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Plan our communities on the happiness index

A couple weeks ago, it was reported that Canada’s economy had grown by a modest 0.2 per cent during the last month on record, the fifth consecutive month of growth.

This was greeted as good news, as we define a healthy economy as a growing economy, and track our success with a tool called the gross domestic product — or GDP.

GDP measures the total value of all goods and services produced in a country within a specific period of time, such as an annual basis.

For example, every time a grocery store sells a carton of milk, the Crofton mill produces a ton of pulp, or the CVRD paves a new road, that all contributes to GDP.

The GDP is our measure of progress.  But it is a flawed tool.

It ignores many activities critical to our economy and counts others that hurt our societal well-being.

Raising your children, taking care of an elderly relative, or volunteering for a local non-profit organization will not contribute to GDP; however, when an oil tanker spills half a million barrels of petroleum and we have to pay the clean-up costs, that feeds GDP.

Nor does GDP take into account growing levels of inequality.  If a few wealthy investors get richer, the average income can go up, even if the real wages of working people are declining.

GDP also fails to take into account environmental degradation.

Building a coal-fired power plant in Cowichan Bay, for instance, could bring us acid rain and pollute our water.

But if it increases output then it’s good for GDP.

In the 1970s, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan introduced “gross national happiness” as an alternative to GDP.

Rather than focusing exclusively on economic growth as the be-all and end-all of progress, gross national happiness takes into account psychological well-being, health, education, culture, time use, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity, and living standards.

Embracing Bhutan’s example, in 2012 the United Nations released the first-ever World Happiness Report, which ranks countries according to their happiness levels, based on the results of the Gallup World Poll conducted every year.

According to the report’s authors — who include UBC economics professor John Helliwell — there are several key factors that account for the differences in happiness levels between countries.

And while GDP per capita is one such factor, others are just as important, including social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption.

There is no doubt GDP is useful for tracking economic output, but it’s about time our policymakers woke up and realized it should not be the supreme measure of our societal well being.

We have alternatives that can guide us in shaping our public policies.  Let’s start using them.

Rob Douglas is Constituency President of the Cowichan Valley NDP.  He writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial and can be reached at douglas.robert.g@gmail.com.  The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NDP.

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