Ideas about human flourishing and progress are often strongly associated with material consumption. Today, however, this focus on material consumption is questioned in Western societies where belief in these ideas is most strongly rooted. Ideas on the relation between material consumption, economic growth and our wellbeing are shifting.
Why is this happening now? Our push for economic growth has turned out to undermine our quality of life on this planet. This year, humanity's unsustainable resource extraction and consumption have pushed the planet over multiple limits of sustainable human activity, or planetary boundaries as they are referred to, beyond which harm is done to both the planet and human equity. Out of all planetary boundaries mapped out for the first time, six of nine are crossed. While the transgressions of these boundaries are widespread across different regions, certain communities are disproportionately affected and have to face multiple transgressions. These places are often marked by higher population density. This means human but also non-human life-support systems are being undermined by extractivism of our current economic system. There is a need for an integral way to understand how these borders can be safeguarded. Again, not only for the sake of human life, but for non-human life as well, as we are currently facing high rates of human-caused extinctions across species.
Even if the current levels of extraction and consumption maintaining Western lifestyles could be sustained, there is an uneasy feeling that accompanies fantasies of unlimited material growth. To illustrate this unease, while consumption in the Netherlands has increased fivefold since the 1960s, our level of happiness has remained the same. This shows that there is something problematic in quantitatively addressing social challenges. For instance, we are steering on consumption instead of quality of life, on ramping up food production instead of facilitating healthy and accessible nutrition. We also approach environmental problems in a quantitative way: by lowering the CO2 footprint of our consumption instead of focusing on a future livable planet, by planting certain numbers of trees and reducing tons of plastic instead of keeping vital ecosystems and biodiversity intact. In the presence of ubiquitous quantitative, less systematic approaches to social and environmental problems, the longing for a more qualitative, integral view grows.
In this piece we begin with this very question, that is, why do we continue to propagate systems and structures that are ultimately to our detriment? To help answer this question we explore what wellbeing is and how it is traditionally measured – namely in terms of economic growth and GDP.
Wellbeing regrettably suffers from being an overly-familiar term which tends to result in its being neglected or misunderstood. The WHO, for instance, defines wellbeing as “a positive state experienced by individuals and societies. Similar to health, it is a resource for daily life and is determined by social, economic and environmental conditions. “Wellbeing” it continues, “encompasses quality of life and the ability of people and societies to contribute to the world with a sense of meaning and purpose.”
The problem we take with this description is that wellbeing is neither simply the experience of a “positive state” nor is it a resource. To see it as such would not help us in our quest to achieve social and environmental wellbeing. We offer a clarification of the depth of wellbeing both as a philosophical concept and as a new ideal for human activity on a finite planet. We then show how wellbeing is embedded in economic alternatives to the narrow definition of wellbeing in terms of GDP. We then explore the degrowth movement and its, often, implicit invocation of wellbeing.
The concept of wellbeing is not new and yet it seems to be enjoying an unprecedented popularity of late. Economists, world-leaders, and businesses are seemingly in unison in their call for improving the wellbeing of both people and the planet. In this way, wellbeing is doing some heavy lifting. It no longer refers to the standards of the wellness industry as an individualistic pursuit of a balanced lifestyle but rather has become a goal of socio-economic ideals.
Political economist, Allister McGregor, defines wellbeing as “a state of being with others, where human needs are met, where one can act meaningfully to pursue one’s goals, and where one enjoys a satisfactory quality of life.” (McGregor, 2007; Pouw, wellbeing Economics, 2020). As a broader socio-economic goal the premise, simply put, is that seeking wellbeing instead of traditional economic growth can save the habitability of the planet and bring humanity back from the brink of catastrophe.
In light of this, it seems worthwhile exploring what wellbeing is and what it is not. A common misunderstanding is to equate wellbeing with happiness in the subjective sense. Wellbeing is not a psychological state. Wellbeing is not a feeling of well-ness or happiness.
There are two main reasons why wellbeing is not simply an emotional state. The first reason is that happiness, like all emotions, is fleeting. It does not endure over long periods of time; it passes. The second reason is that wellbeing does not preclude being unhappy. Living well is not to live in the absence of negative feelings, rather, it actually requires the acknowledgement of such feelings.
