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Progress is about much more than GDP alone

Environmental economist Rutger Hoekstra is a guest researcher at Leiden University. He is studying the question of how we can measure societal progress based on a broader range of factors than only Gross Domestic Product.

This article appeared previously on the website of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus alliance.

There is increasing criticism in international circles of the dominance of GDP as a measurement tool. The higher the GDP, the better, is the general rule. But is that really the case? Does our GDP say anything about how happy we are, the state of biodiversity in our country or how the country's wealth is distributed?  

Rutger Hoekstra wrote the book 'Replacing GDP by 2030', in which he aims to devise an innovative method of arriving at a measurement system that takes into account not only our income, but also wealth distribution, well-being and sustainability. We asked him five questions. 

Why did you write this book? 
The first words in the book are: 'This book was born out of frustration'. That may not sound like a very positive start, but the book isn't depressing by any means; it's really hopeful. What I did in the book was to write a harmonisation plan to take us 'Beyond GDP'.   

The book says: There's no way we're going to resolve this individually. We have to act as a community and come up with a united message.

I wrote the book because I didn't agree with the direction that the whole Beyond GDP Community was going. I was part of that community and in the beginning I was also energised by developing new indicators to measure how things were going in society. But that set of ever-expanding indicators led to a patchwork of alternatives that were all competing for attention. GDP is the same throughout the world and it doesn't have that problem. I just thought we were getting nowhere.   

Then I withdrew from the movement to write the book. In it I say that there's no way we're going to resolve this individually. If, as a community, we don't have a united message, there's no hope at all.   

In the book I look at what has made GDP so successful. We have to admire GDP as a measure so that we can learn what has made it so successful in setting policy. To find a successful replacement for GDP, we need to work together to arrive at a joint measurement system that all countries will accept and use.  

You want your research to bring about change in society. What do you see as the most important task for you as a researcher? 
I have two tasks. The first is to harmonise the indicators to create a global system that lets us measure how we are doing as a society. The second is to develop a set of policy instruments based on that measurement system. Then you have to be able to take actions and make decisions on the basis of these indicators; there's not a lot of point in just producing the indicators. You see the same thing with GDP. It isn't just a figure; it serves as the basis for all kinds of policy models. Luckily, a number of countries are already making good progress: New Zealand, for example, was the first to present a budget based on well-being.

You want your research to have real impact. What can other researchers learn from you about impact? 
I don't see a publication as a final goal. I don't know if that's true of all researchers, but I do have the idea that a publication in an important scientific journal is often regarded as the ultimate goal. I've never looked at it like that. Research only has an impact if it changes something: it has to address a problem or influence how people think. 

Researchers need to work together more to come up with a new measurement system. Are you aware of any examples of interdisciplinary research in your environment that have been successful? 
I've been part of many international working groups, and that has shown me how challenging it is to work within a group of different disciplines. You're there with economists, political scientists and physicists. But at the same time, it was good to learn that there are a lot of similarities underneath those differences. And if you can laugh about the differences and be respectful in recognising that you do have different opinions, that can bring you closer together. 

'In interdisciplinary partnerships you have to invest a lot in understanding one another's language'

In interdisciplinary partnerships you have to invest a lot of time in understanding one another's language. You don't have that problem within a single discipline because you've been trained to express yourself in the same way. It's important to realise that with these kinds of interdisciplinary partnerships. 

Finally: Who really needs to read your book? 
I talked about the two goals that I believe are important as a researcher: harmonising the measurement system and developing broader policies. As far as harmonisation is concerned, I'd like António Guterres - Secretary-General of the UN - to read my book. And in terms of developing broader policies, it would be Minister Wobke Hoekstra. I'd like to discuss with him how we can arrive at a budget based on a broader concept of prosperity (well-being and sustainability).   

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