In the first of a three-part series that looks at where we're headed as a global society ... and considers whether it's where we want to go, Dr Katherine Trebeck (TC 1996) shares her thoughts on the global economy. Katherine is a writer and researcher and an advocate for economic system change. Her aim is to spark different ways of thinking about the economy and its purpose, and to draw attention to the potential impacts on our lives if we don’t.
Step back and look at the world. We’re like hamsters scuttling on a globe, trying to spin it faster and faster. It’s been somewhat effective keeping the world moving in this way, but hamsters can’t run for ever, and the world can only spin so fast.
As a political economist, Katherine can see we need to find a better way to keep the world, and everything within it, from imploding – literally or figuratively – and to stop spending money and effort on downstream remedies without considering the root cause. And we need to do it quickly.
‘So much effort gets deployed in dealing with the collateral damage of our current economic systems,’ says Katherine from her home in Glasgow, where she’s lived for the past 16 years. ‘A lot of charities, a lot of civil society effort, and a lot of government policy and spending is orientated around helping people and helping the planet survive and cope with the fallout of our current economic system.’
Katherine points to funding to help income-insecure people cope with stress and anxiety, and bushfire and flood recovery (and dealing with the impacts of climate change in general), as examples of time and money being spent on the aftermath of a problem, rather than the problem itself.
‘I just got to the point of seeing how much effort goes into responding to the damage that could be avoided that I thought, surely we can be a bit smarter in the way we design our economic systems,’ she says. ‘It surely can’t be that our expectations are so low that we think the best we can do is patch and repair the current economic system with Band-Aids.’
Katherine spent her early career looking into big mining companies and how they affected communities around mine sites in Australia. She then took a similar role at the University of Glasgow looking at how large companies impact communities in Scotland, after moving ‘for a love of the country’. From there, she jumped into social enterprise and then a role with Oxfam, examining poverty and inequality in Scotland.
Katherine was prompted to consider why a rich country like Scotland has so much inequality. Portions of the Scottish population have life expectancies decades below others, and the gap is widening. She began to wonder what current economic models were doing to not just Scotland, but the planet.
And she began questioning the political holy grail of GDP.
‘So often, gross domestic product is seen as a default proxy for the health of a country, the success of a country, its league tables,’ she says. ‘We define development by “how big is a country's GDP?” And yet, it's not an automatic route to good lives for everyone.
‘The goal of the economy is more and more growth, but so often the most goes to those who don't really need more … This set-up also flies in the face of what all the science is telling us about the reality of planetary boundaries.’
On a mission to find a better way, Katherine got involved in a project that set out to devise measures of progress that were more holistic than GDP via the ‘Humankind Index’. Though small, the project was debated in Scotland’s parliament and the thinking behind it was integrated into a framework designed to shape the country’s economy and government. For Katherine, it was a sign that asking different questions of the economy could prompt systemic change.
This led to her taking a lead role in establishing the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership – a group of governments (currently Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Wales and Finland) that recognise that success in the twenty-first century can’t simply be about faster GDP growth, but, rather, collective wellbeing of people and the planet.
Katherine also co-founded the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) in 2018, with the aim of bringing together individuals and groups who share her logic on economic change, including academics, progressive businesses and policymakers.
The importance of getting those groups together to engage in discussions about the state of the world and where it’s heading has become more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘There were a lot of challenges already facing societies around the world and, in a way, COVID has just put those on steroids,’ says Katherine, referencing the gig economy and lack of job security for many (asking ‘are they earning enough to participate in society?’), and young people’s fear of climate change.
‘I worry what will come out now is governments saying, "We need to just get the economy going again."’ From Katherine’s perspective, governments need to think about the “new normal” they want to create, set the boundaries within which individuals and businesses operate and have a higher policy ambition than simply helping people “cope”.
‘I think rich, industrialised countries like Australia and the UK, which have taken up and are taking up more than their share of ecological room, are quite literally stopping other communities around the world who need to increase their material living standards, who do need more growth, because it still makes a difference to various social dimensions. If countries like ours don't make ecological room for them, we're essentially saying, "You stay down there because we want more." But many countries don't need more. We just need to distribute things better, have better quality of what we have, and reuse, recycle and share.’
Katherine lives by the mantra that ‘if you are luckier than some, build a longer table, not a higher fence’, and feels that Trinity plays a role in building long tables. ‘I'd hope that that idea of compassion rather than putting up the higher fence is something that Trinity has sparked in a lot of people that they've now taken into their professional careers. For me, I'm sure it did to a degree.’
Katherine admits to sometimes feeling ‘pretty scared’ about the future, but the passion and intelligence of the younger generation, which has grown up with the realities of ecological limitations, gives her some hope.
‘There are lots of reasons to be optimistic, but I think we'd be naive to not be very anxious about the future. So, taking action is worth it. We need to act, otherwise it's not going to pan out right. It's all up to us. And I mean us, as in, everyone.’
What can we do?
Katherine says we need to ask harder questions of the economy and its role: Is it an objective in its own right? Or can it be designed differently to serve the outcomes we’re really seeking, such as decent livelihoods, a sense of purpose, connection, a healthy environment, and so on?
Encourage and support those businesses that are part of the solution – those that use their commercial viability to help deliver wider benefits.
Tell politicians this matters to you – they will move if they have a sense that the population is behind them.
Join groups like WEAll to link with others, add value and share ideas and hope; weall.org
This article first appeared in issue #90 of Trinity Today.