Grief is a good example; it is only resolved through experience. Repressing one’s grief actually leads one away from the path of wellbeing. Therefore, while most definitions of wellbeing focus on the subjective dimension, this rendering tends to miss the intersubjective and embodied elements of the term. To rectify this we elucidate the philosophical origins of wellbeing specifically as human flourishing.
Wellbeing means living a good life in a holistic sense and was first systematically developed by Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics). In doing so, Aristotle makes a crucial distinction behind all human behavior: doing something to achieve a further goal or doing something for the sake of itself, or, means versus ends. For example, spending time with people feels different when there is an obligation to do so versus when we actually want to be in the person’s company. Thus, our motivation for undertaking certain activities can be different. The reason we choose to do something depends on not only the outcome we wish to achieve but our values too. This Aristotlian interpretation informs our definition of wellbeing. Here, we focus on three important consequences for understanding wellbeing today.
First, living well is an activity that is pursued over the course of one’s life. We could say wellbeing is the journey and not the destination, if one is inclined. Wellbeing is achieved and not only passively experienced, it is as much a process as an outcome. Economist Nicky Pouw offers a helpful explanation of the subjective and objective elements of wellbeing as a dynamic concept that is simultaneously an outcome and a process of pursuit of self-preservation, stability and/or improvement that contain both objective and subjective aspects (Pouw, 38-39). Wellbeing is an activity because it is a condition that must be maintained. Our social and economic structures play an enormous role in this maintenance.
Second, a good life is a pluralist achievement. This factor is often lost with the Western emphasis on individualism (Green, 31). This intersubjectivity extends beyond other people to include other living things and even the environment. Pouw, likewise describes wellbeing as a “theory of humans as social beings, as part of nature and as meaning-givers.” (Pouw, 38). Meaning is not something we can give ourselves. It arises out of our engagement with other living and nonliving things. It requires a stable and safe environment. This plurality means that the way we actualize wellbeing is open to interpretation and change; each community, for instance, may have a slightly different idea of what a good life looks like.
Third, wellbeing entails boundaries and precludes excess: it has natural limits. This conception of limits is not to be understood as a negative implementation but as an intrinsic component of a good life. In this way, a proper understanding of wellbeing does not impose limitations externally, but understands boundaries as fundamental to human flourishing. Put otherwise, it is not only the planet that requires a regulative norm but the good life in itself. Too much or too little of something cannot be good because it is either excessive or deficient.
Wellbeing offers a reconceptualization of human needs not simply as necessary resources, contra WHO’s definition, but as dynamic and hence socio-historically conditioned. This means that the way we fulfill our needs change over time. This brings us to a crucial distinction within the philosophy of wellbeing: authentic and inauthentic needs.
Philosopher and social critic, Herbert Marcuse, explains that because human needs are dynamic and interpretable and they are also manipulable (Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensioal Man, 4-5), we can be made to feel that we need things which not only do not help our wellbeing but are detrimental to it. Thus, needs or desires can be thought of as authentic and inauthentic.
Addiction is an example of an inauthentic need because we desire something which is bad for us in the long run. However, inauthentic needs are something we experience everyday. Needing to own a car when other forms of transport are available, having the latest phone when there is nothing wrong with our current one, feeling bad for not meeting the standards of the beauty industry. Examples abound, the point is that it is not only in liminal cases that we act against our own wellbeing but are often conditioned by marketing and socio-economic processes (Hickel, 18). The result is that we believe that having more usually leads to greater happiness and overall wellbeing.
The belief ‘more is better’ is deeply rooted in an inauthentic conception of the good life. We know that constant consumption and wastefulness is neither good for the planet nor for society, and yet the ideology of growth remains both pervasive and enduring. This idea goes beyond the individual pursuit of a good life.
The ideology of growth also helps us make sense of our journey as a species. We have evolved from simple organisms to more complex beings, we have moved from harsher to better conditions, from ignorance to enlightenment; progress, in other words, is built into our very DNA and growth is the medium by which progress is achieved. Economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, calls the idea of constant expansion and growth in order to increase profit and GDP, “Growthism” (Hickel, 19 & 21). This belief jars with a new understanding of the earth and our place in it.
