Championing real progress

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, September 2013

We have more holistic ways to measure our wellbeing than the GDP. Let’s use them.

In July I surmised on this page that the Gross National Product (GNP) is a clumsy tool for determining our wellbeing since it only keeps track of our economic activity and assumes that all growth is good. As the economy gets bigger, life gets better, goes the logic. Never mind that the GNP is currently being bolstered by the forensics, funerals, rebuilding, environmental clean-up and psychological support happening in Lac Mégantic, site of the horrific train derailment this past summer. You can see the limitation.

So can Sami Glover who blogs at TreeHugger.com that, “measuring our wellbeing by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) alone is about as helpful as assessing someone’s diet based entirely on how much they eat—and with the assumption that the more they eat, the better off they’ll be.” Clearly, we need a more fine-tuned instrument. (Just to clarify, the GNP and the GDP are terms often used interchangeably, the biggest distinction being that the first measures economic activity generated by Canadians everywhere while the second limits its calculations to enterprise within the country.)

Turns out we do have a better tool—the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), conceived and developed at the University of Waterloo. Unlike the one-dimensional GDP, the CIW tracks changes in eight categories that have been deemed essential to our wellbeing: community vitality, democratic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards, and time use. The CIW analyzes and synthesizes data collected from a wealth of sources to produce a clearer and more comprehensive picture of how well we are really doing. It also compares these findings to GDP results to see if the numbers might be favourably correlated.

Apparently they are not. A detailed report released last year by the CIW team reveals that between 1994 and 2010 our GDP rose by 28.9 percent while wellbeing improved by only 5.7 percent. The categories in which we lost the most ground are the environment—not a surprise, considering the relentless tension between it and the economy—and leisure and culture.

While “leisure and culture” may sound frivolous, the shrinking household budget and ever-increasing time crunch insinuated by this decline are decidedly sobering and can have far-reaching ramifications. For example, a time crunch caused by increased hours spent in transit between home and work (20 percent more today than in 1994) could help explain the slight decline in population health in the last five years and the almost 10 percent increase of carbon emissions. We always knew life’s many facets were intricately connected, but now we have solid data to illustrate this interconnectedness as never before.

Some of the information in the CIW database has been mined from our own community. Every year the Victoria Foundation produces Victoria’s Vital Signs, a comprehensive report card of sorts that’s based on several hundred responses to an extensive survey. A quick glance at the 2012 report summary reveals that the natural environment is what we value most about our community, followed by climate, walkability, air quality, and festivals and events. The issues we find most pressing are: cost of living, homelessness, transportation, housing and addictions. This summary alone provides a wealth of information about us, including, ironically, that our attachment to the things we treasure probably hinders economic activity while our concerns likely bolster the GDP.

Victoria’s Vital Signs and the CIW report are clear, detailed and fact-based documents that provide far more insight into our state of wellbeing than the GDP ever could. Victoria’s Vital Signs should be mandatory reading for every local politician and civil servant. The CIW report—rapidly gaining global attention—should be on the desk of every policy maker and politician in the country.

But if we were to read them too (and they are well laid out and easy to digest) we could help keep our leaders focused on the things that matter most to us and our country. We could begin insisting that they pay more attention to our expressed priorities and less to the lobbyists with their deep pockets and corporate clients whose profit-driven agendas sometimes enhance the GDP but all too often impede our wellbeing.

We could, in a very grassroots way, become champions for real progress as envisioned by the people.

While writing this column TDM was revisited by a long-ago favourite quote from The Lorax (Dr. Seuss, 1971): “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”