About the Authors
As educators, researchers, and practitioners in sustainability, our jobs are to examine current practices and explore new, more sustainable alternatives. We are keenly aware of the limitations of the dominant focus on economic growth, especially when looking holistically at what really matters to the well-being of our community.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed cracks in the social and economic foundations underlying our island community’s well-being. Now is the time to address those weaknesses through the choices we make as we move forward into the next stages of recovery, stabilization, and resiliency. We propose a simple but powerful litmus test to aid such decision making: ocean, ohia, and ohana.
Take gross domestic product as an example of how current practices rely on economic output to guide policy. GDP tracks formal economic activity by summing the final sales of market goods and services within an economy each year. It is the most widely relied upon measure for the activity of an economy, yet was never intended to be a primary measure of social well-being.
Policies which seek to maximize GDP perpetuate a false paradigm that economic growth is the same as social progress, and that more growth is better, even if it widens the gap between rich and poor or degrades our environment. While important, GDP does not fully capture how ocean, ohia, and ohana contribute to a good life and strong communities in Hawaii.
GDP does not encapsulate the full value of healthy oceans for subsistence, rejuvenation, and perpetuation of cultural practices. GDP also fails to express the range of benefits gained from a well functioning ohia forest, from rainwater capture and recharge, to spiritual and ancestral connection to place. Nor does GDP reflect the value of ohana, the largely unpaid care economy and those tight social networks that make us resilient in tough times.
Moreover, GDP does not accurately reflect the negative impacts from crises such as COVID-19 or climate change. GDP records that consumer spending is shrinking, but does not consider the psychological impacts on the laid off or furloughed worker, or the widening gap between what people need and what they can afford. GDP does not measure growing inequities in the labor market and health outcomes between different groups. GDP completely omits the contribution of the low wage and unpaid care economy, largely women, which ramped up to cope with the crisis.
The Path Forward
GDP will record the sharp decrease in tourism spending, but paradoxically, emergency spending on COVID-19 testing and health care will actually increase the economic figure. We are thinking in terms of COVID-19 now, but the parallels to climate change are clear. For instance, any costs to avoid or repair damages from climate change will add to GDP, while losses of our coral reefs will remain largely invisible. Whether COVID-19 or climate change, GDP ignores that the risk from these disasters is borne by those least able to cope.
Recovery plans that focus exclusively on economic growth (i.e., GDP) will miss much of what matters for well-being. Moreover, if that economic activity inadvertently degrades the social fabric of ohana, ocean health, or vibrancy of ohia forests, the recovery will make us both worse off now and less resilient in the future. The path forward must instead ensure that the people and ecosystems of Hawaii can thrive, within the limits of our natural habitat, while respecting the well-being of all people and the health of the whole planet both now and in the future.
Our proposed path flips the dominant practice on its head. Under business-as-usual, we rely on markets to help decide how to best use our resources without considering scale (accounting for limits on resources) or distribution (providing access to the basics). Markets are powerful, enabling us to express individual choices. Prices serve as the brake pedal to over-exploitation and the signal to invest in what’s treasured.
But, markets are problematic in part because oceans, ohia, and ohana are not adequately priced in the market. Relying on markets without first establishing the appropriate scale of the economy leads to over-consumption (like degradation and depletion of natural and human capital) and under-investment in public goods (like health care and watershed protection). It also leads to inequalities because those with power and resources are more able to gain from economic activity.
A green and just economy would first determine the size of the economy relative to the containing and constraining ecosystem, and then consider how resources and opportunities should be distributed to ensure people have enough to thrive. Only once scale and distribution are addressed, would we leverage the power of markets to price and allocate resources.
This could be part of a larger effort to catalyze change in Hawaii’s economic and social systems to better align with how communities conceptualize well-being. A collaborative group should be convened to chart this transformative path, informed by the many inspiring commentaries, recovery plans, policy proposals, roadmaps, and thought leadership such as Aina Aloha Economic Futures and Uplift Hawaii that are emerging.
Recovery plans should not blindly pursue an economic rebound quantified through GDP.
Fortunately, holistic indicators exist to guide this transformed economic future, so we don’t have to rely on GDP alone. The Genuine Progress Indicator uses economic principles to modify GDP to better consider environmental and social aspects of economic activity, and has been adapted for Hawaii.
The Aloha+ Dashboard illuminates how the state is doing across diverse social, economic, and environmental objectives. The Hawaii Data Collaborative visualizes key data to understand the well-being of our communities. The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a multilateral call to action towards peace and prosperity beyond economic growth.
Recovery plans should not blindly pursue an economic rebound quantified through GDP, but focus on the quality of that economic activity: do the proposed plans fit within our environment and society, and will everyone thrive?
When plans are justified on the basis of GDP, we should utilize the litmus test, and interrogate how our oceans, ohia, and ohana will fare under the economic recovery path proposed. We can only transform into a just and green economy if we move beyond GDP to make decisions that at the very least factor in the benefits from, and costs to our ocean, ohia, and ohana.
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