by Alan Knight
Alan Knight (British, born 1964) specializes in corporate sustainability and product-centric sustainability for big brands (e.g., Virgin, Kingfishe, B&Q, SABMiller) and public policy (in UK government think tanks on sustainability, eco-labeling, and consumption). See www.dralanknight.com.
Let’s take an example. Cornwall is a remote region in the south west of England, rich in surfing beaches, countryside and spectacular coastlines. In 2013, however, its average wage was lower than the rest of England with productivity per working person also below average. The numbers were comparable with some of the emerging regions in Eastern Europe. Despite this, Cornwall scored well on quality of life, coming up as one of the regions in the England that people particularly enjoy living or visiting. In 2013, it was unknown in Cornwall whether this was a quirk of statistics or whether there was a deeper sophisticated link between the nature of peoples’ work, their quality of life and their relationship with the natural environment. In a future sustainable world that relationship would be better understood and form the political agenda.
In 2013, the UK’s prime national policy objective (like most countries in the world) was economic growth. At one level this is reasonable, but what is missing is the appetite to understand the cause, significance and long-term value of life satisfaction and the natural environment. Success is measured against economic outcomes, with growth being the key prize to chase. While prosperity matters, the missed opportunity for every economy is to understand more profoundly the relationship between that prosperity and peoples’ happiness, wellbeing and the natural environment.
In a sustainable future, society will understand and manage the relationship between happiness, economic and the natural environment. All three will matter and be measured equally and policy will overtly seek to find the optimum balance between all three.
In 2013, there were not many examples of this kind of thinking; only anecdotes and emerging research. For example, in Cornwall it is not rare for even the most senior manager, when seeing perfect surf on their local beach, to end their working day a bit earlier and go surfing. Having travelled all day to view a house in Cornwall, the author of this report arrived at the estate office to see a note on the office door “gone surfing – back at 4pm”. Welcome to Cornwall or welcome to a sustainable future? Is this good or bad economics? Surfing brings into Cornwall at least £64 million, with some organisations like Surfers Against Sewage arguing that it is much more. Environmental growth and personal growth could be achieved doubling this business.
Growing4life, a study by Thrive and Mind, demonstrates that a low cost but effective therapy for people suffering from mild to severe mental conditions was to provide supervised work in the natural environment, ranging from faming to horticulture. The therapy was more effective and at a much lower cost to all. Similarly, Growing Health Project, run by Garden Organic, sees the link between wellbeing and gardening, while the UK National Trust points out the benefits to children’s health through their National Childhood Enquiry.
Tim Jackson, in his book Prosperity without Growth, argues that the continued pursuit of economic growth is locking us into unsustainability. However, so far there has not been a serious, policy changing debate on this. On the contrary, the need to tackle the national deficit and restore the economy is in danger of re-enforcing a growth centric policy.
We need to create safe spaces to talk about these issues – debates and workshops that draw together a quality of life index and agree measurements on the quality of the natural environment. We need new governance systems to better manage the link between natural, social and economic capital. Perhaps we could work with cabinet offices and treasury to seek their engagement and support for such measures on quality of life and natural environment. And of course, we need more people to spend time outdoors – so go walking, cycling or if you are lucky – go surfing!
Some useful websites on the subject include: www.thrive.org.uk, www.growinghealth.info and www.nationaltrust.org.uk.