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Photo: iStock

Insights into a well-being economy

How could we reorganize Alberta's economy to serve the needs to the people and the land?

January 3, 2024

5-minute read

A Well-Being Economy for Alberta conference ended with virtual breakout rooms, where participants shared and discussed learnings, resonant themes, and remaining questions. The conversations were striking for their respectful tone and the sense that each person could contribute to a well-being economy. The insights were rich and inspiring, and we share some of them here.

Some general themes …

What do we mean by well-being and what is the value of a well-being lens?

The idea of a well-being economy brought to mind aspects of physical health, mental well-being, social connection, environmental sustainability, and the health of our democratic institutions. Some participants also noted that a well-being lens can help us to draw connections between the interactions of our day-to-day lives (micro) and the dominant systems in which we live (macro). This connection felt powerful in that it brings potential for well-being to overcome the harms and inequities built into many of our present systems.

The lingering ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic weighed heavily on the discussion. Participants lamented that prevention, public health, and social determinants of health were politicized and used to divide people. As moderator Gwendolyn Blue stated, “Well-being shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

The problems of our current economic system are features, not bugs

We live in a system where constant distraction, disinformation, dissatisfaction, and exhaustion are features—not bugs. And, neoliberal capitalism thrives on this: it creates these problems and then offers tantalizing solutions. Although the solution is packaged in many ways, it is ultimately the same: we should consume more, take personal responsibility, and, if those “solutions” fail (which they inevitably will), we should take a mindfulness seminar and learn some “self-care”.

There was a lot of frustration. People spoke about their need and desire to move away from the “laws” of perpetual growth, competition, and individualism, only to find themselves pulled right back in. Could an explicitly intersectional well-being approach offer a way out?

Silos and fragmentation

Participants expressed a sense of being overwhelmed by the many intersecting challenges that people are facing. People have housing problems, income problems, work problems, problems accessing supports and services. How can we help people connect the dots between these problems and see the economy as the common denominator? It seems that no one in government (local, provincial, or federal) is taking a big picture, intersectional perspective.

One group highlighted the problem of specialization: the view that the only way to get a job and be successful is to focus deeply on one area, but we do this at the expense of thinking more broadly and at a system level. Because of this, and because of cuts to higher education, we often don’t have the foundations to work through our current political economic system and its rationale and assumptions.

Mourning the loss of foundations of trust, accountability, and the commons

Participants commented on the massive influence of corporations on public policy and regulations and noted that it caused a growing loss of trust. There is a sense that our systems (e.g., education, health care) are failing to meet people where they are. Many participants expressed that help does not arrive until it is too late. How can we start to rebuild public services and institutions outside of private/corporate interests?

This lack of trust is connected to an erosion of accountability. There is a perception that our institutions, including governments, lack humility. This has been demonstrated when they shut down meaningful dialogues around past decisions and accountability. Participants noted that there is a superficial culture of apology, rather than actual accountability.

Participants had a feeling of loss, especially the loss of common “goods” that supported us as individuals and communities during past challenges and crises. This includes the loss of public spaces as well as common social experiences and connections to others. The library was noted as one of the last places where one can go without having to buy something. One important pathway to well-being is to expand, rather than reduce, these common spaces.

While some participants had disengaged politically because they felt a lack of choice and voice, others attributed it to exhaustion, or to the ways in which social movements have been fragmented and weakened. This loss of collective organization and solidarity is felt to be a direct effect of things like “hustle” culture, insecure work, and the commodification of time. Participants are tired and frustrated with a continuous string of crises that are exploited for short-term political gain, and the ways in which social media platforms have become politicized and controlled.

…. and some specific ideas

Inclusion and diversity of voices

What will it take to build a society that supports and prioritizes well-being? A key piece of this puzzle is inclusion. Today, decisions about how society runs are usually based on profit-driven criteria that unduly benefit those at the top. A person’s value is equated with their profitability. This decision-making prioritizes projects that benefit businesses financially, while providing little benefit to the greater community and, in many cases, harming it. The needs, wants, and voices of entire groups of people are left behind in this process. For example, if a person cannot work due to a disability, they are viewed as less valuable and considered a financial burden on the system. This manner of thinking has no place within a society that values well-being. Our unique and diverse viewpoints, experiences, and voices are crucial to building a better, kinder world that respects each person's rights and intrinsic value.

Rights of nature

Well-being relies on a diversity of voices, and those voices must not belong to humans alone. Humans are just one part of a much bigger ecosystem; the well-being needs of that larger ecosystem must be prioritized, and not only in a monetary sense or because of its benefits to humans. This concept is not new. Longstanding Indigenous perspectives provide us insight into how people can positively coexist with nature. Nature, including all living creatures, must have the right to exist and flourish. An interesting case can be seen in Costa Rica, where pollinators were granted citizenship based on their significant role in ecological connectivity.

Environmental and social sustainability

Despite extensive scientific knowledge about the extent and magnitude of the planetary crisis and its main causes, we have largely failed to apply that knowledge to foster environmental sustainability. To do so will require firm commitment to staying within known ecological limits. Environmental sustainability cannot be separated from social sustainability. Indeed, a “just transition”, by definition, requires full participation in a democratic social order. We need to figure out how to act as a collective, where individuals are respectful of the social order and contribute to its long-term well-being. In socioeconomic terms, this implies a more equitable and fair distribution of the rewards gained from economic development.

Well-being-oriented investment of one’s money

Some participants raised the question of how individuals can invest their money in projects that contribute to collective well-being. While the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) movement gives the illusion of well-being-oriented investment, many of those funds have not lived up to their promises. Examples of well-being-oriented investment opportunities in Alberta were mentioned, including the Solar Panel Installation Co-operative of Edmonton and the Bow Valley Green Energy Co-operative. An important aspect of investment is the role that could be played by public banks, such as ATB in Alberta (see Ascah & McLaren in this section).

Raven Trust, which raises legal defence funds for Indigenous Peoples in Canada to defend rights and the integrity of lands and culture, is another example of well-being-oriented investment. It means distinguishing between “investment” in the capitalist sense, which emphasizes profit gains for an individual investor, and the more general sense, which is about devoting resources towards achieving a collective goal.

Topics addressed in this article

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