The Future We Really Want


Ida Kubiszewski/Solutions
The King of Bhutan recently convened an International Expert Working Group to set forth a New Development Paradigm designed to lift society to a new level of sustainable well-being. Pictured here are children in Thimphu, Bhutan.

Conscious that unsustainable patterns of production and consumption can impede sustainable development, and recognizing the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of all peoples.

−United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 65/309, 2011

In June 2012, the latest in a series of United Nations conferences on sustainable development was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this one called “The Future We Want.” As the most recent opportunity to present an equitable solution to climate change and other environmental problems, the declaration that arose from Rio left many cold. It did not go far enough in proposing alternatives that adequately recognized growing global challenges.

In response to the Rio meeting, the UN and emerging groups of academics, policy makers, business people, and others have begun to working on a broader, more wide-ranging vision for what a sustainable and desirable future could be. One such group was convened by the King of Bhutan, and met in January, 2013 in the country’s capital, Thimphu, with the goal of envisioning a future based on happiness, well-being, and an understanding of mankind’s interdependent relationship with nature. One subset of this group produced the following document to outline some of the features and policies of this new paradigm. The document is written somewhat in the style of the Rio declaration—a list of points under various headings—to highlight the differences with that document.

The authors have also established an organization called the Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity (www.ASAP4all.org), or ASAP, often short for “as soon as possible.” This organization aims to unite those who share in our vision of a sustainable future. ASAP invites global participation in setting forth why business-as-usual no longer offers an attractive solution, and in outlining a pragmatic approach to economics, business, and happiness. ASAP includes some of the world’s thought leaders on sustainability, fair distribution, and well-being, and encourages your participation and submission of examples of what is working, right now, to lift people from poverty, solve environmental challenges, and create the business case for sustainability.

Toward A New Development Paradigm

To meet the growing challenges facing humanity, many individuals, communities, and societies are actively exploring different ways of looking at the world. Some have sought to describe a society in which happiness is the primary goal. Others have developed policies for a global economy based on a more thorough understanding of how safeguarding resources underpins the creation of material wealth. Others anticipate catastrophic events and surprises as portents of the future. Whilst different in substance, all these approaches have the common goal of lifting society to a new level of sustainable well-being. The King of Bhutan recently convened an International Expert Working Group to synthesize and integrate many of these ideas in order to set forth a New Development Paradigm.

Conceptual Framework

The New Development Paradigm sets as its primary goal the equitable and sustainable well-being of human beings and the rest of nature. This is enabled by providing the conditions for all people to achieve these goals. A central tenet of this approach is captured by the Bhutanese contribution of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Based on nine domains and a combination of old wisdom and new thinking, GNH maintains that, faced with ecological and social devastation wrought by the world view of the last century, we can re-embed economic life in the social community and within the integrity of nature.

The New Development Paradigm builds upon the domains of happiness, integrating these in a broader conceptual framework in which the needs of humans and the rest of nature are met. Economic activity draws down or replenishes different forms of assets or capital (natural, human, social, and built). These assets must be managed sustainably if we are to provide for the needs of current and future generations.

The New Development Paradigm unifies the different dimensions of human happiness. It guides accountable institutions to create policies that, when implemented, will deliver the conditions for sustainable human happiness and the well-being of all life.

The Way Forward

The economies of the world claim that by increasing a particular metric—growth in GDP—they deliver increased human well-being. In the past this seemed to be true, but times have changed. The recent financial collapse, soaring global unemployment, loss of both biodiversity and ecological integrity all testify to the failure of the current system to continue delivering on its promises. Transforming the economies of the world—implementing the New Development Paradigm—is both as simple as refocusing our attention on the ultimate purpose of economic life, and as difficult as systematically transforming business as usual to put people and the ability of natural systems to sustain them first.

