Tackling the environmental crisis has a crucial economic dimension too. Dominic Ryan speaks to Dr Katherine Trebeck of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a collective which is dedicated to ‘delivering social justice on a healthy planet’

They sound like a revolutionary band and The Amplifiers are certainly rocking all over the world, with a message set to volume 11: let’s transform the economic system into one that delivers human and ecological wellbeing.

They’re part of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll), a collective of organisations, alliances, movements and academics, and a lead vocal is Dr Katherine Trebeck.

“A couple of days a week I work for the whole global team,” says the Australian who now lives in Glasgow. “We call ourselves the ‘Amplifiers’, abbreviated to ‘the Amp Team’,” she jokes before adding, “But we do take that task very seriously. Our role is to amplify the amazing work already being done across the world to transform the economy. This is not a step into the unknown; we know the sort of changes we need to make.”

With the rest of her time Dr Trebeck, who has more than eight years of experience as a researcher and policy wonk with Oxfam GB, supports WEAll Scotland, just one of several geographic hubs.

“These hubs are local manifestations of the global effort. Other hubs are bubbling up, including WEAll Canada – that’s particularly nice as they get to call themselves ‘We All Can’.”

This global approach allows WEAll members to operate collaboratively across many different sectors – not in silos but working together to try to transform the economic system. 

“The wellbeing economy is an agenda that, at its most basic, is about pursuing social justice on a healthy planet,” says Dr Trebeck. “It comes from a recognition that, if we don’t transform how the economy operates – who wins, who loses out of the economic system, how we price things, what we incentivise, how businesses operate, how we build our infrastructure – we won’t have a chance of delivering that goal: social justice on a healthy planet.” 

For Dr Trebeck, who has a PhD in Political Science and is Senior Visiting Researcher University of Strathclyde and a Distinguished Fellow of the Schumacher Institute, WEAll is about working with a wide range of partners, friends and allies to think about what can be done, what needs to be done more and what constitutes good practice.

“It’s about how can we learn from that,” she says. “It’s about taking a good, hard look at the purpose of the economic system. What are the goals we set ourselves? How do we judge the economy? What are our measures of progress?”

Against a backdrop that has seen UK GDP shrink a record 20.4 per cent in the second quarter and plunge the country into its largest recession on record, she points out a wellbeing economy will only ever have been achieved if we have delivered environmental sustainability, addressed climate breakdown and regenerated our environment

She says it’s not viable to carry on with how things have been done in the past, adding: “That was already taking us into some catastrophic terrain and we’re already seeing the impacts. As an Australian, I’m still heartbroken from watching my country burning up last summer. Carrying on with business as usual is not okay.”

At the heart of the wellbeing economy are issues of environmental protection and social justice and Dr Trebeck feels much of our environmental breakdown has social injustice at its root cause: with huge levels of inequality driving huge amounts of consumption and hence emissions, especially by the very wealthy. 

“There’s been a lot of work been done to demonstrate these links and also how inequality undermines political mobilisation on these issues. So we see it’s those countries that are less unequal that are more likely to be more proactive on addressing environmental issues. 

“The environmental crisis is a social justice issue and the two of those are bound up in how we design our economics. If we transform the economy towards a wellbeing economy, this will help us deliver on the social justice side of things and on the environment.”

Dr Trebeck believes there’s a lot the world can learn from Scotland. “The global movement has its eyes on what’s happening here and people have taken notice of our agenda. They’re looking to Scotland for leadership on these issues and are excited by some of the flagship statements and policies but also now saying: ‘Okay, let’s see this add up to something powerful. Let’s see those tentative steps become something really concrete.’

“I think Scotland also needs to learn from what’s going on around the world, so there’s movement in both directions and collaboration in terms of learning, inspiration and hope.

“It’s important that Scotland has shown leadership in reaching out and learning from friends around the world rather than competing and seeing the whole world as a sort of zero-sum game.” 

Dr Trebeck points to the fact Scotland is the instigator and holder of the secretariat for the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership – a partnership with New Zealand, Iceland and Wales. This was set up to enable governments to collaborate, share and learn from each other, considering collective wellbeing questions around protecting the environment and how to put this at the heart of economic policy making.

It paints an optimistic and compelling picture but can it really make a difference to Earth Overshoot Day, pushing back the date when we have exhausted nature’s budget for the year? “Not yet! However I think Scotland has taken steps in the right direction. We have the seeds of the changes we need to be bringing in. 

“Business has played a huge role in transformation and building a wellbeing economy. Scotland has a good track record in supporting the sort of business models most aligned with this. Things like cooperatives, community interest companies and benefit corporations are emerging in Scotland. And that’s another example where we’ve taken tentative steps in the right direction. I think we just need to breathe more life into them with much more vigour, more oomph.  

“I sometimes say to my colleagues: ‘Scotland is awake but she’s still hiding under the covers’. That’s probably a better place to be than many other countries around the world. It’s certainly better than where we were but equally it’s not good enough compared to where we need to be.

“We need to keep going with the conversation around what sort of economic growth we want rather than that carte blanche feeling if we just push down on the accelerator and get the economy going faster, this will solve all our problems. 

“We need to have much more of a qualitative lens around what sort of economic growth we need. What is it we want to grow specifically? I think if we’re going to measure ‘recovery’ beyond Covid, we can’t measure it with old outdated instruments, like GDP measures that are misaligned with what lots of people want to see for Scotland.”

Such change presents challenges but Dr Trebeck has support. “What keeps me optimistic is hanging out with some of the amazing young people in Scotland and around the world who are so passionate, so articulate and so bright. Climate breakdown is something they don’t question because they’ve grown up knowing that it’s a reality . . . and so they’re rolling up their sleeves and being collaborative.”

Could it be our young people, listening to The Amplifiers’ soundtrack, who finally persuade Scotland to get out of bed?