It has been 50 years since Robert Kennedy gave his memorable speech on the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of prosperity. Kennedy lambasted GDP for including ‘everything.. except that which makes life worthwhile’, and for counting air pollution and the destruction of ancient redwood forests, whilst excluding the health of our children or the quality of their education.
So 50 years on, what progress has been made in improving our measure of prosperity? GDP in its raw form, is still the main tool used for policy advice worldwide. The destruction of redwood forests in Silicon Valley, which have been shown to capture more carbon dioxide that any other type of tree, is still underway. The trees are being cleared to make space for expansive complexes for tech companies, and luxury homes for the people who work at them. While the output of these companies may contribute substantially to GDP, the environmental damage caused by these developments is still not factored in. GDP measures the economic benefits of the coal and oil industries in terms of jobs and output, but leaves out the damage these industries do to the environment. To put this in context, emissions from the US energy industry alone caused $131 billion worth of damage in 2011.
But surely in 50 years we must have come up with a measure that does take such things into account, and that outperforms GDP as an indicator of a truly thriving economy?
There are indeed multiple indicators and measures trying to do just that. The Gross Sustainable Development Product (GSDP) measure takes into consideration the economic impact of environmental and health degradation, the effects of resource depletion and the impact of economic growth on biodiversity as factors that determine a country’s prosperity. Meanwhile the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) measures unpaid work such as housework, parenting and volunteering, changes in leisure time, and even the costs of noise pollution, as well as the other environmental factors mentioned above. Happy City’s Thriving Places Index is a tool that measures how well local authorities in England are doing at creating the conditions for people to prosper, and is a tool that policymakers can use to do even better.
Therefore the question becomes, if these measures are available, why are they not being used more regularly in policymaking to guide our economy towards greater wellbeing for all? The reality is that GDP has such a strong grip over policymaking that decision-makers around the world fail to give these alternatives sufficient weight. At the same time, citizens don’t know enough about these alternatives to demand that their elected representatives take them more seriously. That’s why initiatives such as Happy City also campaign – to build awareness that an alternative economic system is possible, to generate debate and to get people active to demand a better and fairer economy for everyone.
Fifty years after Kennedy’s speech, there are reasons to be positive about the future of wellbeing and prosperity. Check out the new website from Talking Heads frontman David Byrne www.reasonstobecheerful.world, which features fascinating stories highlighting that ‘Hey, there’s actually some positive stuff going on!’ as David himself puts it. Or have a look at Positive News, a media outlet dedicated to providing stories that highlight progress and possibility. And if you’re interested in learning about initiatives that offer solutions to the environmental and social crises of today, give the film Tomorrow a watch.
Finally, don’t forget to have a look at the Thriving Places Index for the full analysis of wellbeing data across the country, and to find out more about how this can be used to make sure that happiness is at the heart of future policy decisions.
Sebastian Wells, Happy City volunteer