We now know the dangers of overconsumption. We are aware that we live in a materialistic society; greed is, after all, a vice. It is common to the point of mundanity to say that too much of something is bad for you and yet we continue to behave according to the premise that resources are infinite and happiness is a matter of quantity. In other words, to say that excess is bad is not revelatory, yet this ideal is embedded into our cultural consciousness and perpetrated systemically, institutionally, and existentially and as such it is not easily displaced.
To truly change our behavior begins not only with a deeper understanding of wellbeing but we must also embed it in our economic structures in order to support what it really takes to live a good life. The question remains how do we pursue wellbeing as a social and economic goal?
Unsurprisingly, economic disciplines have also been discussing what constitutes economic wellbeing. Welfare is a specific definition of wellbeing determined by the utility level of an individual. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has historically been, and possibly still is, the most commonly used metric for evaluating the economic wellbeing of a country. GDP measures the total value of goods and services produced and exchanged for money within a specific region (e.g., a country) during a specific timeframe (e.g., a quarter). It encompasses private consumption, government spending, investments, and net exports.
While GDP was originally not designed to gauge wellbeing, it has, over the past seven decades, become synonymous with progress, and comparisons of GDP levels between nations have been used as indicators of differences in quality of life. The dissatisfaction with GDP is exacerbated by the focus that economic policy puts on it, equating GDP with wellbeing when making decisions.
While GDP can serve as a useful tool for assessing a country's economic size, it can be deceptive when used to measure a nation's wellbeing or advancement. GDP does partly reflect welfare because one of its primary components is household consumption. From a neoclassical perspective, individuals with fixed preferences can purchase goods and services with a higher level of satisfaction when they have a higher income. Consequently, higher income leads to increased consumption and greater utility.
Nonetheless, GDP falls short in capturing welfare or wellbeing for various reasons. Some of these critiques or factors include its failure to consider income distribution, meaning that an additional euro spent by a wealthy person contributes the same utility increase as one euro spent by a less affluent person. It also does not account for the contributions to wellbeing from non-market transactions (e.g., unpaid caregiving) and non-market labor (e.g., volunteer work). Furthermore, it does not provide information about the sustainability of production levels and overlooks the environmental harm and disruption of ecosystems as costs of economic growth. Lastly, it does not account for social costs. For instance, health costs due to production pollution are not considered in GDP but are treated as externalities.
More profoundly, Feminist Economics and Ecological Economics have raised questions about the importance of economic growth for a country's economic wellbeing. Ecological Economics emphasized that the pursuit of unlimited economic growth is not environmentally feasible, as planetary boundaries cannot accommodate unlimited material growth. Continuous economic growth could ultimately lead to the destruction of the Earth, the ultimate basis for our wellbeing. Feminist Economics studies economics with a gender and intersectional lens; it underlines, among other things, the exploitation of the Global South and of women in the pursuit of growth.
Although GDP growth is not strictly material growth, it is highly correlated with it. Historically, increases in GDP have been associated with higher material usage, increased water consumption, electricity consumption, greater land usage, higher greenhouse gas emissions, increased water pollutants, and biodiversity loss.
Furthermore, any decoupling of GDP growth from resource usage and environmental damage has been observed only in relative terms, temporarily, and within limited geographic areas. In other words, growth outpaces efficiency gains and, in absolute terms, emissions and resource extraction continue to rise.
The aforementioned considerations regarding economic growth prompted the creation of the degrowth movement. Degrowth argues that the Global North needs to decrease the throughput of their economies in order to stay within planetary boundaries and allow countries from the Global South to grow. Nevertheless, degrowth also maintains that GDP growth should be discarded as an economic goal. The focus should be put on wellbeing targets (e.g. health provision) rather than on GDP growth.
The degrowth movement incorporates ideas from Feminist and Ecological Economics as well as other schools of thought into an alternative vision of the economy. The movement reframes societal values, shifting away from trends of environmental damage, alienation, and inequality towards a society that promotes harmony, respect for the environment, and local democracy. It emphasizes the wellbeing of local communities, the environment, and social services over the consumption of 'luxury' goods.
Degrowth places wellbeing at its core, asserting that it can be maintained or even improved in a degrowth economy. This can be achieved by granting people more free time through reduced work hours and increasing community involvement by managing resources and providing public services through a commons management approach. Commons management involves communities providing specific services (e.g., elderly care) and resource management (e.g., water) in a democratic and inclusive manner. The idea is that people could volunteer more for the community if they have fewer official work commitments. However, the definition of wellbeing in the context of Degrowth Economics is rarely discussed or explicitly defined. Analyzing the wellbeing concept that the degrowth movement supports, we find that this is often in line with the understanding of wellbeing as we discussed above.
