Sustainable Wellbeing

The Politics of Sustainable Wellbeing: A Primer

Sustainable well-being (SWB) ─ the notion that wellbeing is our top priority and future generations’ wellbeing should be as good or better than ours ─ is an obvious organising principle for our society. However, the climate action/sustainability and wellbeing movements do converge on this message. On the whole, climate debate does not center discussion of how our time could be used in more rewarding and less polluting ways than the pursuit of economic growth, and wellbeing discussions do not center the threat that climate chaos poses to humans’ quality of life now and in the future. The forum on sustainable well-being met to consider how a coherent political agenda for SWB can form.

We found that, though the radical shifts required to achieve net zero while living better lives might seem politically fanciful now, worsening climate change will increase the appetite for new directions in the future. Planning for this “tipping point” is a focus of our group, through devising both specific policies (discussed below) and advocating for a change in political ethos. The time has come for proponents of wellbeing and sustainability movements to be bolder, declaring growth to be a secondary issue, and outlining better but sustainable lives that can appeal to a plurality of citizens, while not avoiding tough issues like income inequality (and the question of “whose wellbeing?” generally). Policy makers can play crucial roles in passing carbon neutral well-being policies that are popular now and linking them explicitly to the greater ethos of SWB. Work from home laws and funding for devoted programs for recovery from complex trauma are examples of measures that massively increase well-being while being low carbon. Further ripening opportunities are presented by increasing public acceptance of measures to support “inwardly derived” wellbeing, which can go from being coping strategies for the overstressed to a popular lifestyle choice in the transition to net zero. Of special importance is maintaining poise and joy while dealing with climate anxiety, for this wellbeing initiative will foster exactly the mindset needed for collective action.

Gathering a Credible Chorus

We cannot be credible advocates of SWB as a principle while being unwilling to discuss this principle’s clear implications. So, highly effective wellbeing policies that promote lower work hours, more even income distribution, and measures to protect urban community must be “on the table” as we build an electoral majority for a shift and discussed in the context of a looming transition. Even if they are difficult to pass now, efforts to connect such measures to intergenerational responsibility in the public mind helps to prepare the ground for transition.

Wellbeing has traditionally been associated with “apolitical” win-wins that can be presented to decision-makers as “following the science” (workplace stress management, nutrition programs and mental health). This approach suited the 1990s but lopsided income distribution and plummeting faith in institutions makes it tone deaf today. The authors note that the apolitical associations of the terms “wellbeing” and even “sustainability” mean that SWB may need replacement by a more charismatic term. We offer it only as a placeholder name for a movement that embodies the principles advocated here.

Plan for Shifting Overton Window

The good news is that political feasibility of more controversial approaches to climate change will continue to increase along with meaningful, felt awareness of the depth of the climate crisis. A transition to a sustainable society must include credible proposals for creating generally high and sustainable quality of life, so radical policies aiming at this will also become viable as the need for transition becomes more apparent. A plan for sustainable wellbeing can be built around the realities of the tipping point, and whatever elements of this plan are viable now can be enacted. An SWB movement needs clear victories to win voters’ hearts and minds, rather than asking political leadership to drive sweeping change. Policy-makers need a popular mandate to achieve net zero with higher levels of happiness. The process of creating a plan should engage a broad coalition, including activists that are determined to work with political realities ─ and as Rupert Read points out, the rising numbers of traditional political Moderates with an appetite for radical climate action.  This engagement if done right, can raise the profile of transition in the public. When we have an attractive plan to address a challenge such as net zero, the challenge is easier to accept, the ”tipping point” can move forward in time.  

Getting Started

What parts of a plan can we advocate now, while we work on the broader plan? One prong of a strategy for now is to associate initiatives such as work from home laws with the responsibility to future generations embodied in a SWB focus. Another is to take advantage of a shifting window around public creation of opportunities for a better inner life. People have valued material wealth, achievement, “sex drugs and rock and roll”, and seen the limits of these values, and are increasingly interested in fundamental wellbeing. Our values of achievement and wealth are coming into conflict with our value of happiness ever more clearly, and the explosive growth of mindfulness, largely in response to an epidemic of stress, which would have violated secular norms twenty years ago is remarkable. More interventions to support basic wellbeing are possible and necessary. 

Existing programs that can be associated with the wider political program are:

  • Measures to penalise the maintenance of abusive workplaces.
  • Various measures to reduce income inequality.
  • Mindfulness programs (see The Mindfulness Initiative’s recent report on mindfulness in troubled times.) 
  • Continued investment in green technology. (See here for a discussion of a conservative perspective on technological innovation.)

Some ideas that can be developed quickly into concrete programs are:

  • Greater funding for immersive programs for people who’ve suffered complex trauma.
  • Investment in travel infrastructure that will keep holidays abroad within reach of low-and middle-income families, even if high carbon pricing is needed.
  • Public education on wellbeing skills (such as Action for Happiness) and developing a lively moral sense (see for example Moral Imaginations.)
  • Research on how to enable people to be entrepreneurial about creating well-being for others in ways that markets do not reward. (see proposal)
  • Programs to address anxiety about climate change (expanding on work in climate cafes, and the climate psychology alliance for example.)

This final point is key. Climate anxiety is a rising and undeniable trend among youth. It is directly driven by the amount of a person’s future that is threatened by climate change and the obviousness of the threat. Every year these two variables are increasing among all people, but especially youth. There is thus a public mental health issue that urgently needs addressing. Successfully addressing this issue means that more people are both psychologically stable and aware of climate change. This is exactly the profile of the most effective policy advocate. Allowing people to hold awareness of an undeniable threat with joy and grace will, more than anything, move the tipping point forward and is undeniably necessary. It is thus a top current priority.