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Leiden scientist addresses UN: 'People should not work for the economic system, the economic system should work for the people'

Environmental scientist Rutger Hoekstra addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on 12 April. And that’s quite a big thing to do. How do you get there as a scientist? And, more importantly, what was his message? In eight questions, Rutger explains what he does and why.

You stood at the UN, what was it like?

‘It was very special. I have been doing research on "Beyond-GDP” for 15 years so it is great to see that this topic is now on the UN agenda.’

Why were you there?

‘The UN has started a process to go "Beyond-GDP" and wants to take a year to do so. This means they want to look for 10 to 20 indicators that are telling more about a country's success than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We know by now that a society based on economic growth is unsustainable. But we have not yet figured out how to do it differently. If GDP is not the key measure of success, what do you measure?’

How did they come to you?

‘I published the book “Replacing GDP by 2030”, which gives an overview of the scientific insights in this area. Now there had to be a 'scientific briefing' for members of the General Assembly, where scientists gave interpretations on this topic. I was one of the five panellists allowed to contribute.’

What was your message?

‘I started my speech by saying that there is a lot of discontent among people. Discontentment because they feel they have to work for the economic system. Instead, we want the system to work for the people. The Chilean delegation felt the same way, where despite impressive growth figures, a social uprising broke out a few years ago.

I also stressed that in the search for indicators, science and politics must work together. “Beyond-GDP” is seen by some as a purely scientific question, while in other cases, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, there are no scientists involved at all. The new UN process offers the opportunity for co-creation between science and policy.’

Rutger Hoekstra addresses the UN assembly

How were the reactions?

‘It went well, but it is always difficult to assess how your information comes across in such a room. And you only get five minutes of speaking time. So our team also built a website with answers to the key questions on the subject, with data and insights from scientists.’

What kind of research do you do?

‘I have always been intrigued by the dominance of GDP in our society. For 15 years, I have been researching alternative indicators that better capture the success of a society. These are indicators of Wellbeing, Inclusion and Sustainability, WISE for short. 


I now have a team of very talented PhD students (Kedi Liu, Annegeke Jansen and Inge Schrijver) and two fantastic co-directors (Ranran Wang and Paul Behrens). They work on various research questions such as:

- There are far too many indicators with far too much terminology. I aim to harmonise and consolidate the number of measurement systems. This should be done in a system of accounts to replace the System of National Accounts, which defines GDP. 

- Apart from figures on the past, we also need WISE models that give policymakers tools on how to improve society.’  

 'If you don't understand economics you can't solve environmental problems either'

How did you end up in this field of research? Did it happen by chance?

‘I was concerned with environmental problems from a young age. In my time, it was acid rain and a hole in the ozone layer. My father then encouraged me to study “environmental economics”. His reasoning was: if you don't understand economics, you can't solve environmental problems either.

After my studies, I did various things. At CBS, for instance, I was responsible for the "broad welfare" theme, which I worked on with heart and soul, together with my good friend and colleague Jan Pieter Smits. Finally, this year I started working as a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Sciences Leiden (CML).’

What do you expect for the future?

‘If a topic is on the UN agenda, it automatically gets a lot more attention. Just look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I therefore expect "Beyond-GDP" to get a huge boost.

In addition, the EU has also put a lot of research money into this topic. In the next four to six years, I therefore expect much more social attention to this topic, among scientists but also in the media.’ 

Will we save the earth with this?

‘Haha, no we won't. We will only save the earth through millions of small actions by people, governments, companies and, yes, scientists too. By measuring social success in a different way, we as a research team hope to do our bit to make that happen.’

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