One of the most exciting outcomes from the recent climate strikes is that we are being prompted to re-evaluate the way we measure human progress.
We need to move beyond the assumption that there's a positive relationship between economic growth and wellbeing - otherwise, we will be blind to the tipping point where wellbeing starts to nosedive.
You can explore this question and much more at this year's Timber Festival, which runs from 5 to 7 July 2019 in the heart of the National Forest.
This thinking isn’t new. As long ago as 1968, a young Robert Kennedy challenged the concept of economic growth as a measure of America’s progress in the world:
"Our Gross National Product counts air pollution … the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder … it counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars.
"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 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."
And yet, just over fifty years later it seems we really haven’t moved on in our thinking. Economic growth is still held up as the ultimate measure of success for governments, regardless of the impact on the available resources, the environment or society.
It feels as though we have learned nothing from the simple ecological principle that every population has to live within limits.
Fortunately, there are other measures out there. Take the World Happiness Index produced by the United Nations.
This is unashamedly human-centric, and uses measures that impact on wellbeing as its benchmark, on the basis that it is not growth per se, but the outcome of our investment on wellbeing that should be the real test of progress.
It is heartening to see in the 2019 Happiness Index that the UK has risen up the charts, now standing at fifteenth in the world. Such measures of wellbeing are now springing up across the UK, from the Office of National Statistics to the Royal Mail. But even these measures can be misleading.
How can we be getting happier when 16 percent of adults in the UK take antidepressants each year (that’s one in six of us) and 40 percent of GP appointments are said to involve mental health?
Moreover, some of these indicators still seem to relate back to economics, measuring factors that mean our most affluent areas come out on top.
We have been grappling with these issues in the National Forest, exploring a more rounded measure of quality of life that takes into account the green economy, community wellbeing and the state of the natural environment.
The National Forest Festival ‘Timber’ was set up last year in recognition of these issues.
Timber is a statement of intent. A showcase for the view that our natural environment can not only make us happier, but much healthier too, as well as giving rise to more sustainable livelihoods.
The festival is a microcosm for what we are trying to do across the whole National Forest, to promote sustainable living in the face of a changing climate.
The festival is designed so that each element – the location, programming and activities - demonstrates how the natural environment enhances our quality of life. Wildlife watching, environmental arts, pole lathing, wild play, charcoal making, outdoor exercise, local food – all interspersed with music, dance, comedy and debate inspired by our trees and forests.
Festival goers should leave not just having had a great time, but having experienced something new and wanting to continue and deepen their connection with the natural world.
In this context, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) feels a very blunt instrument. So why don’t we do away with GDP and adopt a more progressive measure of success?
I wonder what would happen if we challenged governments, local authorities, schools and workplaces to report on happiness or sustainable living? It would seriously shift the way we think about investment if we asked the question ‘will it make us happier and more sustainable?’ rather than ‘will it increase GDP?’
There are other metrics already starting to do this, like the Thriving Places index or the various measures recording carbon or natural capital. Changing our focus on GDP could be a huge political step, and stop us simply marching headlong into ever more growth, on the pretence that it is a mark of progress.
It would be a breakthrough for this climate generation, and perhaps even make Kennedy proud to think that after all these years we are finally measuring something that makes ‘life worthwhile’.
John Everitt is chief executive of The National Forest Company.
The Ecologist will be hosting talks and discussions at this year’s Timber festival, 5 – 7 July.