April 22, 2021

What’s Earth Day got to do with Wellbeing?

by Hannah Ormston, Ben Thurman and Jennifer Wallace, Carnegie UK Trust

“In nature nothing exists alone.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

Over the last 13 months – and during a time of isolation, separation, and loneliness – many of us have sought comfort in nature, seeking respite in the green and blue spaces of our local neighbourhoods. These places – which for some, offered the only available outdoor recreation space – have provided a range of benefits during lockdown: boosting mental health, enabling safe outdoor areas to socialise, and supporting individual and group exercise to maintain physical health.

The proximity of such spaces to our homes, and the quality of the environment in which we live, all have a direct impact on wellbeing. Environmental wellbeing is one of the four ‘domains’ or areas of life that the Carnegie UK Trust believe are critical to maintaining societal wellbeing. We understand societal wellbeing as encompassing Social, Economic, Environmental, and Democratic (SEED) outcomes which we all need to live well together as a society and to achieve social progress. This Earth Day offers a chance to reflect on the environmental outcomes that impact our lives, and highlight how they intersect with the other social, economic, and democratic outcomes.

Earth Day takes place on 22 April every year and marks the anniversary of the start of the 1970 modern environmental movement. It sought to give voice to an emerging public consciousness about environmental destruction. Today, it continues to try and influence policy changes to protect the environment and the wellbeing of current and future generations. Although there is now much greater public consensus that the climate emergency is the critical issue that we face as a global society, there are concerns about whether we are making progress quickly enough. Indeed, 51 years since Earth Day’s inception, Greta Thunberg told the UN in December that “we are speeding in the wrong direction”.

As well as being the biggest challenge we face as a global community, the climate emergency impacts our wellbeing at a domestic level too. Air, water, chemical, soil and noise pollution are just a few of the many risks that impact a range of wellbeing outcomes, such as our homes, our health and our livelihoods. Yet, last year when the Trust conducted a thematic review of over 800 recommendations from 48 commissions and inquiries as part of its report, Gross Domestic Wellbeing: An alternative measure of social progress, we found that only 23 of these recommendations sought to challenge policy makers on the state of our planet.

If the climate crisis is the biggest challenge that we face as a society, both at home and internationally, it is clear that we are not giving it enough attention. Our analysis shows that the dominance of GDP and in policy and decision making has allowed improvements in other areas of societal wellbeing to plateau. The creation of ‘GDWe’ as a more holistic measure of social progress aims to counter the pursuit of GDP at the expense of the things that matter most to people and planet. And it is this narrow understanding of GDP as social progress that has meant that we haven’t taken sufficient action on climate and environmental risks in the 51 years since the first Earth Day.

What’s more, these environmental risks are not experienced equally.

The Marmot Review, for example, highlighted a number of key areas where an individual’s income correlated with increased risk of environmental harm: within transport, green space, pollution, food, housing and community participation and social isolation. It shows how each domain of wellbeing is not mutually exclusive.

The Trust’s existing knowledge base and historic work on wellbeing has consistently found that there are few policy levers to improve personal well-being without addressing the social, material and environmental conditions in a person’s life. Our mental and physical health are influenced by a variety of different factors, such as the environment, physical surroundings and access to greenspace, our relationships, employment, and the quality of public services.

There is no healthy population without systems for ensuring basic needs are met on a foundation of a sustainable environment, and there is no economy without a healthy population. Achieving environmental change requires equitable solutions, mechanisms for understanding and debating the trade-offs between different areas of wellbeing. This Earth Day, we are sharing GDWe as a mechanism for making these trade-offs, and to connect our approach to environmental wellbeing within the broader SEED outcomes, required to achieve societal wellbeing for all.

As we outline in GDWe,

“We need to boost our recovery from the pandemic with a new way of thinking. We do not have the luxury of time or resources to allow a recovery to take place in a way that further exacerbates the environmental challenge, and we cannot consign large swathes of the population to poor quality jobs knowing that they result in poorer health and marginalised communities.”  

To find out more or read the full Gross Domestic Wellbeing report, visit: https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/gross-domestic-wellbeing-gdwe-an-alternative-measure-of-social-progress/.