“Beyond-GDP” Indicators: Changing the Economic Narrative for a Post-Consumerist Society? (In: Social Change and the coming of the post-consumer society)

Critics of a consumerist, growth-oriented economy have in recent decades been among the main voices calling for alternatives to Gross Domestic Product as a prosperity indicator. In recent years, GDP’s limitations have increasingly been recognized by the political mainstream and there has been a proliferation of efforts to introduce new prosperity and wellbeing indicators. These developments have raised hopes in some circles of “dethroning” GDP; indeed Britain’s former top civil servant has proclaimed “the end of the GDP-only world.” But does the emergence of new wellbeing measurements and the related politics of wellbeing actually imply a transformative shift in the dominant economic narrative and societal priorities away from growth and ever-rising consumption? Although use of “beyond-GDP” indicators is still in its infancy, the early experience can be assessed to gain a sense of the impacts to date, obstacles and challenges, and possibilities on the horizon. This chapter draws on semi-structured interviews with individuals involved in producing, using, and advocating “beyond GDP” indicators in Canada and Britain. It argues that a transformative vision linking new indicators to a vision of a post-growth, post-consumerist society with greater equity has, to date, been overshadowed by a more limited vision of using wellbeing data to produce better policy “at the margins.” This has led to concerns that the agenda has been coopted or become a “distraction.” The chapter concludes with thoughts on the much more substantial social changes that would be needed alongside “beyond GDP” indicators if they are to contribute to a transformation of social priorities. 

Jeffrey Wilson