At a Hard Time: The Metrics of Well-Being.

Paris, 7 January 2015

What is happiness? What is well-being?  What should we be targeting for our societies? It is important for active citizens in a participatory democracy (there is no other) that we come to a broadly shared vision of where we want to go, a straight-forward, consistent strategy for how to get there, and some kind of measure so that we can see how we are doing.  Sad to say all three are lacking on the political landscape today and  we all are paying a high price for it. And if anything especially today.

je suis charlieListening ot the radio a few hours after the murderous attack  at Charlie Hebdo, I turned on my computer to find a short essay just in Sandra Waddock, Professor of Management at Boston College, responding to an on-going discussion of “The Degrowth Alternative”, currently underway under the aegis of a program of the Tellus Institute, The Great Transition Initiative –   (Prof. Waddock can be contacted at waddock(at)  She reminds us at a time in which there is considerable though not always well informed discussions about the concept of “growth”, and  just behind that the not-so-easy concept of “well-being”.

I would like to make a couple of points relevant to this very interesting and relevant degrowth conversation  [1].

The idea of ‘growth’ as we know it today seems to have been introduced into the economic conversation in the wake of World War II as a way to restart economies badly damaged by the war. ‘Growth’ has not always been the economic objective though it is clear that economies need to support the growing population (though that form of growth, too, is problematic for the planet). Human population has quadrupled over the past century or so—and that level of growth is simply unsustainable.

The measurement of GDP/GNP has been known to be problematic since it was introduced.

It measures only economic activity of a certain form and fails to measure much necessary work that is not paid for (e.g., household work, caring work, child-rearing work). It counts negatives as ‘growth,’ including, for example, clear cutting a forest or strip mining, or industrial activity that pollutes, without accounting for the negative externalities that are created by such activities.

The words of Robert Kennedy in 1968 sum up these issues nicely:

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Almost half a century ago, the young Robert F. Kennedy, then a candidate for president of the United States and later a victim to the same senseless violence which we have seen in Paris today,  made an eloquent  speech at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968 in which he publicly asked himself those questions  [2]

In 1824, when Thomas Hart Benton was urging in Congress the development of Iowa and other western territories, he was opposed by Daniel Webster, the Senator from Massachusetts.  “What,” asked Webster, “what do we want with this vast and worthless area?  This region of savages and wild beasts.  Of deserts of shifting sands and of whirlwinds.  Of dust, and of cactus and of prairie dogs.

“To what use,” he said, “could we ever hope to put these great deserts?  I will never vote for one-cent from the public treasury, to place the west one inch closer to Boston, than it is now.”  And that is why, I am here today.

. . .

And despite all the accusations against me, those words were not written by me, they were written by that notorious seditionist, William Allen White.  And I know what great affection this university has for him.  He is an honored man today, here on your campus and around the rest of the nation.  But when he lived and wrote, he was reviled as an extremist and worse.  For he spoke, he spoke as he believed.  He did not conceal his concern in comforting words. He did not delude his readers or himself with false hopes and with illusions.

This spirit of honest confrontation is what America needs today.  It has been missing all too often in the recent years and it is one of the reasons that I run for President of the United States.

. . .

But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.

Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

– Robert F. Kennedy, at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968

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[1] From contribution by Sandra Waddock, Professor of Management Boston College, to a discussion of “The Degrowth Alternative” currently underway under the aegis of a program of the Tellus Institute, The Great Transition Initiative –   Prof. Waddock can be contacted at waddock(at)


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As another victim of senseless violence and assassination, future US president Abraham Lincoln put it like this in a speech to the Republican State Convention which met in Springfield, Illinois on June 16, 1858

 A house divided against itself cannot stand

About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at and @ericbritton

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