Time for an Upgrade: A New Operating System for the Global Economy
The endless pursuit of growth is pushing societies and ecosystems to breaking point. Katherine Trebeck is building a network of maverick economists, entrepreneurs and activists with a radically different vision for the future.
In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the magnum opus he wrotewhile living at his mother’s house in Kircaldy, a town on the east coast of Scotland.
The book would become one of the most influential works of classical economics, building on Smith’s idea that an ‘invisible hand’ would work tirelessly for the benefit of all when markets were allowed to operate freely. Two centuries later, economists would use Smith’s work to argue that the path to prosperity lay in slashing regulations, dismantling trade barriers and chasing ever-faster economic growth. The result: astonishing progress in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and so much damage to Earth’s life support systems that the survival of modern civilisation is now in doubt.
Blending a sunny Aussie energy with a geeky fascination with exotic economic indicators, Dr Katherine Trebeck, an Australian political economist, relishes overturning dusty economics theories as much as she loves the glens and fells of Scotland, her adopted home. Like other members of a fast-growing ‘new economics’ movement, Katherine believes that the only way to address today’s vast inequalities and avert ecological collapse is to rethink the discipline’s most cherished assumptions. Blind faith in the ‘invisible hand’ is out. Katherine and her colleagues want governments to start consciously designing what they describe as ‘wellbeing’ economies.
“The current system is forced to invest a lot of resources in fixing and cleaning up and trying to heal the damage that it does — whether it’s in an environmental sense, or a social sense,” Katherine says, speaking from her home in Glasgow. “A wellbeing economy wouldn’t demand so much fixing and healing, and cleaning up and treating and consoling. It would see the economy doing much more of the heavy-lifting in delivering good lives first time around.”
Katherine's vehicle for pursuing this vision: the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, or WEAll, a network of organisations and individuals she co-founded in 2017 to try to develop a more granular picture of what ‘wellbeing’ economies might look like. The more than 60 member groups include Sistema B in Latin America; the Next System Project in the US; and WE Africa. While the term ‘wellbeing’ has spawned a whole industry dedicated to self-soothing – from spa breaks to mindfulness apps – Katherine and her allies aren’t talking about scented candles. Their goal is to persuade policy-makers and business leaders to give up the pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, and explore kinder forms of capitalism.
Their goal is to persuade policy-makers and business leaders to give up the pursuit of growth for growth’s sake, and explore kinder forms of capitalism.
“It’s messy, and it’s broad-based and it’s multi-faceted: at its heart it’s about an economy that works for people and planet, rather than the other way round,” Katherine says.
Central to her thinking is the idea that advanced economies have ‘arrived.’ Focusing on gross domestic product (GDP) growth may have made sense in past decades, driving improvements in living standards and technological innovation. But many countries have now reached a point where they have more enough to go around. Rather than run the risk that accelerating environmental degradation will gradually render the Earth uninhabitable, policy-makers and business leaders need to focus on how economic systems can be repurposed to deliver more benign social and ecological outcomes. Early in 2019, Katherine set out her logic with co-author Jeremy Williams in their new book The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown up economy.
Focusing on gross domestic product (GDP) growth may have made sense in the past, but many countries have now reached a point where they have more enough to go around.
Is anybody listening? Katherine names Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Slovenia, Finland, Bhutan and Costa Rica as core members of a loose coalition of countries, cities and regions that are starting to explore how to integrate wellbeing into economic policy. To help persuade more decision- makers to take the concept seriously, she devotes much of her energy to weaving together examples from academic studies, progressive businesses, community initiatives and government programmes from around the world to show what’s possible. The case studies of wellbeing pioneers are as diverse as they are numerous: the Mondragon workers’ cooperatives in Spain’s Basque country; socially-minded companies such as Patagonia in the US; the Repair Cafés springing up worldwide so locals can get together to fix broken items; or Copenhagen’s ground-breaking bike-sharing scheme.
“There’s a lot of chinks of light that show us what this looks like. The challenge is that they are relatively disparate and disconnected,” Katherine says. “What’s been quite amazing is so many organisations are joining in and saying ‘this is the right thing at the right time.’ putting those different emphases to one side and saying ‘we just want to work with others.’”
Katherine’s fascination with the way clashing economic forces shape individual lives was fired by an inspiring lecturer on trade policy during her undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne. The theme took on a sharper definition when she spent a summer as a volunteer in the accounts department in a hospital in northern Cameroon. Soon after she returned to Melbourne, a flood devastated the village. As she fretted about whether to go back and join the relief effort, imagining herself filling sandbags or peeling potatoes, another lecturer — a sober-minded human rights activist from East Timor — set her straight.
