Jonny Hughes: Wealth debate is not merely about creation, it now asks how we best use that which we've created

IN THE past few decades, gross domestic product (GDP) has become not just a measure of economic growth but also a proxy for societal progress. As such, it has become a hugely powerful driver of government decision-making across all areas of policy.

The consequences of chasing GDP growth while continuing to externalise environmental and social costs are stark; in the past 30 years, the global economy has doubled while greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 40 per cent (since 1990) and 60 per cent of the world's ecosystems have been degraded. It's not making us any happier either. In 2006, before the downturn, 60 per cent of Europeans said life was getting worse.

Robert Kennedy said that "gross national product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile".

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Perhaps an exaggeration, yet it is true that oil spills, epidemics and unsustainable bubbles in the economy all help push up GDP, but are hardly good for us. Other economic commentators have echoed Kennedy's view. Lord Turner, chair of the UK Financial Services Authority, has said we should "dethrone the idea that maximising GDP should be an explicit objective of economic and social policy". The general public agrees, with more than 80 per cent saying the government's prime objective should be happiness, not simply wealth.

Now we are even seeing right-of- centre politicians like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy bringing forward major initiatives which seek to measure the outcome we are after (wellbeing), as opposed to one, rather flawed, means of getting there (GDP).

President Sarkozy's initiative was headed by Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist to the World Bank and a winner of the Nobel memorial prize for economic sciences. The key message to arise from the Stiglitz commission was that "the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people's wellbeing. And measures of wellbeing should be put in a context of sustainability."

How can we begin to make this shift and challenge the primacy of GDP? One solution might be to adjust GDP so it accounts for the environmental and social costs.

A simpler approach could be to consistently report two or three core progress measures alongside one another. A communication from the European Commission last year titled "GDP and beyond" recommended EU member states adopt this kind of approach.

Ultimately though, moving from a growth-for-growth's-sake model to a sustainable development model for the economy will require strong leadership and co-operation between governments, and perhaps some less-than-superficial reporting of this agenda by the media.

l Jonny Hughes is director of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a non-executive director of Scottish Environment Link.