To Measure And To Narrate: Paths Toward A Sustainable Future Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Günseli Berik

Feminist economists and ecological economists, along with others, have long expressed dissatisfaction with the use of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita as the indicator for economic well-being. While feminist economists have problematized the invisibility of unpaid work of women in national accounts, ecological economists have focused on this measure’s neglect of the contributions of the environment to our well-being and the ecological costs of economic growth. Among the alternative measures developed in recent years only the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) incorporates the objects of concern of both groups – care work and the environment. Günseli Berik evaluates the usefulness of GPI for the feminist ecological project of moving toward a just and sustainable future.

GPI as alternative measure. GPI is an indicator of current economic welfare that makes adjustments to GDP to correct for many of its deficiencies: it adjusts personal consumption for income inequality, incorporates both the value of nonmarket activities and the social and environmental costs associated with market activity. While the end result of these adjustments is a single-value, monetary indicator akin to the GDP, the GPI framework tracks in monetary and nonmonetary terms each of its components. As such, GPI per capita provides a good approximation of a nation’s sustainable economic welfare by distinguishing among activities that reduce or do not add to welfare from those that enhance it. GPI estimates commonly fall below the GDP and often the GPI stagnates above a certain GDP level, when the costs of growth rise faster than its production benefits. Thus GPI is a tool for critiquing theory and policymaking that elevates growth as a priority. It provides a welfare profile of an economy and has also been used in simulations to assess the impact of proposed policies.

According to Berik, GPI’s architecture is consistent with the social provisioning approach, since it measures the economic, social, and environmental means to (resources for) promoting people’s capabilities. GPI makes visible the contributions of unpaid household and volunteer labor, and provides a sound basis for reflecting trends in commodification/noncommodification and evaluating policy impacts on unpaid work, leisure time, and underemployment.

GPI and feminist economics. Berik argues that while most feminist economists and environmental economists agree on the necessity of measuring progress toward sustainability, some environmentalists and feminists oppose quantification and/or monetary valuation entirely and hence would likely resist use of the GPI. Reviewing the parallel debates over quantification and valuation, she identifies elements of a consensus favorable to adopting the GPI. These include: 1) openness to complementing narrative approaches in discourse and strategy with quantification; 2) openness to relying on monetary valuation as one input in policymaking regarding use of environmental resources; and 3) recognition of the value of relying on a single framework to account for economic, social, and ecological contributors to well-being.

To measure and to narrate. Berik identifies recent GPI practices that are likely to enhance these consensus elements and help overcome the dualism in approach between measuring and narrating. She proposes routinizing GPI practices that are consistent with the plural-conditional approach in translating knowledge into policy, favored by some ecological economists. These practices include transparent GPI data reporting, running sensitivity tests, and supporting voice of local groups through GPI research, which she argues would increase confidence in GPI as a tool in gender- and environment-aware policymaking. The growing interest in updating and improving GPI methodology also means that this is an opportune moment for feminist economists and ecological economists to engage in dialogue and for feminist economists to contribute to GPI methodology. Bridging the long-standing divides will take concerted efforts to convene working groups and workshops. The starting point – the GPI framework – is a promising tool for engagement, since it reminds ecological economists to keep feminist concerns in mind, and reminds feminist economists to keep ecological concerns in mind. These steps and practices promise a fruitful collaboration of feminist and ecological economists in steering economies toward a sustainable future. 

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