Fingo’s main event during Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU brought together experts from different countries to discuss how to transform economic priorities.
More than 150 experts from academia, politics, civil society and business gathered in Helsinki on 28–29 October for a knowledge co-creation conference organised by Fingo together with Finland’s National Commission on Sustainable Development. The two-day conference, titled Beyond Growth – Indicators and Politics for People and Planet, invited participants to discuss how societies can shift economic priorities from growth to sustainability and well-being.
“If we are talking about a sustainable economy, we have to talk about the growth obsession of our current economic system and how we can move away from that,” explained Elina Mikola, an advocacy expert of sustainable economy at Fingo.
During the conference, participants engaged in discussions and cooperated in five thematic working groups in order to create new policy recommendations for the EU. The working groups were focused on equality, ecosystem boundaries, circular economy, sustainable development and human rights in business.
The policy recommendations that were produced during the conference called for a stronger focus on well-being and sustainability in EU decision-making.
“The European Union and Member States should adopt a policy orientation and governance approach which puts people and their wellbeing and the future of the planet at the centre of policy and decision-making,” conference participants stated in the conference recommendations.
On the second day of the conference, the recommendations were delivered to Ulla Rosenström, the Chief Senior Specialist at the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, who was receiving the recommendations on behalf of Raimo Luoma, the State Secretary to the Prime Minister.
New indicators needed
A central theme of the conference was rethinking how economic and societal progress should be measured. Discussions around the topic were based on a shared understanding that it is necessary to move away from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a central policy-guiding indicator.
Elina Mikola from Fingo explained that focusing on indicators was a way to bring the conversation about economic growth to a more concrete level. The idea was not to look at indicators from a technical standpoint but as signs of what is valued in society.
“Indicators are about more than measuring. They tell us what is worth pursuing in society and in development,” Mikola said.
Discussions revolved particularly around how to best use alternative indicators. In the final recommendations participants called for beyond-GDP indicators to be used at international, regional, national and local levels, and stated that monitoring efforts at different levels should be connected to each other.
Well-being to the centre of politics
Placing well-being as a central policy goal was a key recommendation by participants. On Monday, Brilé Anderson, a policy analyst from the OECD, introduced a new report, “Accelerating Climate Action: Refocusing Policies through a Well-being Lens”, to argue that a well-being approach could also support climate change mitigation.
The main idea is to replace the growth narrative with a well-being narrative, and to define society’s priorities through well-being objectives. According to Anderson, approaching mitigation with a well-being lens would lead to better results than only thinking about mitigation. Without a concern for wellbeing, mitigation efforts can have adverse consequences, as seen with the gilets jaunes in France, said Anderson.
On the other hand, it was pointed out by Paul Okumu, the Head of Secretariat of the Africa Platform, we must ask ourselves, whose well-being we are actually talking about. People on the African continent have paid a heavy price for European well-being, which has prevented them from fairly benefiting from their own natural resources.
“We sit here talking nicely about well-being, while we know that well-being is because of what we are doing with the Africa continent,” Okumu said.
Elina Mikola from Fingo added that discussions about the well-being economy have often been focused on safeguarding well-being in the wealthy Northern Europe.
“There are people who have not dared to even dream about a well-being economy. What could a well-being economy actually mean from a global viewpoint?”
Including ordinary people
One of the issues raised in discussions during the conference was the role of ordinary people. Daniel Mügge, a Professor of Political Arithmetic at the University of Amsterdam, warned against developing and using indicators as a form of technocratic governance that is managed by experts and disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people.
In order for indicators to get the backing of the people, experts cannot decide what is in people’s best interest but need to go out, ask people what they care about and then develop indicators based on that, irrespective of whether their views align with those of experts, Mügge explained.
Paavo Järvensivu, a researcher at BIOS research unit, emphasised that great shifts in our economic and societal priorities require us to translate expert ideas into something that will be meaningful for society at large.
“We need an orienting narrative to understand what we are actually doing, what are the goals and what is our place in achieving those goals.”
Well-being economy or degrowth?
While many participants framed a well-being economy as the progressive alternative to our current GDP-oriented economies, some argued that actually going “beyond growth” means we must build post-growth economies, where economic production and consumption is scaled down.
There was a strong call for degrowth by Monday’s keynote speaker, Jason Hickel, an anthropologist from Goldsmiths, University of London. Hickel argued that economic growth cannot be reconciled with the kind of ecological reconstruction that is needed, even if we take ambitious steps to decarbonise our economies.
“Continued economic growth through the rest of the century is effectively outstripping the gains that we project to be made through decarbonisation,” Hickel said.
If we are serious about reducing emissions rapidly and limiting global warming to 1,5 degrees, rich countries must shift to post-growth economic principles, Hickel argued. He stressed that although shifting away from GDP to alternative indicators is important, it is not enough on its own. We have to also actively reduce our material production and consumption.
“The amount of material stuff that we extract, produce and consume every year takes an enormous amount of energy to do. By scaling down material throughput, we can scale down our energy use and make it much easier to achieve a rapid transition to renewables in the short time we have left.”