More of what matters : everyday actions for sustainability

More of what matters : everyday actions for sustainability

In this "carte blanche", Francesco Sarracino, senior researcher at Statec, explores the tension between prioritizing economic growth and promoting well-being as the primary objective for societal progress.

He argues for a shift towards Neo-humanism, emphasizing social connections, environmental sustainability, and individual fulfillment as key to sustainability, with recommendations for both individual actions and policy changes to achieve a holistic approach to well-being and societal progress.

My students once commented : economic growth is desirable for various societal outcomes, including higher salary, improved standards of living, and preventing social unrest. How to disagree ? However, economic growth – as we know it - does not deliver happier and sustainable lives either. Should our primary objective be economic growth, or shall we prioritize the well-being of individuals and communities, allowing economic prosperity to follow as a byproduct ? This shift in perspective represents a departure from conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) metrics towards Neo-humanism, a holistic narrative of societal progress. This is key for sustainability, but if you think that I will argue for vegetarian diets, electric cars and no flights, you will be disappointed. These actions won’t help sustainability if consumption is central for people’s well-being 5. It is like going on diet ignoring the reason why we consume too much in the first place.

I replied to my students illustrating what matters for well-being ; that well-being is not growing despite our best efforts to promote economic growth ; and that the emphasis on growth made us neglect many important aspects for fulfilling lives. The problems we so desperately hope economic growth will fix stubbornly persist despite our efforts : environmental degradation, natural disasters, climate change, loss of biodiversity ; decreasing social cohesion, declining trust in others and in institutions ; rising inequalities, mass migration, xenophobia, political polarization, and growing populism ; growing conflicts and geo-political uncertainty 1, 2, 3, 4.

The problems we so desperately hope economic growth will fix stubbornly persist despite our efforts.

Confronted with these facts, the students conceded : perhaps it is time to go beyond GDP and give happiness a chance ! Neo-humanism offers a narrative of societal progress not solely in economic terms, but also in terms of social cohesion, environmental sustainability, and individual fulfillment. Promoting well-being is key to sustainability. Here are some suggestions on how you, me and policy-makers can promote sustainability in everyday life.

Me and you : Cultivate Social Relationships

Francesco Sarracino
Francesco Sarracino - ©Fanny Krackenberger

Social relations are at the heart of sustainability. By dedicating time to friends, family, and neighbors, we can create a support network that fosters collaboration and resilience. Reach out to loved ones you have not connected with in a while ; check how your neighbors are doing ; see if the lady at the other side of the street needs help with her grocery. A simple call, a text message or a quick visit can ignite meaningful connections, create a community, and make us feel part of something bigger than us.

Engaging in pro-social or pro-environmental voluntary activities further reinforces our sense of belonging and purpose. Whether it’s participating in community clean-up events, volunteering at local shelters, a sport club, walking a dog, or joining environmental advocacy groups, these actions benefit the community, and nurture our connection with others and the natural world.

Social connections allow us to cultivate a sense of belonging and trust in others that make people feel empowered and able to cooperate for the common good, such as protecting a park, a shared resource, or recycling waste.

Make sure to carve out time for yourself and your passions. Engaging in meditation can significantly help in maintaining focus on your life priorities. Many of us feel like trapped in a cycle struggling to raise money. However, the reason money is so important isn’t just because people are greedy – as economists say. Money is so darn important because we live expensive lives in which what we can do depends on the size of our wallet ; what we own defines our identity ; money reassures us that we can confidently face the uncertainties of the future. Research shows that the more social relations are scarce, the more these aspects matter for people’s well-being . On the contrary, people define and shape their identity, and build confidence in the future by spending time with others, being involved in meaningful relations, and supporting each other.

Together : Think big, start small

While individual actions are essential, systemic change requires coordinated efforts at the policy level. Neo-humanism offers a comprehensive view to build a sustainable society in which people can live satisfactory lives6. However, there are already some steps that Governments and policymakers can take to get us moving in the right direction. This includes limiting advertising, particularly targeted at vulnerable populations like children and teenagers ; reducing working time ; turning urban environment into relational spaces ; promoting public transport ; steering education towards cooperation, creativity and critical thinking to meet the unpredictable demands of an uncertain future together.

The starting point is to prioritize people’s well-being directly.

By ensuring that essential resources are available to all members of society, including good quality health care and green public spaces, policymakers can promote well-being, reduce disparities, and create a more inclusive and resilient community. If you think this is a politicized agenda, it is not : the alternative is every man for himself, but this is exactly what brought us on the brink of environmental and social collapse. Isolated individuals compete to ensure their survival. Such competition transforms individuals in formidable consumers fighting to accumulate enough resources to protect themselves and their dear ones from the uncertainties of the future. As long as we are all on the same planet, nobody wins in this zero-sum game.

Embracing well-being as a societal goal is another crucial aspect of sustainable policymaking. Governments can shift focus from economic indicators to holistic measures of societal progress and quality of life, by integrating well-being metrics into policy frameworks and decision-making processes. Well-being metrics are much closer and related to individuals’ everyday experience than most economic indicators. By prioritizing well-being and adopting well-being frameworks, Governments get closer to their constituencies, and promote citizen’s engagement. The active involvement of communities in the policy formulation process – soliciting input, feedback, and participation from diverse stakeholders – allows to build strong connections with citizens and create policies that reflect their needs and values. Transparency and accountability of the political process will also favor trust in institutions making political action effective.

In conclusion, socially and environmentally sustainable lives are possible and they do not have to cost human and natural well-being. The starting point is to prioritize people’s well-being directly. The change can start now from you and me : quit reading this article and reach out to your dear ones. Let’s give happiness a chance !

Francesco Sarracino, Senior Researcher - STATEC

  1. Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Gregg, J. W., Rockström, J., Newsome, T. M., Law, B. E., ... & King, S. D. A. (2023). The 2023 state of the climate report : Entering uncharted territory. BioScience, 73(12), 841-850.
  2. Macchia, L. (2022). Pain trends and pain growth disparities, 2009–2021. Economics & Human Biology, 47, 101200.
  3. Algan, Y., Guriev, S., Papaioannou, E., & Passari, E. (2017). The European trust crisis and the rise of populism. Brookings papers on economic activity, 2017(2), 309-400.
  4. Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2020). Trends in extreme distress in the United States, 1993–2019. American Journal of Public Health, 110(10), 1538-1544.
  5. Bartolini et al. (2023). The moderation effect of social capital in the relationship between own income, social comparisons and subjective well-being : Evidence from four international datasets. PlosONE.
  6. Sarracino and O’Connor. (2023). Neo-humanism and COVID-19 : Opportunities for a socially and environmentally sustainable world. Applied Research in Quality of Life, Vol. 18, pp. 9-41.

Article tiré de notre dossier du mois « Embarquement immédiat »

À découvrir dans le même dossier : La transition n’est pas une idéologie, c’est une nécessité

Publié le mardi 5 mars 2024
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