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Wellbeing and sustainability: irreconcilable differences?

Modernity’s dominant narrative of material progress– which represents an industrial model of development–gives priority to economic growth and a rising standard of living. It is being increasingly challenged by the alternative narrative of sustainability, which seeks to balance social, environmental and economic priorities and goals to achieve a high, equitable and lasting quality of life.

Better concepts and measures of quality of life and wellbeing make sustainability more achievable.

 Richard Eckersley

The debate about progress and development is converging and merging with that about sustainable development. My analysis of the flaws in equating progress with modernisation, discussed in my previous article, contributes to this debate because it shows the equation counts modernity’s benefits to wellbeing but not all its costs.

Modernity’s dominant narrative of material progress gives priority to economic growth and a rising standard of living. It is being increasingly challenged by the alternative narrative of sustainability, which seeks to balance social, environmental and economic priorities and goals to achieve a high, equitable and lasting quality of life. Material progress represents an outdated, industrial model of development: pump more wealth into one end of the pipeline of progress and more welfare flows out the other.

Sustainable development reflects an ecological model, based on our understanding of complex systems, in which wellbeing results from many entities or factors interacting in often multiple, diffuse and non-linear ways. (Its implications include paying more attention to the quality of economic activity, not just its quantity; and trading off some growth to achieve other, social and environmental benefits.)

One approach to measuring sustainable development is to divide quality-of-life or wellbeing measures by energy use or environmental impacts. The New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index does this, multiplying national life satisfaction by life expectancy and dividing the resulting ‘happy life years’ by a country’s per capita Ecological Footprint. My aim here, however, is to assess the wellbeing side of the equation. Wellbeing measures tend to reinforce the conventional view of progress by suggesting wellbeing is continuing to increase; even indices which include environmental impacts show Western nations performing best on the social and economic measures.

There is often an assumption, explicit or implicit, that there will be a cost to current quality of life in shifting to a sustainable path, as reflected in the title of a recent paper on the topic: ‘Untangling the environmentalist’s paradox: Why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?’. The Happy Planet Index notes the ‘undeniable tension’ between its numerator of happy life years and the denominator of the Ecological Footprint. The Sustainable Society Index no longer aggregates beyond the three dimensions of human, economic and environmental wellbeing because of the negative correlation between human and environmental wellbeing, which it says seem to be on a ‘collision course’.

A 2008 study comparing countries’ Human Development Index scores with their per capita Ecological Footprints shows environmental impacts rise steeply with high development. Only one country (Cuba) of the 93 surveyed met the requirements for both high development (an HDI score of 0.8 or more) and global sustainability (a footprint of less than 1.8 global hectares). Among high-income countries over the previous 25 years, improvements in index scores came with disproportionately larger increases in their footprints, showing a movement away from sustainability. Some lower-income countries, in contrast, achieved higher levels of development without a corresponding increase in their footprints.

My wider perspective on wellbeing helps to resolve this dilemma by highlighting how Western high-consumption lifestyles and the type of economy and culture they reflect and require are not only increasing resource consumption and environmental damage, they are also hostile to health and wellbeing (especially in countries that are already rich). The importance of ‘correcting’, or at least questioning more deeply, the conventional picture of progress and development is underscored by environmental analyses which demonstrate the extent of the environmental costs, the limits they impose on orthodox development, and their potentially catastrophic impact on human health. That most measures of progress, including newer indices, do not reflect this reality – and show, in effect, that we are enjoying a high or improving quality of life even as we move ever closer and faster to an ecological abyss – demonstrates how far we have to go.

This perspective reinforces the message which is becoming clearer from global threats to humanity such as climate change, food, water and energy security, economic collapse, and technological anarchy. This message is that we need to change the myths, worldviews and values by which we define ourselves, our lives, and our goals.

Without this deeper change, we will not close the gulf between the magnitude of the challenges and the scale of our responses. A cultural transformation of this depth is very different from the policy reforms on which our public discussions and political debates focus and which, by and large, our indicators of development track. The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, hailed politically to be an outstanding success, but judged scientifically to be a failure, exemplifies well this ‘reality gap’

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher and writer on progress and wellbeing. This article draws on a longer paper published in 2016in the leading international development journal, Oxford Development Studies. For those with subscription access, it is available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13600818.2016.1166197. An author version is available at: www.richardeckersley.com.au 


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