To move onto a sustainable and desirable path will require:

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Ida Kubiszewski/Solutions
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Much of the New Development Paradigm, which has as its primary goal the equitable and sustainable well-being of human beings and the rest of nature, grew out of the Bhutanese idea of Gross National Happiness.
  • recognition of a different purpose for development: the achievement of human happiness, equitable and sustainable well-being;
  • acceptance of the deep interdependence of humans with the rest of nature; that humans must live sustainably and within planetary boundaries if they are to provide for their own and future generations; that this requires a healthy balance among thriving forms of capital and assets, some of which are non-substitutable;
  • re-embedding the economy within society—“the economy is for people not the other way around”—and nature;
  • replacing the present goals of limitless growth and consumption with the goal of creating a sustainable economy based on full-cost, integrated accounting; holistic monetary and tax policies; transparency; rewarding efficient delivery of services over the rate of use of resources; biologically-based innovation and entrepreneurship; and capturing the value added of non-monetized work;
  • reducing the differences in living conditions and other well-being outcomes and inequalities between countries, within countries, and between gender, ethnic, class groups, and between generations;
  • encouraging the flourishing of living and inclusive communities, defined as evolving cultures characterized by inclusion, participation, deliberation, transparency, trust, and accountability: qualities that are infused into all dimensions of society, including political, economic, and educational life;
  • developing education for happiness and well-being rather than simply for occupancy of a niche in an economy; this implies that specific skills would be taught and developed to improve an individual’s inclination towards happiness;
  • leveraging the positive effects of human happiness, which include physical health, pro-social behavior and care for the environment;
  • realizing that the global capacity, understanding, material abundance, and opportunities to achieve these objectives have never been greater. Assets include scientific knowledge, communications, technology, resources, productive potential, higher education, and ability to feed everyone on earth; there are many successful examples of legislation, initiatives, and best practices at all scales on which to build.

Elements of the New Development Paradigm

In order to realize the future we all want, the New Development Paradigm builds on the enormous amount of prior work and thinking in this area to develop the following dimensions, including but not limited to:

Well-Being and Happiness

  • supporting local economies and strong community networks;
  • strengthening social support networks through family, community, workplace, and other relationships;
  • supporting the voluntary and civil society sector, and nurturing good governance;
  • promoting a balanced approach to work and life that allows all people sufficient time to enjoy life, strengthen social connection, improve personal health, and act as careful environmental stewards;
  • improving mental and physical health by addressing the socio-economic, behavioral, spiritual, environmental, and intergenerational determinants of health, and recognizing that health is a civic public responsibility;
  • improving the pre-natal and early childhood experience as the foundation of lifelong health and well-being;
  • promoting holistic life-long learning, including vital literacies required for well-being, such as civic, cultural, ecological, health, nutrition, science, financial, and others;
  • empowering women, educating girls, and ensuring equality of opportunity;
  • promoting a dynamic culture through a common but differentiated approach that respects diverse cultural traditions;
  • nurturing the values, wisdom, and practice of our spiritual traditions, as well as harmony between them;
  • drawing from the wisdom of traditional and indigenous values and knowledge to develop appropriate policies;
  • supporting the arts and the creative commons;
  • promoting vibrant, critical, creative, and responsible media;
  • supporting research and dialogue on the causes and conditions of happiness.

