Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"

Deric Gruen

Barrington-Leigh lays out a well-founded, if not novel, case for moving beyond GDP to new measures well-being as a sustainability strategy. A qualitative measure like happiness is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Particularly of interest to me, and to the environmental case that the author seeks to make, is if happiness, which he also refers to as life satisfaction, could provide insight into satiation or sufficiency—a necessary requirement for living within planetary limits (assuming that this was the author’s intent with the term sustainability, rather than sustainable development, which can be problematic in some definitions). I am less confident, however, that a subjective measure like happiness can provide much insight without complementary quantitative metrics. I have also read that genetics can determine the scale of happiness that individuals can achieve, which perhaps explains why happiness does not exhibit significant “reference dependence,” although I am skeptical about the claim that comparisons don’t have an important role in reported happiness.

Happiness averaged at the national or even local scales seems to be blind to inequality. The author finds inequality “fuzzy,” yet for me, it is much more concrete than happiness, and becomes even more important when one discusses inequity rather than inequality, in terms of recognition, process, procedure, and outcome—something quite different from happiness. Certainly, I can agree on moving away from a focus on income, but that seems a straw man to sidestep dealing with important justice issues. Indeed, interest in happiness studies in North America tends to prevail in largely white, wealthy environmental circles, while (distributive) environmental justice resonates more strongly communities of color and poor neighborhoods.

Barrington-Leigh makes important points on trust and meaningful lives—and I would add social justice—as likely preconditions living within planetary limits. However, while he puts his faith in growth agnosticism over degrowth, he makes a very similar case to advocates in the degrowth movement, who are not simply calling for a reduction in GDP, but abandonment of the growth mentality. Overall, I am very sympathetic to shifting to a focus on well-being as one of many strategies for one-planet societies. However, I am not so optimistic that the powerful forces propelling growth will move towards well-being without more direct confrontation, which is the degrowth frame.

Moreover, I could not follow the logical leap from a focus on well-being to Jeremy Rifkin’s zero-marginal growth argument that technology will soon create such abundance that material production will fall away, that the consumer will own the means of production, and that we will decouple production from material impact. The notion that new technologies and human nature will intrinsically change the structures of ownership, create surplus time, and dematerialize our consumption is dangerously optimistic. It stands in contrast to the many, equal, or more significant technological transitions in the past that have only served to consolidate control of production and consumption among powerful elites, increase working hours, and increase extraction and pollution.

The author is right that we must move our focus toward well-being and satisfaction and away from income and growth, but history shows we will not be effective if we again try to “sidestep” the conflict between economic growth and planetary limits (see sustainable development). Rather we must confront the forces of growth, and we can do that through the power of an equity and justice frame toward the vision of a satisfying life for all.

Deric Gruen
Deric Gruen manages the Rethinking Prosperity project at the University of Washington Center for Communication and Civic Engagement in Seattle. He also consults on policy, program development, and communications for projects exploring the interplay of equity, environment, and the economy.

Cite as Deric Gruen, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being," Great Transition Initiative (April 2017),

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As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.