272 | The gross domestic economy of being — if “health” was at the centre of our economic indicators

There are many riders out there, they travers unstable strokes for street ways, moving against the sunset, passing through the neighbourhoodscape. Their energy radiates, it is a shared experience, relatable, in motion, inclusive. Yet, in truth, the streets are never empty, cities aren’t as they were in 1970, and well being against the ancient coal stoves and the fuming exhaust pipes paints us in a darker hue than the blue and yellow sunsets setting townships alight. Gerald Sekoto: “The Cyclist” 1970, Oil on Canvas. Gerald Sekoto Foundation.

It’s been one year where the choices between humanity’s health and the economic performance are caught head to head. Nature seeks harmony, while our economic practices attempt to estimate for balance. 

The Gross Domestic Product has proven useless in showing us the extent to which a country’s population has the vitality to withstand a health crisis, a natural disaster, a global pandemic. 

Even with all the advances in technology and data, as biological organisms we don’t seem to have a “Gross Domestic Health” measure that provides an objective indication of our fundamental wellbeing. 

Thus, I see the COVID19 statistics and peer into a state that didn’t treat obesity, diabetes, tuberculosis, violence and trauma with the same level of concern, communication and focus to resolve. Call it prevention. 

These symptoms of a deeper series of sociological and psychological ills, remain trapped behind how places are designed, how we commute and what we eat. The evidence is compelling that when fed a high fat, high sugar diet, instant gratification becomes a priority and the rat under this test just can’t find its way out of the pond—or rat race. 

It is also quite clear that how we eat influences our neural functions, with fast foods producing a high calorie diet as the body scavenges for nutrients from the hallow meals. Then again, the level of convenience is unmatched in an economy desperate for productivity even at the cost of human health. 

Who can afford a balanced diet? Who has the time to exercise every day for 30 minutes? Why are cigarette advertisements banned, while alcohol ones were modified, and fast food ones remain? While we know the excessive consumption of these foods produces a lethargy that inevitably slows an economy down because it is not real. 

We look at Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, to what extent does how we measure our economic performance  contribute to the bottom end of the pyramid: food, water, shelter, warmth and rest—our physical health? 

The true economy

This tightrope hasn’t brought me to question why human health and our current economic system struggle to find harmony. A real economy for me, is an economy adjusted for inflammation not just inflation. Inflammation in the body is a killer. 

It is the primary source of disease and death. But before lives are lost, they slowly deteriorate. Heaving up the office staircases, struggling to make it through an eight hour day of focus, barely reaching a flow state on a habitual level. 

The short term arguments are pungent: alcoholism causes trauma, and this fills up hospital beds. What of the other longer term habits causing diseases we call comorbidities when an individual is also infected with COVID19? Where are they? 

“It is impossible for us the break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law”.

Cecil B. DeMille

Breaking ourselves in a drunken drive, a violent burst, an over indulgence only signify an economic scenario where well-being has taken the back seat. 

When I see this photo, my chest fills with pain. I can smell the dense air in the bus, see chests heaving with exhaustion, shirts wearing the worn down shoulders of the commuters, and the frowns, tired stiff necks and aching feet still cocooned in lace up shoes. David Goldblatt: The photo caption in the Mail&Guardian (9 May 2010) reads as “fatigue”. Donald Weber takes us through his notes and reflections on the extent to which David captured something about Apartheid that many could not pin down. This was part of the cost of the commute to Johannesburg.

We report quite vocally about the repo-rate, GDP, road fatalities and murders, but we struggle to depict the depression rate, job satisfaction indicators, access to healthy food, average heart rates, and happiness indices.

These are the among the many, “true” measures of an economy. However, to improve on these indicators healthier commuting options are one contributor. But as with nature, enhancing human health is part of an ecosystem of design— this is not cheap. 

Undervaluation of humanity

What we have done is undervalued the core aspects that make humanity work. This tendency probably parallels with the industrial revolution, air pollution, mass production and consumerism. 

This economy seems so separate from ourselves, as people seeking purpose, dignity and self-actualisation. We look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to what extent does how we measure our economic performance  contribute to the bottom end of the pyramid: food, water, shelter, warmth and rest—our physical health? 

The first argument is that GDP per-capita is a good indicator of a society’s ability to buy food, have access to water, shelter and rest. This is the premise upon inequality should be about, not only income distribution through the Gini-Coefficient; let alone the ideological tensions around the class struggle, or class war.

Moving up the pyramid, the measures deviate further and further away from our country’s political economic machinery and closer toward our humanity. Yet, the machinery does not evolve, it retains a persistent lack of inspiration. It is stuck on the most basic, and still stutters to measure and report. 

Which is probably a good thing. This apathy and political lethargy forces those of us who care, who see the problem, to do something about it. 

In recent years, the health, excercise and well-being related industries have gained significant popularity. Do we include these in our valuations of real estate developments? Foot traffic, the healthiest mode of travel, brings business to high streets. Cycling, gets the cardiovascular system going even at moderate speeds. To make it work, we need to know what its worth. 

This is where we messed up. We don’t know the economic impact of investing in health, well-being and all round self-actualised marketing, products and spatial planning. We don’t know what it means to carve an economy that is wholistic, not as units of labour, but as biological organisms living on a planet. 

We don’t know what it means to invest in changes in our societies that are at human scale, measure our economies in terms of the gross domestic economy of being. Following Tibor Scitovsky, this is the main reason why history is so unequal, we didn’t even measure the economic contribution of housewives, raising children and doing housechores. 

The economic value of these so-called “gender roles”, slips through with lower birthrates in the short-term creating demographic crises 50 years down the line with more elderly than youth. Simultaneously, we have begun to approach childrearing in the labour market with a much more nuanced approach, to reflect the realities for both parents and children.

Publicise the value of prevention

We seldom publicised the value of prevention, or the positive externalities that come from certain elements in society: slow brewing novelty, slower supply chains producing more durable goods, deeper businesses with a broad measure of financial performance. 

This is changing for the better. More and more companies and communities are realising the importance of deep work, patient work, and quality throughout the system— some try to take their shareholders along. 

Communities are seeing the same spirit emerging in politics, social development and cohesion, but the uptake is slow outside of urban centres. However, this is overshadowed by the apex of pure consumption culture which thrives on popularity, and its extreme political narratives (i.e. rising populism, fake news etc.).

There are small glimpses of light. That we are entering a new type of economy, but we will remain stuck to the sticky oil fueling industries and people alike. But soon, soon we could have in addition to gold prices, dollar exchange rates, and crude oil, prices of kilojoel dense foods would be ratio against low kilojoel dense foods (fast food) on a market level to measure the affordability of high quality food. 

We would see average heart rates indicators at the bottom of television and social media platforms for our location, with elaborations by age, indicating that more of us need to get active.  This is already happening with COVID19, and with ESKOM. 

We would have air quality indicators presented like the weather, offering joggers and people in the outdoors some perspective about when is it best to be outside, and what cities and towns can do to improve their air quality on a given day or week. 

If there is one thing that you could take home from this one is that there is value in being alive, this is immeasurable. We can try to make it more valuable by truly cherishing human life, the life of our planet and foster a healthier economy. Prevention, is far better than a cure. 

Say health was a central part of our economy, how many aspects of our world would have to change? 

Thank you for reading.

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