Ecological Sustainability

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Ida Kubiszewski/Solutions
A sustainable society must nurture the ideals and practices of spiritual tradition, and also draw from the wisdom of traditional and indigenous values, according to the New Development Paradigm, Here, a set of prayer flags in Lobesa, Bhutan.
  • establishing a system for effective and equitable governance and management of the natural commons, including the atmosphere, oceans, fresh water systems, and biodiversity;
  • engaging in a range of educational initiatives to eventually restore the natural world into the core thinking and decision-making of people and society worldwide;
  • investing in sustainable infrastructure, such as renewable clean energy, energy efficiency, public transit, watershed protection measures, green public spaces, clean technology, and support for green businesses;
  • consuming essential non-renewables—such as fossil fuels—more slowly than we develop renewable substitutes;
  • creating mechanisms to reduce resource depletion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions so that these stay within basic planetary boundaries and resource limits—these mechanisms would include a shift from income and value-added taxation to throughput taxation; development of additional cap and auction systems for use of common environmental waste absorption services, like discharge of greenhouse gases; and implementation of common asset trusts to prevent the taking of private gain through the imposition of harm, damage, and loss on the public;
  • dismantling incentives towards excessive materialistic consumption, including educating for happiness, ecological literacy, and sustainability, and banning advertising directed at children;
  • addressing population growth in ways that are empowering, equitable, and effective;
  • moving towards sustainable agriculture to feed the earth’s population without destroying its biodiversity, including drawing on indigenous and traditional agricultural knowledge to prepare for the transition to a post-petroleum agriculture;
  • developing linked policies to balance population and consumption with the earth’s natural, social, and economic capacity;
  • building the capacity of the global urbanization process to ensure that the delivery of infrastructure, the provision of basic services, and the patterns of governance are sustainable, resilient, accessible, equitable, and operate within planetary boundaries and the capacities of local ecosystems.

Equitable Society

  • reducing systemic inequalities, both internationally and within nations, by improving the living standards of the poor, providing an adequate social safety net, limiting excess consumption and unearned income, and preventing private capture of the common wealth;
  • acknowledging that greater equality increases our capabilities to pursue and achieve happiness: first, equality strengthens social cohesion, thereby making it easier for us to connect and more willing to give; second, more equal societies in which work-life balance and pay for those at the bottom of the social scale optimize energy and time to devote skills for well-being; third, more equal countries where people at all levels of the social hierarchy are less driven by status competition and the drive to consume, again enhancing their ability to pursue well-being;
  • supporting, promoting, and providing incentives for systems of cooperative ownership and management of enterprises;
  • instituting fair trade systems that promote sustainable production methods and fair returns to producers;
  • transferring technology to enable lower-income nations to shift rapidly to sustainable production methods and suffer no loss of competitive advantage as they transition to a sustainable economy;
  • establishing a system for effective and equitable governance and management of the social commons, including cultural inheritance, financial systems, and information systems;
  • creating fulfilling employment for all, which contributes to the common good, achieves better work-life balance, and nurtures healthy workplace relations placing human well-being and environmental integrity at its core;
  • ensuring that “race-to-the-bottom” practices, which degrade both the environment and the quality of work-life, are held in check by effective international action, including a review and dramatic revision of World Trade Organisation policies that fail to honor this need.

Sustainable Economy

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Ida Kubiszewski/Solutions
One important step toward ecological balance is dismantling incentives for excessive materialistic consumption by, for instance, banning advertising directed at children.
  • using full-cost accounting measures to internalize externalities, value non-market assets and services, reform national accounting systems, and ensure that prices reflect actual social and environmental costs of production and distribution;
  • implementing integrated bottom line reporting for companies and governments to enable them to identify and manage the business benefits of more sustainable practices, moving to more transparent management that is restorative of human and natural capital, as well as manufactured and financial capital;
  • using resources dramatically more efficiently, buying time to redesign how business makes and delivers goods and services, using biomimicry, cradle to cradle, and the circular economy to drive socially profitable innovation;
  • eliminating perverse subsidies that promote wasteful use of non-renewable resources;
  • putting in place fiscal reforms that reward sustainable and well-being-enhancing actions whilst penalizing unsustainable behaviors that diminish collective well-being, including ecological tax reforms with compensating mechanisms that avoid additional burdens on low-income groups;
  • implementing systems of cooperative investment in stewardship and payment for ecosystem services;
  • democratizing economic participation, including previously marginalized groups like indigenous communities, women, and youth; encouraging creation of durable jobs that provide livable wages and dignity;
  • increasing financial and fiscal prudence by reducing speculation, ensuring equitable access to and responsible use of credit, and requiring that financial instruments and practices contribute to the public good;
  • ensuring access to and sharing of the information required to move to a sustainable economy while protecting indigenous knowledge and necessary intellectual property;
  • measuring success with locally appropriate genuine progress indicators and increasing the resilience and diversity of communities and ecosystems.

