Fixing the climate with care – by building a Wellbeing Economy

Written by: Lukas Hardt, Policy and Engagement Lead, WEAll Scotland

Published: 22/11/2021

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Lukas discusses the benefits exploring a wellbeing economy approach could have on climate change and social care.

Sitting down to write this opinion piece, it is hard not to feel overwhelmed. A short cycle away from my flat, world leaders are trying to negotiate a way out of the climate crisis, which is already burning our forests and flooding our cities. It is the last day of negotiations and the pledges and actions are still falling far short of what is needed to keep us safe.

At the same time, the newspaper headlines (this link will take you away from our website) warn me of the collapse of another part of our social fabric – the social care sector. The sector is facing a mass exodus of staff and a wave of bankruptcies, threatening to leave thousands of our loved ones without adequate care.

These two crises are connected. They are both the result of an economic system that values economic growth and shareholder wealth more than the health of people and planet.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the fact that the two challenges are connected gives me hope. Because it means we can fix them simultaneously by designing a better economic system – a Wellbeing Economy.

A Wellbeing Economy has a different purpose at its core; to deliver social justice on a healthy planet. It would be designed to provide us with what matters most – dignity, connection, nature, fairness and participation. Rather than chasing growth as an end in itself, it would be built on an ethic of care.

The care sector needs to be at the heart of the transition to a Wellbeing Economy. The sector directly serves one of our most important human needs. It has the potential to create lots of purposeful jobs. And it does so in a way that is gentle on the environment.[1]

And yet, the promise of the care sector is seldom realised. The tragedies of the COVID pandemic have shown how our economy has systematically undervalued (this link will take you away from our website) the care sector for decades, leaving care workers to suffer the deadly consequences of this failure. When government officials tout the green jobs created by a net-zero carbon economy, they talk about the jobs in building wind turbines and developing new technologies, but not the care workers delivering vital, low-carbon services.

The climate crisis and the neglect of the care sector share the same underlying driver – an obsession with economic growth. Continuous economic growth not only increases carbon emissions, it also requires us to constantly chase new ways to produce more stuff with less human labour.

But the logic of rationalising away human labour is directly opposed to the logic of care. In care work, the time we spend caring for each other forms the essence of the value we create. As a result, the care sector will always struggle in an economy that prioritises growth.

Creating a thriving, low-carbon care sector requires important reforms within the sector. Too often the care provided fails to match the needs of those looked after. Working conditions and pay in the sector are still inadequate. And climate action needs to be stepped up. It has made me hopeful to see the people in the sector rise to these challenges, when I attended a roundtable on climate change and the care sector, organised by the ALLIANCE and Scottish Care.

But reforms within the sector will fail unless they are embedded in a wider economic system change towards a Wellbeing Economy that puts the value of care front and centre. We need the voices of the care sector to be part of the movement for building a Wellbeing Economy in Scotland.

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance is connecting and amplifying the work of organisations in Scotland and around the world to build a powerful movement for economic system change. Come and join us!

Find out more at https://wellbeingeconomy.org/scotland (this link will take you away from our website) or contact me at lukas@scotland.weall.org.

[1] My own research shows that the health and social care sector uses only half as much energy per worker as the manufacturing sector, even when the whole supply chain is included (Hardt et al. 2020, https://doi.org/10.3390/su12030962)

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