The Wellbeing Economy

With the Wellbeing Economy petition soon coming to a close, its author, Skylar Sharples, explores how we can move towards a society that supports both the people and the planet.

A sign saying 'One World'

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Skylar Sharples

It has been nearly six months since I submitted the Wellbeing Economy petition to the Government, which means that the deadline is rapidly approaching. I would like to thank everybody who has signed it. 

Our current economic system prioritises GDP growth above all other goals. Not only is this undermining social wellbeing, it’s driving the destruction of our natural life support systems. By contrast, a Wellbeing Economy is one that is designed with the goal of serving the wellbeing of people and the planet first and foremost; in doing so, it delivers social justice on a healthy planet.

As the Wellbeing Economy Alliance explain, this goes beyond just fixing, healing and redistributing. It’s about building a better economic system that gets it right the first time. It’s about actively co-creating, through participatory processes, the better world we envision. It is about changing the way we view, manage and engage with the economy to ensure dignity and fairness, recognising that the ultimate measure of our success is not wealth but wellbeing – now and for generations to come.

Nature is our greatest treasure. People have always valued nature for its beauty, tranquillity, and health-restoring properties, but until recently we have not understood how important nature is for our survival, beyond access to water and food. We have reached a point where the very stability of our living environment is at stake, with soaring temperatures and catastrophic flooding.

Most people will by now be aware of the climate emergency and the need for urgent action to save ourselves and the planet, but many fail to make the link between the causes of climate change and the current economic system, which is driven by the pursuit of profit from endless, unsustainable, growth. Some support the Wellbeing Economy as an alternative in principle, yet still worry that it is not practical or affordable, it is too difficult, and that it will require a major change in our society. 

I believe that none of this is true. Many of the changes needed have been put into practice in many countries and settings, both in the UK and abroad, on small and large scales. In reality, running businesses and services in line with the principles of the Wellbeing Economy works only too well and proves to be very affordable. However, in a Wellbeing Economy, there is less opportunity to make large, quick, profits, which mainly benefit a select few, which is why vested interests continue to promote the idea that an economic system based on the profit motive and endless growth is the only way to run an economy, which they do through powerful lobbying of politicians and governments, bogus grassroots think-tanks and forums, advertising, and so on.

Take, for example, council housing in the UK. This was a huge success story, taking millions out of poverty into safe and secure, quality housing. A large part of the population will never be able to afford to own a home, but living with a long term affordable tenancy can give more security than a barely or unaffordable mortgage. However, ultimately public housing greatly undermined the private rental market, which is why the system was not allowed to continue and we are now returning to Victorian-era homelessness and exploitation.

The NHS seems to have superficially fared better. Neo-liberal economists predicted it would not work, but in fact, it proved to be another massive success story. Once again, under the influence of the powerful private sector, it appears that the NHS is being deliberately underfunded so that an alternative story, of public sector institutions being unworkable and unaffordable, can be told. The question is whether we see healthcare as a commodity to be bought and sold or an essential service to which we all have equal access by right. The NHS is under constant pressure to find savings, frequently being achieved through outsourcing, for example, with hospital transport no longer staffed by NHS employees. Outsourcing usually fails to provide better services at lower cost, but worsens workers lives and as such is an economic and morally bankrupt model.

With adequate investment and the sensible integration of public and private services, the NHS can continue to be a powerful tool for promoting public health and wellbeing, which in the long term will in fact save public money. The situation is much worse in the social care sector, where mass outsourcing has done little to solve problems, but much to line the pockets of wealthy private equity magnates. Is this where the revenue from the increase to National Insurance (a tax) will end up?

Private businesses are essential to the economy and the right to run a business is a basic human right. But in a Wellbeing Economy, there will be a clear distinction between public services, which are run for the common good, and private businesses, run for profit but also for our benefit, providing the goods and services that we need. Businesses require regulation, there is nothing new in this. The focus needs to change to taxing that which is damaging to the environment, such as aviation and meat production. Initiatives such as the Good Business Charter can help us in choosing those businesses that share our values.

If all this makes so much sense, why is this not happening already and why does it seem that we are moving in the opposite direction, towards a more unequal society?

Possibly because, firstly, life is very stressful. People are often so busy dealing with the here and now that they do not have the headspace to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Secondly, humans crave stability and security and in the current economic system, more money means more stability and security. People believe that they have no alternative but to take part in the rat race, even though this is a race to nowhere that generates ill-health for people and the planet.

As I hope I have shown, it is possible for us to come together and create a better society. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to sign the Wellbeing Economy petition and share the link.