Thinking about society differently

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The third and final seminar in the Rethinking Wellbeing Series – ‘thinking about society differently’ – took place at the Scottish Parliament on 20 February 2013. The seminar was introduced by SFF Director Aileen McLeod MSP, and was chaired by Tim Birley, former senior civil servant and adviser on sustainable development.

The seminar series has been promoted by Scottish Futures Forum (SFF), which was created by Scottish Parliament to consider future challenges and opportunities, and stimulate debate and understanding on public policy issues. The central theme of the seminar series is that for complex problems such as multiple deprivation, population health, climate change and loss of bio-diversity we need to consider the environment, economy and society in an inter-related and holistic manner. This means breaking down silos to help design effective policies and partnerships.

Following introductions, Professor George Morris, who led on Good Places Better Health, spoke about ‘building public health and wellbeing on ecological principles’. As health and wellbeing flow from society to the individual, the need to create the right conditions is a concern for all of society.

Professor Morris described how the state of the environment is intimately connected to health and wellbeing. Having formerly looked at problems in terms of separate disciplines and silos, we now need to adopt an ecological approach. Good environments generate health benefits, and there is a need to link environmental and physical ‘change’ with public health policy, in a way that addresses the inequality agenda. To do this we require appropriate tools, and enhanced capacity to navigate complex situations based on an ecosystems approach. A practical example would be to integrate environmental impact assessment (EIA) and health impact assessment (HIA).

The closing image of Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’ illustrated how multiple individual elements intertwine and are reliant upon each other to provide a balanced and healthy ecosystem. Through applying policy and action we need to find a more holistic way to improve society’s public health.

The second speaker, Judith Robertson (head of Oxfam in Scotland) spoke about Oxfam’s Humankind Index in Scotland: “a new way of measuring what makes a good life; one that takes money into account, whilst also recognising that it takes more than just economic growth to make a prosperous nation.” The recently published table of 18 indicators is headed by ‘affordable, decent and safe homes’ and ‘physical and mental health’. Finance – ‘having a secure source of money’ – features mid-way through the table.

Judith noted that some of the most affluent societies are social failures. Measuring success in economic terms and relying on economic processes has failed to deliver solutions and has exacerbated inequalities. It places at risk the most vulnerable in society; reliance on the labour market offers insecure and poorly paid employment; problems transfer to family and social relations. Challenges are complex, holistic and dynamic, and can’t be tackled in isolation. Inequality is a key driver of change.

Judith questioned “Whose economy is it?” Private sector propositions degrade communities, and decades of anti poverty policies have failed. The least well off are held responsible for their failure. We do not operate participative processes (“he who thrives wins”); and communities have not been properly engaged in the discussion (“Who asked the people of Govan or Partick if that form of Clydeside regeneration [2 bed flats] was a priority?”).

Oxfam’s ‘Humankind Index’ illuminated the ‘seldom heard voices’, and the ‘hard to reach’ (“not so hard to reach if you try!”), and asked “what do you need to live well in your community?”

Findings revealed that people aren’t driven by economic growth; this is simply a means to an end. The sorts of things that people really care about are being happy and valued; knowing that friends and family are cared for; making a meaningful contribution to society. People need empowered to challenge policy statements and make a difference.

Questions from the floor addressed a range of issues: how to communicate issues more widely, and challenging public cynicism and processes of denial; being realistic (“finance is mobile – it will go where there is the best rate of return on investment”); achieving political will and developing a longer term narrative; balancing ‘top-down’ policy with ‘bottom-up’ action; fronting up to difficult issues – challenging how we live and allocate resources; asking what we really want to achieve as a society: what are our values; what does ‘socially just’ mean?

There was recognition that having a National Performance Framework in Scotland is good – but what does overarching ‘sustainable economic growth’ mean? Is there a danger in pursuing alternatives that there are multiple approaches, and do we risk fragmenting effort? Is there a need to get behind one focussed argument? We need to develop tools and capacities to handle complexity and understand different and competing interests. We need to make a difference.

In summing up, the Chair closed by reading a 1969 statement from Robert Kennedy that economic factors measure everything except that which is relevant:

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

A week after the seminar, the Nobel prize winning economist Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz provided views on alternatives to gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of economic activity and of the wellbeing of society, to help inform the Scottish Government’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee of the adequacy or otherwise of current measures of economic performance.

Professor Stiglitz hoped for a wider dialogue and debate about these matters, to consider how benefits are distributed across society. Key points included:

  • Instead of GDP – a measure of market activity – we should measure GNP as a measure of citizen income (e.g. multinationals in Ireland ensure high GDP, but provide poor salaries or tax benefits)
  • GDP is inadequate as it doesn’t tell you about things that matter: inequality; sustainability (economic / environmental); depletion of natural resources; wellbeing; opportunity (e.g. education); health; connected / social cohesion / community; security; fear
  • GDP does not measure ‘sense of worth’; how people make a meaningful contribution to society
    We should monitor the median/typical rather than the ‘average’ (120% increase in wealth has gone to the top 1% in USA, where GDP has risen, and median income has stagnated across the last 15 to 40 years)
  • There is a requirement for a ‘dashboard’ of measures that monitor a range of factors and which enable society to consider how resources are managed to achieve outcomes. Factors should be weighted to reflect local importance
  • Any measure/metrics should account for depletion (recognised at the level of the firm but not the country) – e.g. North Sea oil and gas has been depleted below ground without any accompanying build up of wealth [education, etc] above ground
  • We need to measure ‘wellbeing’ in a broader sense, and develop a more rounded measure of equality e.g. equality of opportunity / education. Material goods are not an end in themselves – the way we organise society leaves inequalities.
  • Sustainability is vital – we have created ‘false prosperity’ to the detriment of society; too much borrowing created ‘fake wealth’

There is a need for a wider engagement and dialogue; a single minded focus on GDP has left decision making in the hands of technocrats to manage the economy, whereas choices and values need to be debated and understood by society at large; talk about inflation or the economy depicts a situation requiring simple choices but a broader dialogue is required; we need mechanisms to negotiate complex and complicated trade offs (e.g. accounting for security of employment, quality of environment, connected and cohesive society, etc); a ‘dashboard’ of metrics can help to identify where problems are and where trade-offs are required. These are not perfect measures – but neither is GDP a perfect measure!

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