting’ our clothes from traditional retailers in future?
Jonathan Cylus and Peter Smith suggest in a 2020 paper that paradoxically the wellbeing agenda could lead to reductions in budget allocations for health systems:
It is well understood that health systems are not the only mechanism for improving health. The social determinants of health movement has underlined the importance for health of sectors such as housing, education, environment, employment, and nutrition and given rise to a health in all policies approach to policy making. If credible health related policies can be put in place by these sectors, some health-related aspects of wellbeing may be more effectively served by spending outside the health system, especially if those policies also contribute to wellbeing in dimensions additional to health.
Alarmingly, a Future Markets Consultation report summary calls for a ‘shift in ideas and power’ in the promotion of the wellbeing economy. On the subject of financial institutions, it calls for a ‘coordinated debt jubilee’ and a ‘public payment infrastructure’, giving people an alternative to banks—which, they argue, is a precondition for more diversity in the financial system.
Would this be a digital public infrastructure, by any chance—such as that promoted by the World Economic Forum? Would we receive an opportunity to participate in a debt jubilee in return for an acceptance of said public payment infrastructure?
This year, the European Parliament published a briefing, From Growth to Beyond Growth: Concepts and Challenges. It describes how nations should have economic, social and environmental goals, rather than treating growth as an end in itself. It outlines the various schools of thought on growth—green and inclusive growth, de-growth, post-growth (or a-growth)—and we are introduced here to the increasingly popular model of ‘doughnut economics’.
In essence, the doughnut approach takes the metaphor of a cookie with a hole in the middle, whereby the ring constitutes and ‘safe and just space for humanity’, with an economy functioning in balance. Outside the safe zone is social shortfall and environmental overshoot. The ‘doughnut’ itself is to provide a framework for policy making. There was even a Welsh Doughnut Report in January 2020 and, as Doughnut Economics states:
With a paused economy, time to reflect on our values and a greater appreciation of the connections between human and planetary health, the timing of the Welsh Doughnut 2020 could not have been better.
In Scotland, the University of Glasgow has been working in partnership with Glasgow City Council on a £10.2 million research programme, GALLANT (Glasgow as a Living Lab Accelerating Novel Transformation): Glasgow’s Doughnut, as described by the university’s academics.
Of course, the huge irony is that the ‘reactive’ rather than proactive approach is precisely what is criticised by Wellbeing Economy enthusiasts when they describe the status quo, explaining how we need ‘an economic system that takes a preventative approach to social and environmental challenges’(!) Given the fact that the powerful institutions have for half a century been aware of the potential problems of an exponential population increase and its implications on planetary health, it is a curious anomaly that such ‘detrimental behaviour’ has continued unchecked and that it took a so-called pandemic to implement a doubling down on the wellbeing agenda.
There has been an onslaught of post-‘pandemic’ discussion amongst supranational organisations and governments since 2020. The discussion has pivoted around a whole raft of ‘re-prefixed’ words, with Covid–19 making us reflect, reimagine, re-evaluate and potentially reset our human existence.
It would appear that not only does the WHO wish to micromanage member countries’ response to future pandemics; it also wants to micromanage their economies, supposedly for the greater good. But who will benefit from their control and who will ultimately pay the price? Will life, liberty or property ownership suffer, or will all three decline, under this deceptive influence? The wellbeing economy is certainly a shift away from a liberal democracy and capitalist economy. In its simplest form, it is nothing but a rebranding of communism.
Article image: "A Sustainable Wales | Architecture" (chart keyed to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals), Welsh Government