First, considering wellbeing as a lifelong activity can help us think about the actions that affect our long-term wellbeing. In economic terms, to be able to have access to adequate resources in the future we need to adjust our consumption in the present. Long-term wellbeing that may have an impact beyond one's lifetime is inherently something that degrowth promotes because degrowth also considers future generations’ wellbeing.
Second, economies must consider the wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment, as they are interconnected, and the state of one directly and indirectly influences the state of others. A pluralistic notion of wellbeing that considers the entire planet's condition can help avoid policies that improve wellbeing for some while inadvertently decreasing it for others including non-human others. Trade-offs may sometimes be inevitable, but a holistic approach can help identify and address them whenever possible. Additionally, the management of resources through commons can enable exactly that, a democratic and participatory governance of resources.
Third, the concept of limits and the distinction between authentic and inauthentic needs goes beyond the idea that increased consumption is always better, and it helps define the priorities of an economy. Essentially, an economy should primarily focus on meeting basic needs for everyone while discouraging inauthentic needs, especially those that have adverse effects on others. This concept lies at the heart of the degrowth discourse, which advocates for ensuring basic needs for all, even if it means relinquishing some inauthentic desires.
For example, while mobility is a necessity, owning a car, particularly in the presence of effective public transportation, can often be considered superfluous. The problem with inauthentic needs is that they can harm the overall wellbeing of the planet. Take private cars, for instance; when there's a viable public transportation system, they consume resources and emit emissions that could be avoided.
A better understanding of wellbeing can help us offset one of the biggest charges against the degrowth movement. Degrowth is often attacked on the basis that degrowing the economy will lead to individual and societal impoverishment. This is to say, that degrowth will make us poor.
However, the aim of the degrowth movement is to target inauthentic and wasteful production and consumption. This point benefits from our elucidation of wellbeing as containing an intrinsic regulative norm best understood as a distinction between in/authentic needs. "As a consequence, degrowth could be argued to not decrease the current level of wellbeing because it targets consumption that could be viewed as fulfilling inauthentic needs.
Further, degrowth could enhance wellbeing by reducing activities that decrease it, such as planned technical obsolescence. Additionally, one of the main policy proposals is to decrease working hours, which would result in an increase in wellbeing because people would experience less stress and have more time for leisure activities. Furthermore, degrowth could improve future wellbeing by preventing environmental damage.
An old idea as a new goal
There is an urgent call to action driven by humanity's unsustainable resource extraction and consumption, as evidenced by the alarming transgressions of multiple planetary boundaries. We have argued that a focus on wellbeing as defined above will help us face these challenges.
As we delve into the evolving concept of wellbeing, it becomes clear that it encompasses more than just momentary happiness; it is an ongoing, dynamic process rooted in Aristotle's wisdom, emphasizing the importance of leading a meaningful life through positive engagement with others while respecting natural boundaries.
The emergence of movements like degrowth and alternative economic schools like Feminist and the Ecological Economics presents a formidable challenge to the pursuit of unlimited economic growth, emphasizing wellbeing as a central concern. Degrowth advocates for a shift towards a more sustainable and equitable economy, placing the wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment at its core. It promotes an intersubjective view of wellbeing, recognizing the interconnectedness of all aspects of wellbeing and the importance of democratic resource management through commons.
The concepts of limits and the distinction between authentic and inauthentic needs play a pivotal role in shaping economic priorities within the degrowth movement. It calls for meeting basic needs for all while discouraging inauthentic desires that harm the planet's wellbeing. Casual or brief references to wellbeing as a new goal for humanity is not enough to change our current economic and social trajectory. To effect meaningful change, we must integrate wellbeing into our economic systems, reshaping our society to prioritize the long-term wellbeing of both individuals and the planet. An example for an alternative economic approach to unlimited growth is the degrowth movement. Degrowth represents a genuine attempt of placing holistic wellbeing at the center of human activity. However, unless we better understand what wellbeing is, such approaches are doomed to meet obstacles born out of misconceptions. This piece is an attempt to help avoid such misunderstandings.