January 2021: we begin the new year with a re-entry into national lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it may feel like we are ‘back where we started’ last March, the past 10 months tell a different story. There has been a huge amount of change, spread right across the spectrum from extremely positive to extremely challenging. Looking at this through the lens of transitions to new economies, however, we find cause for hope.
The word ‘economy’ literally means ‘management of the home’. How well are we managing our activities in our home, the Earth? Could we do better? In this article, we’ll briefly explore the relationship between economics and sustainability, and how we have been inadvertently crafting new systems based on wellbeing during the pandemic.
“Agenda 2030 and conventional growth incompatible!” (1)
The economic system has become a subject of great relevance to sustainability objectives. A system which prioritises financial growth above all else creates incentives to do whatever it takes to raise GDP, often at the expense of societal and planetary wellbeing. As stated in this report from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, meeting the needs of the biosphere (living within planetary boundaries and achieving the ecological SDGs) is not possible with conventional growth policies. So, many great economists and systems thinkers have been exploring how we can redefine the economy as one which actively facilitates both human and planetary flourishing.
Regenerative economics: on doughnuts and ecologies
There are multiple approaches to regenerative economics; one of which is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. Here, the inner ring of the ‘doughnut’ is defined by the social foundation: the minimum requirements to meet people’s basic needs. The outer ring is defined by the ecological ceiling: the maximum amount we can safely impact the biosphere. To remain within that ‘safe and just space for humanity’, Raworth’s team have developed a model which is being piloted in Amsterdam. The central question: “How can our city be a home for thriving people in a thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of all people and the health of the whole planet?” is being answered by changemakers and organisations at all levels. They’re already considering how their consumption choices have socio-environmental impacts across the world, and have committed to halve their use of primary raw materials by 2030 and be a fully circular economy by 2050.
Image: the Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries, Raworth and Guthier, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Charles Eisenstein proposes another approach: combining multiple factors to create a kind of economic ecology. This includes localisation, social dividends, halting interest and growth, internalising socio-environmental costs, changing the rules on ownership of the commons, and enjoying non-monetary gift culture. Examples of these include social dividends in the form of a basic income, which has been trialled in Finland. Participants reported increased wellbeing, life satisfaction, autonomy and confidence in the future. Freelancers, artists and entrepreneurs found it particularly beneficial, as well as those who felt it ‘legitimised’ voluntary roles such as caring for family. In formal gift circles, members hold weekly meetings to state their ‘needs’ (e.g. a babysitter, a bike repair), and offer themselves to meet others’ needs. This creates non-linear, personal transactions which emphasise interconnectedness, compassion and responsibility.
The pandemic: mini revolutions, moving us forwards
Without having a formal name for it, aspects of these regenerative models have come to life organically over the past 10 months. There is increased awareness of the need to support local, independent businesses and create resilient, localised economies. With reduced imports and incomes, and increased time at home, we have explored recycling and upcycling: getting creative with our ‘stuff’ and inadvertently doing circular economics. Gift culture has boomed: people have volunteered in their community, offered products or services for free and sent ‘care packages’ to loved ones. Often these relationships have manifested in non-linear ways: I receive a care package from my aunt, and send one on to a friend with a newborn. This enables us to experience the richness of a mutually supportive, interconnected world – reducing the sense of ‘transaction’ and instead cultivating a state of reciprocity.
The government’s employment support schemes have given us a taste of a basic income, enabling us to reconsider what we really value. We’ve spent more time out in nature, helping us to realise its immense worth and the need to protect it (2). This study by Natural England also highlighted inequality in access to green spaces, strengthening calls for investment in an equitable green recovery and greater integration of nature in urban areas. A survey of organisational cultures has shown an increase in people’s ‘personal’ values of making a difference, wellbeing, caring and adaptability, and a growing emphasis on sustainability and society from company executives.
‘Never let a good crisis go to waste!’
Whether we know it or not, we have been self-organising, like any proper system: arranging ourselves in ways which support holistic wellbeing. We are finding new ways of working, of doing business, of being community: instinctively expressing key principles of a healthy society. This gestation period for a culture of awareness and compassionate connection is allowing us to make shifts, transforming what currently is, step-by-step… Seemingly small shifts which can eventually add up to whole system transformation. Our instincts are right. Through extending our hands and hearts as well as our wallets, we are sowing the seeds for the regenerative economies of the future.
Randers, J., Rockström, J., Stoknes, P.E., Golüke, U., Collste, D. and Cornell, S. (2018) Transformation is feasible - how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals within Planetary Boundaries. Available at: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/publications/artiklar/2018-10-17-transformation-is-feasible---how-to-achieve-the-sustainable--development-goals-within-planetary-boundaries.html
Natural England and DEFRA (2020) Public love for nature during Covid-19 highlighted by new survey. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/public-love-for-nature-during-covid-19-highlighted-by-new-survey
O’Neill, D. (2019) Enough is Enough: full film. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgo-eTTmuLk&feature=youtu.be
Stockholm Resilience Centre (2020) The nine planetary boundaries. Available at: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/planetary-boundaries/about-the-research/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html
United Nations (2020) The 17 Goals. Available at: https://sdgs.un.org/goals
Doughnut Economics Action Lab (2020) About Doughnut Economics. Available at: https://doughnuteconomics.org/about-doughnut-economics
Doughnut Economics Action Lab (2020) The Amsterdam City Doughnut: a tool for transformative action. Available at: https://www.kateraworth.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/20200406-AMS-portrait-EN-Single-page-web-420x210mm.pdf
Raworth, K. (2017) Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. London: Penguin Random House
Eisenstein, C. (2011) Sacred economics: money, gift & society in the age of transition. Available at: http://sacred-economics.com/read-online/
Open Collaboration (2009) Gift circle FAQ. Available at: https://opencollaboration.wordpress.com/2009/11/28/gift-circle-faq/
Henley, J. (2020) Finnish basic income pilot improved wellbeing, study finds. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/may/07/finnish-basic-income-pilot-improved-wellbeing-study-finds-coronavirus
Eldridge, H.M. (2020) Building resilience into our food systems. Available at: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-04-09/building-resilience-into-our-food-systems/
Whiting, K. (2020) How to stay creative and keep your family sane during lockdown – from one of the world’s best teachers. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-education-homeschooling-teaching-creativity/
Wiedermann, C. (2020) The Great Transformation? The cultural implications of COVID-19. Available at: https://www.valuescentre.com/resource-library/covid/
Wellbeing Economy Alliance (2020) Ten principles for building back better to create wellbeing economies post-COVID. Available at: https://wellbeingeconomy.org/ten-principles-for-building-back-better-to-create-wellbeing-economies-post-covid