Measuring what matters

At Global Greens Congress, I met with Greens facing criminalisation and abuse in Russia, Greens working successfully to win trust and support in deeply underprivileged areas of the UK, Greens building on the ruins of both communism and capitalism in Bulgaria, and Greens sowing seeds in the poorest areas of India. It threw into stark relief the question of what really matters.

By Tim Hollo, Director of the Green Institute
Thursday, April 6, 2017

One of the best sessions at Global Greens Congress 2017 was organised by ACT Greens member and former Swedish Greens MP, Gösta Lyngå, with Swedish Green and academic, Tove Engvall, on alternatives to GDP — truly a question of measuring what matters. The session had people hanging from the rafters, with representatives from 18 countries including South Korea, Estonia, Mongolia, Japan, the USA, Greece and Austria.

Gösta opened the session with an introduction reminding us that GDP was invented in the 1940s as a way of countries comparing and competing against each other for rapid post-war growth. It was never meant to measure human wellbeing and environmental health: it counts negative events — like accidents, disasters and wars — as effective positives, and it cannot conceive of limits to growth, even as we approach climate change tipping points and inequality rises out of control.

Gösta and Tove took us through a number of alternatives which have been developed over decades, looking to account for different aspects of our society, economy and environment, such as the Living Planet Index, the Human Development Index, Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indicator. They noted that, while this has been discussed globally before, and individual Greens parties have worked on it, there has been no active work by the Global Greens on it, despite it being an appropriate level to work at.

A seismic shift

When the discussion opened up in the room, it swiftly became clear that there was a strong desire amongst us to radically rethink the economy as a whole, embedding social and environmental wellbeing into it, and challenging existing power relations through ideas like Universal Basic Income. It was acknowledged that GDP growth is driven, both within and between countries, by the poor for the benefit of the rich, who capture the value of their work as well as the value of the environment as it is liquidated. But it was also acknowledged that GDP is deeply entrenched, and very easy to measure and compare, making it hard to replace.

There were definite disagreements in the room. While some questioned the need for a measure that can be easily compared across countries, others did not object to competition but disputed what we should be competing about. While some argued for simplicity in any alternative measures, others argued that we as Greens can and should embrace complexity. If we can understand multiple factors in weather — cold, wet and windy, as it was in Liverpool — one attendee argued, we can understand multiple factors in our “economic weather”, too.

What was agreed was that discussing GDP in inaccessible language is the last thing we need to do. We need to find ways in which to have this conversation in a manner which is relevant to people, which shows how GDP limits our futures, and how other measures can make other, better futures possible.

This led to a discussion about what wellbeing means, which showed a remarkable commonality across countries and cultures. Quality of life, moving beyond necessities to social connection, trust and empowerment, having the time to live life to the fullest, and closeness to nature all kept being brought up. Importantly, it was also raised that social inequality and environmental destruction both inherently undermine wellbeing.

The session’s attendees agreed to form a Global Greens international working group to stimulate an ongoing conversation on alternatives to GDP, experimenting with alternatives in our own areas, sharing experiences, and seeking advice.

As one attendee said, “Money is what you use when you don’t have trust”. GDP is both a symptom and a cause of an economy and society with a trust deficit. If we want to fight fascism, environmental destruction and apathy, as our opening speakers at the Congress called on us to do, replacing GDP is an urgent and vital task.

Tim Hollo is the Director of the Green Institute, a Green think tank funded in part by the Australian Government. He is also a musician and former Communications Director to then Senator Christine Milne.