April 11, 2012

Faculty Member Eric Zencey Attends High-Level Meeting at the U.N.

Eric Zencey

International Programs faculty member Eric Zencey was part of an international group of experts who attended an invitation-only, high-level meeting at the United Nations dedicated to planning a global initiative to transform the world economy. 

Zencey and other sustainability theorists joined with delegates from member nations to hear U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Jonathan Potz, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs and prime ministers and former prime ministers from a dozen nations speak on ecologically sustainable development.  His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales addressed the group via video.

Titled “Happiness and Wellbeing:  Defining a New Economic Paradigm,” the meeting brought together 600 participants for a plenary session.  Two hundred experts, including Zencey, met in a variety of working groups to hammer out some of the details of the new approach.  The meeting was called to begin the implementation of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 65/309, passed last year.  That resolution, brought forward by the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan, called for a more “holistic” understanding of development and for the creation and use of an alternative set of indicators that would “more accurately measure human well-being.” It also authorized Bhutan to call the meeting to articulate that indicator set, and to create a path toward its adoption.  

The link among development policy, well-being and alternative indicators is a powerful one, Zencey says: “Traditional development theory begins with the idea that some nations are underdeveloped—nations that don’t have a Western, industrial, consumerist economy. It also supposes that all the nations of the world want that kind of economy—and that they can have it.”

All three presumptions, he says, are false.  “No nation on the planet has an ecologically sustainable economy.  This means every nation faces a major development problem.”

He adds, “Western-style consumerist development has been predicated on an enormous draw-down of the planet’s stock of ‘stored antique sunlight,’ oil and coal, which is a finite resource.” 

 The U.S. uses more than half of the world’s resource stream to serve the needs and wants of just 6 percent of the world’s population, Zencey points out. “Clearly, our model isn’t scalable to the entire planet.” 

The Western model of development also presumes that raising the gross domestic product is the central purpose of economic policy.  “But GDP is a deeply flawed measure of human well-being,” according to Zencey.  “It doesn’t subtract costs from benefits; it just totals up the monetary value of all commercial transactions.  Really, it ought to be called ‘gross domestic transactions’.  It isn’t a measure of delivered well-being at all, let alone a measure of sustainable delivered well-being, which,” he says, “has to be recognized as the ultimate purpose of the economy.”  What is needed, he believes, is new development theory that aims at improving the human standard of living through sustainable economic activity.  “And for that, we need new metrics,” he remarks.

The presumptions behind the plenary session and the working groups were distinctly nontraditional. “Bhutan specifically rejected development on the Western model,” Zencey reports. “They declined to join the World Trade Organization because they believe that joining would diminish, not increase, their well-being.”  Bhutan measures its well-being with an alternative indicator set, gross national happiness, which the country has proposed as a model for the development of alternative indicators in other countries.

The member nations of the U.N. agree.  “What is amazing about this meeting,” Zencey said, “isn’t so much the content of what’s being said—many of us have heard, and have been saying, these things for years.  What’s new and different is that now the call for an ecologically sustainable economy is being issued by prime ministers, secretaries of the interior, directors of environmental agencies and high-level officials the world over—and is being heard by the member nations of the U.N.”  

Zencey’s invitation was extended for his ongoing work in this area, including most recently his work at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, where he is coordinator of the Vermont Genuine Progress Indicator Project.  That project brings together stakeholders—state and local officials, academics, leaders of nonprofits, community leaders and interested citizens—to develop, articulate and implement “GPI Plus,” a blending of the genuine progress indicator (which is an emergent standard among alternative indicator sets) and gross national happiness

“The two complement each other,” Zencey says.  “GPI is based on very clear, objective data, and measures physical things like net deforestation, net changes to air and water quality, net change in fertile farmland and the costs of climate change.  GNH is survey-driven and measures citizen life-satisfaction in nine broad categories.  We believe that a combined approach—hard data about economic and ecological reality, survey research data about people’s experience—is the best way to go.”

With colleagues at Gund and at GNHUSA (Gross National Happiness USA), where he is on the board of directors, Zencey helped write legislation on GPI Plus that is making its way through the Vermont statehouse.  “There are hearings this week in the House,” he reports. “The bill passed the Senate two weeks ago, and the governor has indicated he will sign it into law.”  The bill commissions the GPI VT (Gross National Happiness VT) project as a state effort, identifies the Gund Institute as the leader and would guarantee the participation of state-agency heads in the process of development. 

At the U.N., the working groups were tasked with laying the groundwork for a major international summit to be held in the summer of 2014.  That meeting, U.N. officials say, will result in a New Bretton Woods Agreement, a major rethinking and institutional reorganization of the economic and financial institutions that support the global economy.

“The Bretton Woods agreement gave us the infinite-planet model of development that we have today,” Zencey says.  “It’s time to revamp our economic thinking and our institutional arrangements in light of the reality that the planet is not, in fact, infinite.”

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