Living and Inclusive Communities

  • manifesting all these dimensions of the New Development Paradigm by creating cultures of communities that shield representative government from the influence of private, concentrated power; thus enabling humanity to bridge the current chasm between widely acknowledged solutions—whether to climate change or poverty— and its capacity to manifest them;
  • creating living communities as evolving cultures in which the values of inclusion, deliberation, and mutual accountability—ensuring transparency and the dispersion of power—infuse not only formal governance but all dimensions of public life; thus creating the specific conditions proven to elicit human beings’ many pro-social capacities, while keeping the negative in check;
  • actively drawing on the experience, creativity, and ingenuity of those most directly affected, thereby appreciating that when human beings know they are heard, they are more likely to embrace the new attitudes, behaviors, and skills required to meet today’s challenges;
  • amplifying citizens’ voices in policy setting by augmenting formal representation in governance with opportunities for direct deliberation, such as through deliberative polls and citizen juries;
  • understanding that living communities draw on innate human capacities and also require specific skills, fostering participatory learning for all ages in the “arts of communities” including listening, deliberation, mediation, negotiation, reflection, and mentoring others;
  • engaging children in living and inclusive communities via apprenticeship citizenship—education involving community problem solving in which children share responsibilities and come to appreciate their own power, from environmental restoration, for example, to growing their own food and surveying community needs and capacities;
  • establishing economic life in which corporate entities are held accountable to community and ecosystem well-being; and in which participants share in decision making, as in worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives spreading worldwide.;
  • in all these ways, replacing debilitating cynicism and disengagement with trust and engagement, meeting deep human needs for meaning, efficacy, and connection to others and to nature.

As resource scarcity and climate change continue to affect world economies at ever-increasing rates, the world stands on the cusp of enormous socio-politico-economic change. That change can be met, but not really improved, with reactive, ad hoc policies rooted in old paradigms. The continuation of business-as-usual will most likely ensure that we will fail at ever-increasing rates, while it will certainly deny large numbers of future generations of humans the wherewithal they will need to live truly happy lives. We believe that a wiser, more effective, more efficient, and, ultimately, more humane path lies in reconceptualizing the relationship between humans, human economic life, and nature along the lines sketched here. A New Development Paradigm, predicated on the reality of a finite planet and dedicated to articulating the appropriate strategies for achieving the maximum feasible sustainable well-being for humans and the rest of nature is, in the present circumstances, both a practical and moral necessity.

Acknowledgements

This article emerged from an International Working Group meeting held in Thimphu, Bhutan in January-February 2013. This article has not been endorsed by the Royal Government of Bhutan. The current full membership of the working group is: Robert Costanza and Jacqueline McGlade (co-chairs), Gar Alperovitz, Tariq Banuri, Clovis Calvacanti, Anthony Charles, Herman Daly, John de Graaf, Junko Edahiro, Joshua Farley, Enrico Giovannini, Richard Heinberg, Tim Jackson, Ashok Khoshla, David Korten, Ida Kubiszewski, Hunter Lovins, Michel Masozera, Manfred Max-Neef, Bill McKibben, Frances Moore Lappé, Mohan Munasinghe, Greg Norris, Jonathan Patz, Kate Pickett, Rosimeiry Portela, Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir, William Rees, Robert Reich, Debra Roberts, Juliet Schor, Vandana Shiva, Gus Speth, David Suzuki, Alvaro Umana, Peter Victor, Ernst von Weizsaecker, Mathis Wackernagel, Richard Wilkinson, and Eric Zencey. In addition, the working group was supported by Steve de Bonvoisin, Petra Fagerholm, Martyn Pearce, and Thomas Prugh.