A new report sets out a blueprint for a European wellbeing economy.
As light at the end of the terrible Covid-19 tunnel begins to burn brighter, this global pandemic should remind us all of the unprecedented interconnectedness of humanity. But while some would call the modern world a village, life on the manor is very different from life in the fields.
One persistent myth is the idea that political and economic decisions must necessarily involve a trade-off between people and nature, society and environment. Oxfam Germany and the European Environmental Bureau, with support from the Climate of Change project, joined forces to expose this false dichotomy.
The economy depends on people, and people depend on nature. Mining, deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate chaos and pandemics are all interlinked and intertwined with human rights—or, rather, the lack of them in our overstretched supply chains.
Exponential growth of extraction, trade and production has brought us to the brink. The underlying socio-economic weaknesses exposed by the pandemic however also give us a rare opportunity to heal and to thrive. We desperately need an economy fit for the most crowded, connected and nature-stressed century in the history of humankind.
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A socially and ecologically just economy can only be reached by tackling the root causes of the crisis. Our report identifies these structural issues: longstanding injustices between and within countries; spiralling social, economic and political inequality and associated concentration of power; and the rich world’s fixation and structural dependency on economic growth.
Although Europe is not the only wealthy or exploitative part of the world, our report focuses on the European economy and its role and responsibilities globally and locally, because we are Europeans and justice begins at home.
Despite decades of efforts to forge an international family of nations united in equality, Europe’s economic system is still interwoven with the long legacy of colonialism and the slave trade. Structures influenced by this unequal historical relationship include so-called free trade deals and investor-state dispute tribunals skewed in favour of western corporations.
This is reflected in our oversized global footprint: production and consumption in Europe still uses up a disproportionate share of the world’s natural resources. If everyone lived as Europeans do, 2.8 planets would be needed. Moreover, the process through which Europe accrues this surplus too often comes at the expense of rights and opportunities denied in more economically disadvantaged countries.
The human-rights violations associated with environmental destruction and committed against environmental and social-rights defenders, as well as the violations of workers’ rights, are intimately linked to the European economy, as a significant portion of this exploitation occurs across the supply chains of European companies. Over the 60 years between 1950 and 2010, western Europe imported 15 per cent more than it exported in tonnes of biomass, fossil fuels and metals.
Over roughly the same period, global wealth inequality tripled: roughly 1 per cent of the world’s population now controls over 45 per cent of its wealth. As most of the world’s richest individuals have attained their position through the ownership of large corporations, corporate and individual wealth—and influence—are intimately linked.
The already extremely rich and powerful can disproportionately influence political rules, to their further financial gain. A group of scientists have warned that extreme affluence is trashing the planet: the consumption of the super-rich has significantly contributed to environmental crises.
The global economy today resembles a massive pipeline: we put more and more new resources in and then try to deal with, or ignore, the toxic waste spewed out. As with other rich economies, Europe has mastered the art of putting both the entry and exit points of this pipeline outside its borders.
We need to transform our linear economy into a circular one. But we cannot bend this massive, still growing, pipeline into a circle if the pipe is two to six times too thick.
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The misguided aim of non-stop economic growth persists not only because decision-makers and large portions of the public have been unable to conceive of any alternative but also because the European economy is structurally dependent on endless expansion—thereby trapping ourselves in a downward spiral.
The idea that we are able to grow our economies while reducing environmental pressures (the notion of ‘green growth’) is at best wishful thinking, in truth a fairytale. Empirical evidence shows that ‘decoupling’ output from the consumption of resources and production of ‘externalities’ is not achievable at the scale and speed required. Europe’s dependency on growth has to end—but the good news is that prosperity without growth is possible.
We need economies that allow us to thrive within the boundaries of the natural world, which provide a good and dignified life for everyone, leave no one behind and enhance gender, environmental, social and global justice. We need world leaders who not only redistribute wealth after it has been accrued and concentrated but who create more equal distribution of wellbeing and access to power and decision-making.
The brightest minds in science and economics, as well as in communities and civil society, have not just identified this problem but are proposing and implementing solutions. Many just haven’t received the attention and respect they deserve. In our report, we sketch the contours of a wellbeing economy in vital sectors: food, clothes, buildings and the digital world.
A wellbeing economy embraces people and their reliance on the health of nature. What needs to grow is restoration of the systems that make prosperity possible—from our human immunity to nature’s immune systems, as expressed through biodiversity, soils, watersheds, minerals, climate stability and so much more.
We cannot return to a growth economy which destroys ecosystems. An economy in tune with ecology must become the goal.