Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"
The paper makes a very important argument about the possibilities of improving well-being in ecologically sustainable and less consumption-intensive ways. It is very important politically to be able to put forward a positive vision of this kind—it is a “win-win” vision, as the author describes it—but, importantly, it is not the same old win-win claim, put forward by the ecological modernization camp and others, that we can keep prioritizing economic growth while solving our environmental challenges.
I am very sympathetic to the overall argument and the project that it represents. Indeed, I have made broadly similar arguments. That said, I do think there may be more trade-offs between sustainability and well-being than the paper suggests. The paper does acknowledge that efforts to build a happier society are not enough on their own to ensure sustainability, but more could be said about trade-offs between individual well-being today at the expense of future generations (or others alive today). One example of that is air travel, which can have major benefits to well-being but is one of the most carbon-intensive activities many people participate in. (It is an issue that I wrestle with personally since many of the best experiences in my life have occurred while traveling and, where I live, there is little practical alternative to air travel other than staying put.)
Beyond the particular case of air travel, I am increasingly troubled by the thought that we may have reached a point where the necessary reductions in GHG emissions and other key environmental impacts will require reductions in consumption that extend well beyond the “win-win” sphere. We can point to Scandinavian countries and their high levels of well-being and relatively enlightened environmental policies, as the paper does, but even these countries have ecological and carbon footprints that are well in excess of what is sustainable and globally equitable. That is not to say that we should give up on efforts to link well-being and sustainability, but, unfortunately, they may not be quite as straightforward as the paper suggests.
The call to focus on well-being rather than merely income when responding to inequality is valuable, but also has some pitfalls. The author handled the discussion well in noting that an emphasis on respect and dignity is closely linked to an equitable distribution of income. That said, I am concerned that others may turn a focus on well-being into an argument to be less concerned about material deprivation and income inequality. For example, there has been some concern expressed in Britain that Richard Layard’s calls for the state to shift its focus from wealth creation to well-being creation (which sounds at first like what many in the green movement have been advocating for years) is being taken as argument to focus more on mental health services while doing less to address material poverty.