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‘We are drowning in dossiers of which we have long known they will play a role’

The new government needs to look further ahead, says environmental scientist Rutger Hoekstra. ‘We keep pushing forward big dossiers like demographic ageing, climate and migration. Even though we know they play a big role in our future.’ Hoekstra therefore hopes that the new coalition agreement will take the concept of Well-being as its framework. ‘We should not only look at our welfare today, but also at that of future generations.’

From campus to cabinet
On 22 November, The Netherlands voted for a new government. Important themes according to the polls were livelihood security, healthcare, immigration and asylum, housing market, climate and sustainability. Which aspects should a new government keep in mind within these themes? Our researchers reflect on this in a series of articles.


Climate and sustainability are key issues in the upcoming elections. But what do we mean with sustainability? 'Sustainability is a very broad concept,' says Hoekstra. 'In the research my colleagues and I do, we don't just see sustainability as solar panels and green electricity. We define it as anything that harms future welfare . Climate and biodiversity loss are very important components of that, but also migration, ageing, automation and other big dossiers play a role.'

According to Hoekstra, these big issues are addressed far too little in current Dutch politics. 'We are almost drowning in dossiers that we've known will play a role in our society for quite a long time. Yet we keep putting them off. Only when a crisis situation arises on one of these dossiers, politicians react ad hoc.'

Need for long-term vision

If it was up to the environmental scientist, the new coalition agreement should focus much more on future well-being. ‘I think the government needs to focus more explicitly on a long-term vision of our society. I think citizens also really need a clear direction.’ But how do we achieve a clear vision of the future in a politically divided country like the Netherlands? ‘That is why the framework well-being (Brede Welvaart) was developed, which looks at prosperity more broadly than economic growth and material prosperity.’

'Increasing current welfar,  should not cause less wellfare in the future'

The framework consists of three dimensions: present well-being, the well-being of future generations and inclusiveness. ‘Present well-being is about the here and now: do you have a good life right now? But we must also consider how our current well-being affects that of future generations. So if we make decisions to increase current welfare now, it should not cause less wellfare in the future. And the same goes for the third dimension: inclusiveness. If we take measures to improve welfare here, it should not lead to inequalities or divisions in the Netherlands or elsewhere.’

What do we want as a society?

The concept of well-being provides tools to look more holistically at the connection between different policy areas. Take the climate dossier, for example. ‘The Netherlands is committed to expanding renewable energy sources and increasing circularity. The technical solutions will be there in the next few years. Thanks to these rapid developments, some sustainable alternatives are also becoming more affordable. For instance, an electric car is expected to be cheaper than a petrol car in the future. But not everyone will be able to afford a new car. And the production chain must also be organised in a way that does not require children to mine rare raw materials in other countries. So it is important to look at sustainability and distribution issues at the same time.’

'It is iportant to look at sustainability and distribution issues at the same time'

Automation and conscious policies can mean we have to work less and have more free time in the future, Hoekstra explains. ‘That sounds very positive at first glance, but we then have to look what we do with that extra time. If that means people go on holiday by plane twice a year, the positive effect of cheaper sustainable products and fewer working hours is gone again. Moreover, there is the question of how reducing working hours relates to the ageing population and the deficit of staff in healthcare and education, for example. So a big part of broad well-being is also looking at what we really want as individuals and as a society. For instance, do we really get happier from earning more money and being able to consume more? And how can we design our society better towards what we really want? Those are pretty big dilemmas.’

Step by step towards the first well-being cabinet

Hoekstra sincerely hopes that the next cabinet will work with this framework. ‘It will take some time for the cabinet to figure out exactly how to shape this. That is not a bad thing as it is a bit of pioneering and figuring out how we can do this step by step.’

It sounds like a difficult task, but Hoekstra is hopeful. ‘After parliament asked CBS to publish a well-being Monitor in 2016, the concept spread like a wildfire. The Social and Economic Council (SER) now also has the mission to increase well-being in the Netherlands. And other institutes are also adopting this framework to think about how to implement policy. Last year's annual budget, for instance, literally said: budget for well-being. But as a government, choosing it wholeheartedly has not happened so far.’

'It is an opportunity to link the political differences between parties and look for common ground'

Away from loose dossiers

Applying well-being is also an opportunity to link the political differences between parties and look for common ground, Hoekstra says. ‘Instead of swapping out separate dossiers like climate and education with each cabinet, we should explicitly start looking at what the problems and opportunities are for the next 10 to 20 years and how those dossiers affect each other.’

In the coming years, Hoekstra hopes to see the Netherlands looking beyond a single term of government. ‘I especially hope that together we can develop a more integrated vision of society that will solve crises less ad hoc when it is already too late. To achieve this, we don't just need technical developments, but above all a political vision that is committed to the well-being of today and the future.’

Text: Inge van Dijck
Image: Fien Leeflang

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