By Katherine Beckett, Kira Bradley, Daniella Ereny and Anya Auguste
It is difficult to remain hopeful when we look around us and see the current state of our world. Climate change is a horrifying reality that we all face and yet, instead of working to unite the world against this crisis, we are increasingly divided – a situation increasingly evident within the United Kingdom, where ongoing Brexit negotiations have caused ruptures within not only the general public, but political parties too. Conflicting political opinions regarding the nation’s future have allowed pressing environmental issues to be swept aside, and this is without mentioning the fact our economic systems prioritise growth and profit over the happiness, health and sustainability of society and its members.
However, changes can and are being made. There is an abundance of organisations and individuals who wish to see our systems restructured in a way that works for people and the planet – one such organisation is the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll). This organisation works as a platform, aiming to amplify and unite the work of change makers from all over the world in order to transform our economy for the better, in which resources are shared among members of society in an equitable manner whilst ensuring no harm is caused to the environment. People are the central focus of the wellbeing economic system – their quality of life is served first, thus replacing a desire for damaging growth. Given the current world we live, wellbeing economies are arguably more vital now than ever; to guarantee the survival of our planet, the continuation of humanity and to allow people to live in sustainable and supportive communities that work for them.
WEAll suggests that the housing market is a key area that our current society could improve, believing that privately owned property used to generate profit is a key example of an unsustainable society, as this leads to a lack of affordable housing. This, they believe, is one of many factors contributing to an unsettling number of people being forced to live on the streets, which potentially increases their vulnerability to health problems and criminal activity. The number of homeless persons in the UK has seen a significant rise in recent years, with official Government figures estimating a shocking increase of 165% since 2010. Despite the Conservative Party pledging to eliminate rough sleeping entirely by 2027, it can be argued that the government and local council authorities are not doing enough to solve this problem.
To give a familiar face to the issue: though relatively small, the local affluent town of Leamington Spa clearly demonstrates the homelessness crisis. With an estimated population of 55,000, there are currently multiple non-profit organisations working to support the homeless community. One such centrally located organisation is LWS Night Shelter, which opens three days a week and has provided a hot meal and a safe place to sleep for over one hundred different people since January 2019. And whilst there is no doubt that LWS Night Shelter is working tirelessly to help vulnerable people within the local community, the reality is that they are only able to treat the symptoms of homelessness; they cannot cure the problem that organisations such as WEAll wish to eradicate.
Homelessness is just one of many examples that prove our current economic model is not sustainable and needs to be rethought. Under a wellbeing economy, solutions such as shared housing and housing cooperatives are proposed to help alleviate the ongoing housing crisis . The cooperatives proposed by WEAll and partner organisations provide affordable housing, by getting rid of landlord profits and sharing common living space to reduce operational costs. These houses are owned collectively, via shares in an organisation and residents run them democratically. As well as these financial benefits, shared accommodation can increase social cohesion and ensure better maintenance of housing, whilst reducing crime and increasing support for individuals through communal living. Not only do these cooperatives provide a warm, happy and decent home for those who would otherwise go without, they could potentially change the housing market, making it socially sustainable and affordable to all in a newly designed economy, rather than being based on generating a profit to the detriment of others.
WeAll believes that the housing crisis demonstrates the necessity for a wellbeing economy – they view our system is inadequate and in need of change, and affordable living is merely one issue among many. Transport is another problematic aspect of our society: from the cost of train tickets, to the efficiency of travel and its impact on the environment.
Walk 10 minutes from the University of Warwick’s central campus and you’ll find yourself in a rural setting far removed from academic life: a haven providing respite to many species of wildlife, not to mention stressed-out students. The coppices, wildflower meadows and ancient woodlands that crown the border of Coventry and Warwickshire are home to an array of plants and small animals: carpets of bluebells in the spring, swooping bats in the summer, pheasants, hedgehogs, woodpeckers… to name a few. These pockets of countryside are a sanctuary for local animal and human populations alike, the latter of which can take advantage of the clean air and tranquillity after a long week working or studying for exams.
