It’s new year’s day 2030 and, like many on planet Earth, I’m surprisingly happy about the way the last decade finally turned out and the prospects for the future.
At the dawn of the decade in 2020, things looked incredibly bleak. The climate crisis was rapidly accelerating and it looked as if we would never get a handle on it. I remember sitting in my apartment in Canberra, Australia on Jan 1, 2020 surrounded by dense smoke from the catastrophic bushfires consuming the country’s southeast coast and thinking: this has got to finally wake people up! The entire county was burning up! The increasing heat and drought that caused fires of this magnitude was obviously related to climate change. The majority of the population of Australia agreed. Yet Australia’s Prime Minister at the time was still in denial. He believed that dealing with climate would “hurt the economy” and was still touting coal as the answer even though solar and wind were already cheaper world wide and super abundant in sun-burnt Australia. The fossil fuel and minerals lobby certainly had a strangle hold on Australia and many other countries back then. Subsidies to fossil fuels globally were estimated by the IMF to top $5.2 Trillion in 2017 and fossil fuel money was pouring into disinformation, lobbying, and political campaigns around the world. Trump’s America was probably the worst case – in league with Putin’s Russian oligarchs.
This was interconnected with growing inequality, which had reached epic proportions by 2020. Oxfam estimated that 26 individuals owned more than the poorest 50% in 2019. The .01% were in control and the wellbeing of the broader population and future generations was not their major concern. GDP was growing, but the average person’s income, wellbeing, and life satisfaction were not. The planet and civilization was falling apart. There was an epidemic of pessimism, depression, and defeatism. But things were starting to change.
In 2018 a few vanguard countries (Scotland, Iceland, and New Zealand) created the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) as part the larger global Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) to challenge the acceptance of GDP as the ultimate measure of a country’s success and replace it with the sustainable wellbeing of humans and the rest of nature as the core goal for all societies. Take a look at this archived TED talk that Nicola Sturgeon, then First Minister of Scotland, gave to kick off the network.
WEAll was designed as a broad ‘network of networks’, aimed at bringing together the many organizations, governments, networks, academics, businesses, NGOs, and individuals that were already working on elements of the new economy. It was designed to coordinate, facilitate, amplify, and catalyse the wide range of ongoing efforts around the shared goal of creating a sustainable wellbeing economy, society, and planet.
WEGo quickly grew to include Slovenia, Costa Rica, Sweden, Finland, Bhutan, and a few progressive states in the US including California, Colorado, Oregon, and Vermont. Annual summits quickly went from the WE3 to the WE7, WE20, and, by 2030, the WE90 while the G7 and G20 summits faded to insignificance. Wellbeing governments are now the norm around the world.
The real breakthroughs came when the Vatican and Pope Francis joined WEAll and this opened the door for many other faith communities to join. Then China joined as part of its “Ecological Civilization” initiative and things really started to move.
The world today is far different from where it was in 2020 and there is a growing sense of hope for the future. Renewable solar and wind energy have achieved market dominance globally and fossil fuels are rapidly fading. This was accelerated by declining fossil fuel subsidies, divestment from fossil fuel companies, ongoing class action lawsuits for climate damages and the Earth Atmospheric Trust as a way to funnel these funds back into reducing emissions and sequestering carbon.
GDP is still calculated by most countries, but it is used for its intended purpose of tracking the amount of activity in marketed goods and services, not as a societal goal. In fact, since GDP tracks many things that are costs rather than benefits, the goal for society is now to maximize societal wellbeing with the minimum of GDP required. Jacinda Ardern introduced the first “wellbeing budget” in New Zealand in 2019. As Katrin Jakobsdottir, PM of Iceland and one of the other founding members of WEGo said back in 2019 “The wellbeing economy initiative demands new thinking, putting people and the planet first. We have no choice but to rethink our economies to tackle the largest crises of our times: climate change and inequality.”
To measure progress toward these goals a Sustainable Wellbeing Index (SWI) tracking the net economic contributions to wellbeing (including equity) and the contributions of natural and social capital was developed and eventually replaced GDP as a key indicator of national wellbeing. The SWI was closely connected with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
But the biggest change was a fundamental change in worldview and goals to one that recognized the interdependence of the economy, society, and the rest of nature and put the sustainable wellbeing of the whole, interconnected system as the priority. We finally realized that the goal was “better” not necessarily “bigger.”
This allowed a large number of policy reforms to finally take hold, including versions of the “green new deal” first proposed in the US and UK. For example, effective net zero carbon policies were adopted in most countries. The work week in most countries is now 4 days following Finland’s example. Taxes on both national and global wealth and income are now very progressive, with top marginal rates in the 70-80% range. This, together with taxes on stock trading and reduced military spending allowed plenty of funding for the shift to renewables, zero unemployment, and universal health care and higher education in many countries. These shifts really took hold after Trump and the Republicans lost the 2020 election and the US regained some of its lost standing in the world. They implemented health care and higher education for all, reduced gender and overall inequality, massively invested in renewables and community infrastructure rather than continuing to subsidize fossil fuels, and finally, in the end, joined WEGo.
So it seems we are finally over the hump and the future looks bright again in 2030. Carbon emissions are falling globally with a massive shift to renewables. High speed rail and electric cars are the norm and even air travel is getting better with hydrogen fueled planes on the horizon. Inequality in many countries is decreasing for the first time since 1980. Wellbeing (as measured by the SWI) is growing almost everywhere even as GDP has leveled off or even decreased in many countries. Global population is headed toward stability faster than projected back in 2020 due to more investment in education for girls in developing countries.
There are still bush fires in Australia every summer, but better forest and fire management fully engaging indigenous people, knowledge and practice and a commitment by a string of Wellbeing governments to real action on climate have meant no repetition of the disastrous fire season of 2019-20. Happy New Year 2030.