A group of activists in Bath spent the winter collecting the ‘worries’ of their fellow citizens about the future. Their indicative findings suggest a country deeply concerned about the viability of its planet, the misdeeds of its politicians, and a failing and divisive economic system.

Decades ago, an economics lecturer in a British university asked first-year students “What happens to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) when a man marries his housekeeper?” One brave soul – not rendered speechless by the assumptions underlying the question – replied that GDP would fall: the housekeeper would no longer be paid, so their work would not count towards national prosperity.

Nowadays, though GDP is still central to measuring economic performance, it is commonplace for it to be criticised for missing, for example, the work of family carers and volunteers, or over-valuing output at the expense of environmental degradation, or damage to mental health from work-related stress.

There has been a small shift to other measures, for example Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness based on indicators that measure ‘psychological wellbeing; health; education; time use; cultural diversity and resilience; good governance; community vitality; ecological diversity and resilience; and living standards’. It is still not perfect, let alone widespread; the criteria wouldn’t work for every country, and the methodology is still in development, but it is no longer unthinkable that the narrow focus of GDP might one day result in its abandonment.

As others contributing to this Rethinking Security blog argue tirelessly, RS is on a mission to challenge similarly flawed, outdated thinking about national security by developing another way to view security; its Alternative Security Review invites people to set out their priorities and preoccupations. In Bath and North East Somerset, a local group of RS activists has been working towards a grassroots view. I first reported on this in 2022, sharing the findings of our online survey. Mindful of the limitations of online questionnaires explained at the end of the original report, we moved to a new campaign.

At our weekly peace vigil in front of Bath Abbey, we have a good deal of engagement with the public and it occurred to us that we could use that opportunity to gather opinions for our survey. We could have paper and pens at the ready and invite those who came to our table to write something to put in a box. 

Since our experience of other conversations about security had taught us that people talked more readily about what made them feel insecure, the things they worried about, we called it ‘The Worries Box‘.  We wanted them to share their anxieties with us (anonymously) and between September 2022 and April 2023 we collected nearly two hundred individual worries.

When we sorted the 200-odd responses by keywords, we found that the single largest of our respondents’ worries was about climate, whether expressed in terms of climate change, crisis, catastrophe or insecurity. More than a quarter of respondents focused on climate and ecological concerns.

There was much unhappiness about government with the emphasis on politicians who are dishonest or put the interests of the elite first.

There were also many different expressions of concern about poverty, greed and social and economic inequality.

War certainly featured, as can be seen by the size of this word in the word-cloud, yet it was striking that in the detail of the responses, war appeared primarily in the context of fear of wars arising from resource scarcity, or nuclear war escalating out of smaller conflicts.

These worries strengthen our conviction that traditional ways of thinking about security are wrong because they divert attention and resources away from action to protect the environment and distribute the world’s resources more fairly. A more holistic human security approach would address those concerns.

Moreover, as we are becoming increasingly aware, conflict is hugely destructive of the environment, yet the impact of war on carbon emissions is not measured, let alone considered in formulating climate policy. Thus, it is entirely possible that a country going to war might increase its GDP by producing more things, even were all these new products to explode and release fire, fumes, death and destruction. That’s the focus of the next phase of our campaigning!

Judith Eversley is a retired international economist, active in the local group Rethinking Security in Bath & North East Somerset.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credits: Adapted image of Bath Abbey, originally by Hulki Okan Tabak from Pixabay.