But this, in all likelihood, will be drastically and irrevocably altered by the construction of the High Speed Rail (HS2). The 140 mile route from London Euston to the West Midlands will cut across four counties before arriving at Curzon Street Station in Birmingham, and the government has recently announced a renewal of the Phase 2 plans to extend the route to Manchester and Leeds. Whilst advocates of the railway claim that it will create around 15,000 new jobs around the country by 2020, HS2 is set to plough through the countryside, demolishing it as a ‘side-effect’ of construction. Therefore, we must seriously consider whether these benefits outweigh the concrete costs of habitat destruction and loss of green space.
Environmental issues aside, the project has already negatively impacted the livelihoods of thousands of ordinary people. Many families are being forcibly displaced from their homes to make way for the new high speed line; and what’s more, the compulsory purchase of large numbers of land parcels and buildings has meant that large numbers of small businesses have had to fund their own relocation, thus facing potential bankruptcy, due to delays in compensation payments whilst the costs of purchases themselves are coming out of the public pocket, a price which is set to continue – project chairman Allan Cook has recently divulged that the cost could still increase by around £30 billion before the project is completed.
This information hit the news at almost exactly the same time as the United Kingdom was experiencing an extreme heat wave, with a record high temperature of 38.7°C recorded in Cambridge on 25th July this year. Commuters will find it hard to forget the severe train delays caused by frying overhead wires, and the hours spent in packed, non-air-conditioned carriages. And so the question remains: would it not be more logical to spend those billions ensuring that our existing public transport services are better equipped to deal with the changing environment, whilst focusing our efforts on tackling the climate crisis in which we find ourselves? Proponents of a wellbeing economy believe the answer is yes, championing sustainable and affordable transport.
However, such responsibility extends further than the issue of transport: the major concern of advocates of a wellbeing economy is to preserve our planet and its natural resources and whilst the climate crisis is a universal matter, it is the world’s less developed countries that are disproportionately affected. Environmental degradation limits natural resources like drinking water, crops and livestock; and increases vulnerability to climate disasters. In 2018, extreme weather patterns, caused by human malpractice, resulted in severe drought in Afghanistan, a tropical cyclone in Samoa and flooding in the Philippines. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this resulted in an acute level of disaster displacement, adding to the increasing number of climate refugees.
However, there is hope. Change is taking place both on a micro and macro scale. Individuals can, and are taking independent action to reduce their carbon footprint – simply through recycling, composting and reducing general waste. There are also many ways in which governments can help to prevent climate breakdown through legislation, for example by planting more trees; eliminating carbon emissions from heavy industries; changing farming and food systems, encouraging a less meat-based diet and creating jobs in a new green economy, all of which are ideas central to a wellbeing economy. Even outside of government, private corporations are taking action. Interface – a homeware company which strives to create change through their ‘Climate Take Back’ initiative aims to ‘create a climate fit for life’. Interface are actively taking precautionary measures to avoid the negative effects of climate change, as opposed to reactionary measures to better an already declining global environment. They wish to achieve this by using more durable and sustainable materials in their products. Interface is just one example of the many companies working towards making changes that will help to initiate a wellbeing economy.
Despite the aforementioned social and environmental failures of our system, there is a tremendous amount of work being done around the world, including that of WEAll, to rebuild the system so that it places human and ecological wellbeing at the centre. WEAll and numerous similar organisation’s breadth and comprehensive nature are making positive change to our societies. They strive to create a space where individuals and groups can unite and work together to initiate system change, cultivating remarkable work across many different societies. It is an ongoing battle to preserve our planet and protect humanity – everyone has a role to play and society should not become complacent. Thus, organisations such as WEAll should be praised for their efforts to create wellbeing economies that may increase the chances of widespread change.
Header Image by Sabine Peters via Unsplash