Lessons learned from the Global Solidarity Accounting project
Arthur Lyon Dahl
24 July 2023
From December 2021 to September 2023, ebbf – Ethical Business Building the Future, and the International Environment Forum (IEF) led a number of working groups to explore alternative measures of human and environmental well-being beyond financial indicators like GDP. As that project comes to a close, this paper attempts to summarise some of the results of the project, lessons learned, and possible ways forward.
With the widespread call for other measures of progress beyond GDP, it seemed important to try to imagine how to define the goal of human progress and well-being to achieve our purpose as defined in the Bahá’í writings and to identify measures society could use to point in that direction and incentivise positive behaviour.
The concepts need to be simple enough to be understood by all, appear logical and reasonable, to make sense. They should have the potential to be scientifically supported, but also to express an emotional connection and to reflect our higher spiritual purpose, both to refine our characters individually and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilisation.
Since humans are a single family with each one of us part of an organic whole, like each cell in a human body, we need a systems approach to reflect the cooperation and reciprocity that link the system at all levels of organisation. We are also part of the larger Earth System that provides all of our needs and furnishes the ecosystem services that maintain a liveable planet. Our inner and outer environments are inseparable. This means that well-being is not something we reach successfully and can then rest, but a dynamic process of keeping everything in balance over time and in every place. We are far from that now, and need to show how to regenerate what has been lost, to reverse damaging actions, and to correct present injustices.
The resulting conceptual framework for human and environmental well-being can have a number of functions. For an individual, it can help everyone to bring themselves to account each day, asking how they are living their responsibility to the whole human family, and what they can do to be of service, while acquiring spiritual qualities. It can support communities in reading their local reality within the global context, and in consulting on what might be the immediate local needs and possibility for social actions to meet those needs. It can provide the basis for government accountability, and how well it is delivering on its responsibility for the common good of all in its area of responsibility. For other institutions, including in the economy and business, it can underline the importance of every institution to consider how it is contributing in some way to human and environmental well-being, as an essential purpose above and beyond profit. Finally, at the global level, it should become a tool to address inequalities within and between countries, highlighting progress towards justice and equity for all, leaving no one behind.
Global Solidarity Accounting
The term Global Solidarity Accounting covers all these dimensions.
Global refers to the single Earth System including our globalised human system, all connected and interdependent. This includes all subsidiary levels, from the individual, the family, and local community, through regional and national levels of organisation and government, to global organisation and governance.
Solidarity signifies that the health and well-being of the whole depends on that of every part, as in every organic system. We are all responsible, and cannot think only of our selfish advantage. We need to understand that essential solidarity, to feel that responsibility, and to express it in our actions, individually and collectively.
Accountability means holding ourselves to account each day, as individuals, as communities, and as institutions. It also enables transparency in reporting on our responsibilities and if necessary holding each other to account for our performance. This can address the great failure today in implementation, where our many promises go unfilled and trust is eroded.
Nine dimensions of well-being
The project worked with nine dimensions of environmental and human well-being to map what was most important without undue complexity: three concerning the environment, three for human well-being at the basic individual level, and three for the more collective dimensions of human society.
Every system requires energy to function, whether for all living things or for human society and the economy, and that energy comes largely from the sun (except for some nuclear reactions). In nature, it is photosynthesis in plants that turns sunlight into organic compounds based on carbon. Our industrial society has been powered by the fossil energy captured by plants long ago while removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stored in geological formations as coal, oil and gas. We now have technologies to turn sunlight directly into electricity, and to turn thermal energy in wind and currents into power. However our excess extraction of fossil fuels has returned too much CO2 to the atmosphere causing global heating and a climate catastrophe. Since carbon is the main element in both these processes, accounting for the carbon cycle, both carbon capture and sequestration by plants and carbon release from fossil fuels, would measure both our return to a stable climate and a renewable energy future.
The living Earth system and its biodiversity provide essential ecosystem services upon which all life depends, including capturing solar energy as mentioned above. We have seriously eroded this system to the point that we are causing the sixth mass extinction and a probable collapse of our food systems. There is extensive work on biodiversity accounting, but much less on ecosystem services. Accounting should measure how well we are halting the damage, reversing the harm done, and restoring a productive and sustainable Earth system upon which our future civilisation must depend.
