Growth in well-beingThe greatest achievement during his five years as professor, says Smits, is the publication of the book ‘Well-being, Sustainability, and Social Development; The Netherlands 1850–2050’ that he co-authored with three colleagues. ‘In the book we investigate what steps the Netherlands has taken to achieve economic growth and what the effects of these were for well-being.’ Smits is senior statistical researcher and project manager of the Monitor of Well-being & the Sustainable Development Goals at Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and since 2016 professor of Quantification of Sustainability at TU/e.* In the book he describes how until the 1960s the economy grew at the same rate as well-being increased. ‘After that, economic growth started to have large negative side effects. We examined the patterns in these developments and identified the moments in time when we found ourselves with our backs against a wall. Then we tried to use this information to see what lessons it holds for the future; our economic history can teach us a lot.’
Around 1900, the Dutch economy was quite circular, Smits says. ‘But since 1960 it has become linear. Roughly speaking this means that we collect raw materials, produce products which we then throw away as waste. And while doing all this, we emit a lot of pollutants. This linear economy came about as we produced more and more junk, plastic for example, but also as a result of globalisation, which means raw and semi-manufactured materials are transported back and forth across the world. To make the economy more sustainable, we not only need to produce more sustainably, we also need to review the level of globalisation.’ Smits is very clear about the need to do this: ‘You can only push things so far. We cannot carry on like this. Look what it’s doing to the climate, but also at the fact that more and more often raw materials cannot be supplied from other countries. It often costs more to use local products, but damage to the environment also costs money.’
Public and politicsSmits explains how the pillarisation of Dutch society, that lasted until the 1960s, had its advantages. It meant there was a logical relationship between the political elite and their constituencies. Smits: ‘Depillarisation gave us more freedom. But if the transition to a more sustainable world is to succeed, we need to find a way for politicians and the public to connect again.’ Take the transition to a low-carbon economy. This is taking place partly through technological developments, and partly through institutional intervention. ‘Politicians need to show the public why the transition matters. But they are not doing this very well, and as a result there is more dissatisfaction and mistrust, people thinking why should I have to suffer?’
Listen to those who lose outHistory has taught us how important it is for politicians and policymakers to take notice of people negatively affected by the sustainability transition. ‘Take the nitrogen debate: farmers stand to lose here, but what are they getting in return? It may be useful look at how we have tackled this in the past. An example of success in this respect is the textile industry in Twente. This industry was demolished in the last century as low-wage economies began supplying cheap fabrics and garments. Although we expected to see mass unemployment, this didn’t happen. Staff were retrained to build machines and now Twente is producing textile manufacturing machines for the foreign market. The closure of the mines in Limburg, on the other hand, is a more somber example of a transition in the past.’
Well-being trade-offsSmits – who applied for the NWO funding together with prof. dr. Johan Schot of Utrecht University – is going to use the funding to investigate the interdependencies between the Dutch economy and the poorer countries in the world, also referred to as the Global South. The research project will be a close collaboration between CBS, TU/e, Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research. Smits: ‘We want to know how Dutch economic growth has affected economies in poorer countries – from which the Netherlands imports a lot – in the last 120 years. The Netherlands has always been a trading nation; this is deeply rooted in its colonial history. Together with Frank Veraart (researcher at TU/e) I am studying how existing trade relations have come into being and how the Netherlands can approach trade better from a moral and ethical point of view.’ The project includes two PhD projects, on Dutch imports of metals and vegetable oils and fats. A post-doctoral researcher has been appointed to conduct a quantitative study – partly at CBS – on trade in products with the Global South. Smits: ‘At the end of the project we shall organize a policy workshop for politicians and policymakers.’
Global measuring systemThe UN recently invited Smits to investigate how the Dutch measuring methods used in the Monitor of Well-being & the SDGs can be applied in an international context. Smits: ‘This is where my work at CBS and at the university comes together. Until now, we have been approaching well-being from a western perspective. I want to find out how the Gobal South itself views the concept of well-being and subsequently include these insights in a standardised global methodology to measure well-being. This could also give us new insights for our own CBS Monitor of Well-being & the SDGs.’
* The views in this interview are expressed in Jan-Pieter Smits’ capacity as professor at TU/e.