“She metaphorically slapped me on the wrists and said: ‘Don’t be an idiot — you’ll get in the way. You’ll be the Western girl who’s more a hassle than anything. Get as much education as you can then work out why a community is vulnerable to these things.”
In hindsight, Katherine sees the dressing-down as a turning point: the moment where she realised that she could make her biggest contribution by working to reshape policy. She went on to earn a PhD studying the dynamics at work between mining giant Rio Tinto and aboriginal communities living near deposits of iron ore, zinc and uranium — dividing her time between mining camps in the rust-red deserts of Western Australia and the corridors of corporate power.
The lessons she learned about social marginalisation, how communities could form coalitions to confront multi-national companies, and how business executives could learn to listen, proved unexpectedly useful when she decided to make the career equivalent of a hand-brake turn.
A believer in the Gaelic saying that “your feet will take you to where your heart is,” Katherine moved to Scotland in 2005 – a country she had fallen in love with while backpacking across Europe and Ireland as student, captivated by its ‘sexy’ hills. After working at the University of Glasgow, she took a research and policy job in a social enterprise dedicated to supporting ex-offenders or the long-term unemployed. The striking levels of ill health and joblessness in the city’s poorer areas had echoes of the kind of systemic failures that perpetuated the poverty and exclusion she had witnessed among aboriginal people in the outback.
Katherine then moved to Oxfam, where she spent nine years researching how the West’s economic system served to reinforce the inequalities the organisation was trying to address. Some of her most influential work was a project called ‘Whose Economy?’ on the roots of Scotland's social problems. She also led a consultation with 3,000 people to develop a ‘humankind index’ to reflect what was most important in their lives, identifying factors such as income stability, safety, and relationships. Her work informed a wider discussion at the time of Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum on how the country could become more equitable. Katherine’s chance to deepen her engagement with such questions came three years later, when Stewart Wallis, the British former executive director of the New Economics Foundation, came out of retirement to found WEAll. After years of working in larger organisations, Katherine found the start-up vibe refreshing as their small team — spanning Devon, Colorado, Malaga and Madrid — swapped contacts and hustled for funding. Katherine emphasises that WEAll is seeking to act primarily as a force-multiplier by championing the work many others are doing. Her team affectionately address each other in emails as ‘amps’ — short for ‘Amplifiers’.
“We don’t want to be the Rock Stars — it’s about amplifying the work of other people. So that other projects can be inspired by them, and see the feasibility and the desirability of this sort of change — so you start to get more and more replication, and ideally you’re heading towards tipping points and a new normal,” she says.
Her fantasy project: design a new set of ‘cornerstone’ indicators for the wellbeing economy.
Katherine wants to see changes in the way business are constructed and governed so that managers can look beyond a sole focus on boosting their company's share price to factor in the broader consequences of their decisions. She also wants to build on the work of economists devising new ways to measure economic performance beyond a narrow focus on GDP. Her fantasy project: design a new set of ‘cornerstone’ indicators for the wellbeing economy. One of her favourite ideas: Why not get countries to measure the number of girls who bicycle to school? What clearer yardstick could convey so much about progress in women’s education, green transport, health and poverty alleviation in a single number? Better yet — it’s the kind of data point that you don’t need an economics degree to grasp.
With the prospect that resurgent nationalism and climate breakdown could soon replace a tenuous international order with an uglier form of lifeboat politics, contemplating the scale of the challenge of remaking the global economic system is an obvious recipe for overwhelm, no matter how deep Katherine’s reserves of antipodean optimism may run. But WEAll’s rapid growth suggests that many more people now share the intuition that the time has come for a fundamental shift.
“A growing network of people are starting to point to the economic system as something that’s well overdue for change. And people are rolling up their sleeves and delivering that,” Trebeck says. “We try to reassure ourselves that although we don’t have the resources of the neo-liberal project, we have the hearts and hands of a lot of folk who are wanting to change the system.”
Words by Matthew Green
Matthew Green is a journalist and author. After 14 years working as a correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he wrote his new book Aftershock: fighting war, surviving trauma and finding peace, which documents the struggles of British military veterans seeking new ways to heal from post-traumatic stress.
Photos by Robert Ormerod
Rob Ormerod is an Edinburgh based photographer whose work has been featured in the Washington Post, The Guardian and National Geographic.