The more we study the Earth system, the more we appreciate how it is integrated through chemical signalling and efficient cycling and recycling of materials. Our modern society has invented millions of new chemical compounds and materials with no real thought to their environmental impact. We are now discovering “forever chemicals” that will never break down and have health impacts, and materials such as plastics that have contaminated everywhere on the planet including our bodies, to mention only two examples. Pollution and wastes have become another existential threat to our future. The goal should be a pollution-free planet with all that we produce used in closed systems or recycled in a circular economy. Accounting for the major pollutants and wastes, and their reduction and elimination, would show us the direction of travel, and make it possible to hold the originators of such foreign materials responsible for their impacts.
Basic human needs
Eliminating poverty is essential in our global family, which means ensuring that every human being has adequate shelter, clean water and sanitation, a source of energy, and other basic needs met. These can be measured directly, rather than depending on some minimum daily “income”, since subsistence lifestyles are ignored in such indicators. These accounts should show our success in eliminating poverty, and where further effort is needed.
Another basic need is for food. A set of food accounts would include the planetary capacity to produce all the food we need and its sustainability, the distribution of that food so that everyone has enough all the time for complete food security, and the nutritional value of that food so that there are no health impacts from dietary insufficiency. It would also be desirable to look at the social dimension of food production and the important role of the farmer in society, ensuring an adequate income for that important service. These accounts would raise questions about the present multinational agroindustrial food system, fast food, food waste, obesity, and food marketing for profit rather than health.
Since good health is essential for each individual to fulfil their potential, enjoy well-being, live a productive life contributing to society, and reach the end of life with minimum suffering, a set of health indicators would show progress in this area, including universal access to adequate health services. There would also need to be measures of the capacity to prevent or control communicable diseases and pandemics.
Social dimensions of well-being
Among the contributions we all make to society, the most fundamental is some form of work or service. This would reach far beyond paid employment as presently understood, but would include all forms of contribution, including subsistence activities outside the economy, child care and home-keeping, and many other social services. Such work is important to human dignity, and has a spiritual function to acquire higher qualities and refine one’s character. Allowing anyone to be unemployed is individually destructive and a waste of human resources. The goal of measures here would be to ensure that everyone has a form of service throughout their lifetime in keeping with their abilities.
An essential dimension of civilisation is knowledge in all its forms, including science, culture, art, information, and all other products of our intelligence. While intangible, there are ways to measure how well this is created, archived, accessed, used, and maintained for future generations. This includes education through which this is transmitted, and hopefully preserved and increased, from generation to generation.
From a systems perspective, the most basic level of the operation of a system is the rules by which it operates, in the case of human systems the values that underlie the system and define its purpose. This includes the spiritual dimension which defines our higher human purpose, both individually through the values and ethical principles by which we become better human beings in contributing to society, and collectively in the moral principles and rules by which our systems operate to achieve our common good, and the laws that we adopt to govern collective behaviour. Accounting in this area would measure what constructive values are adopted and how well they are implemented.
Learning about accountability
While these nine dimensions do not cover everything, they do map across essential characteristics of what human and environmental well-being should mean. For some, there will be an optimal value reflecting a desirable level of achievement in moderation. For the social dimensions which are basically intangible, these can presumable advance or be perfected indefinitely. We cannot presently imagine what our future human potential is.
One lesson from the experience so far, illustrated in our case studies, is the power of this Bahá’í-inspired vision of the multiple dimensions of well-being to resonate with people and to inspire consultation about their local relevance. They enable reading their reality in new ways, identifying practical social actions to build stronger communities. Thinking of accountability in this way can provide a framework for many efforts to improve well-being responding to local needs, priorities and capacities.
Going forward beyond the present project, three potentials emerge. One is to develop tools for reading local realities and the relevant values to be expressed, as some local projects have already done. A second is to make the results of this effort available as content to encourage meaningful conversations and to support public discourse about positive ways forward at a time when people are negative, depressed and have lost hope. Then there is the potential to continue contributing to global efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere to replace the reliance on materialistic financial measure of development like GDP, and to focus on human and environmental well-being. Here the unique value added of this contribution will be the spiritual dimension that reflects the Bahá’í vision and values of the society to emerge from the present chaos and confusion.
Last updated 29 July 2023