Beyond GDP: The Ongoing Search to Measure “Wellbeing”
Wednesdays 1-3 p.m. Mountain; 8 sessions: September 14th thru November 2nd, 2022

Co-Facilitators: David Carlson and Paul Belanger


Over the past 30 years, several states have developed and promoted economic, environmental, and social indicators to signify collectively “quality of life,” “progress,” “sustainability” and related concepts. Similar projects are also underway at national and international levels to move beyond the growing dominance of economic growth indicators in public policy and decision-making, such as Gross Domestic Product and stock market valuations. One of the best-known examples of going “beyond GDP” is the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) unanimously adopted by the United Nations in September 2015.

This course will examine the case for going beyond GDP and other economic growth indicators as proxies for “wellbeing” and review several examples of going beyond GDP at state, national, and international levels for group discussion. This will include a “deep dive” into the strengths and limitations of the U.N.’s framework of SDGs, targets, and indicators and its relevance for local and state-level organizations and agencies. Throughout the course, we shall consider “health” to be a fundamental proxy for “wellbeing”—not only human health, but social and environmental health as well.

Guiding questions include: What is meant by “wellbeing” and can it be credibly measured? Is there evidence that Beyond GDP projects and programs can influence public policy and decision-making at state, national, and global levels? And should Colorado join other states in developing and promoting a consensus “dashboard” of 30-50 key indicators that span economic, social, and ecological dimensions of wellbeing?


Session #1 — The case for going “Beyond GDP” September 14th 
Economic growth measures such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and stock market valuations have come to dominate analysis, discussion, and decision-making in the public square. For many, these indicators have come to serve as proxies for the “quality of life” or “wellbeing.” What if “health”—not only human health, but societal and environmental health as well were the basis for articulating and tracking the multiple dimensions of wellbeing?


Session #2 – Have attempts to “Fix” GDP by incorporating social and environmental factors been successful? September 21st
Early attempts in the 1970s and 80s led to the creation of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) in 1995. The basic idea is to “tweak” GDP by including the value of unpaid labor (e.g., housework and volunteering) and subtracting the negative effects of producing goods and services upon society and environment (e.g., loss of leisure time, pollution, depletion of natural resources). Until 1980 GDP and GPI for the U.S. and Colorado tracked quite closely until 1980 and then began to diverge. Why?

Documents week 2:  


Session #3 – What can we learn from other states that have launched “Beyond GDP” programs? September 28th
States with programs include OR, MN, NJ, VA, HA, AZ, and MA. What led to the formation of these programs? Is there a “dashboard” or other framework to cluster indicators by categories or themes? How is “wellbeing” expressed or formulated? Is the concept of “equity” included in a central way? And to what extent are there “beyond GDP” programs in Colorado?

Documents Week 3:


Session #4 – Sustainable development, equity, and the U.N.; how relevant are the SDGs for NGOs and other groups? October 5th
The Brundtland Report (1987) provided the initial conceptual formulation of “sustainable development.” In 2015, U.N. member states unanimously adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); 169 targets and 232 indicators were developed in 2016 to track progress toward meeting each SDG by 2030.
During the remainder of the course, participants will be encouraged to explore possible connections between the SDGs and the goals and indicators of an organization (NGO, agency, business, etc.) of personal and/or professional interest and involvement.

Looking Ahead email before class: As background for week 4 next Wednesday, the following resources may be helpful to you:

  1. Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012. A  26-page Background Paper from U.N. Headquarters. The Executive Summary gives an excellent overview in less than 2 pages. David will draw on this document and others in the first hour next Wednesday.
  2. If you are unfamiliar with the Sustainable Development Goals, I suggest the U.N.’s website, What Are the Sustainable Development Goals?

However, if you are already familiar with the SDGs, the website images of the SDGs displays many ways of visualizing them as a group of 17 goals. You might look for displays that reinforce the three “pillars” of sustainable development: economy, society, and environment.

  1. Check out the Office of Health Equity  in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Any comments about the definition of “equity”?

We welcome your questions and/or comments!  Feel free to contact us anytime via email or texting (see your emails for those emails and phone numbers)

Documents Week 4:


Session #5 – The SDG indicator crisis and a robust response by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. October 12th
Reliable global data and consensus statistical methodologies were found to be available for only 40% (98 out of 232) of the original SDG indicators. SDSN, a UN affiliate since 2012, has led a global network of centers of research and knowledge to develop and publish a common set of reliable country-level quantitative indicators to track progress each year. Similar reports are available to track progress by U.S. states (2018) and major U.S. cities (2019).

Looking Ahead email before class:

  • Email from David: click here
    For some background, Patti suggests the following reading materials and videos:
    1) YouTube (20min): #FoodCrisis #Ukraine #ClimateChange
    A world going hungry? How conflict and climate change disrupt global food supply. Business Beyond — 319,162 views Jul 5, 2022
    2) Article (20pp): Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 17 September 2021 (20pp) Sec. Social Movements, Institutions and Governance 
    3) Article (3pp): Cox, N., & Beynon-MacKinnon, Z. (2020). Observations and suggestions during COVID-19: Harnessing pre-existing elements to increase food security. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 10(1), 25–27. 
    4) Video (3min): “Heyday for the Hillside Hub: Food to Power’s neighborhood.”  Food center opens with a public celebration. See  Staff report, SouthEast Express, Jun 14, 2022 Updated Jun 18, 2022

Documents Week 5:


Session #6 – The “Doughnut” model, “Doughnut” economics, and the SDGs. October 19th
In advance of the 2012 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, Oxfam ecological economist Kate Raworth developed a “doughnut” model to visualize 11 key domains of human wellbeing, encircled by nine environmental global thresholds that must not be breached. We trace the evolution of this visually compelling model of human and ecological wellbeing, connections with the SDGs, and its application by the city of Amsterdam.

Looking Ahead email before class: 

  • Email from David
  • Suggested Links:
    • View Kate Raworth’s riveting TEDx talk on Why It’s Time for ‘Doughnut’ Economics  (17 min.)
    •  How to Save the Planet: Degrowth vs Green Growth? Kate Raworth moderates a debate/discussion between Jason Hickel, London School of Economics, and Samuel Fankhauser, Oxford University. (90 min.)
    • TIME magazine article (January 22, 2021): “Amsterdam Is Embracing a Radical New Economic Theory to Help Save the Environment. Could It Also Replace Capitalism?”
    • World Resources Institute article (February 27, 2022):  “6 Big Findings from the IPCC 2022 Report on Climate Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (click here)
    • Project Drawdown – The World’s Leading Resource for Climate Solutions
    • The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. By Seth Wynes1,2,3 and Kimberly A Nicholas1 .Published 12 July 2017 • © 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd click here Citation Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas 2017 Environ. Res. Lett. 12 074024

Documents Week 6:


Session #7 – Other noteworthy frameworks of human and ecological wellbeing; participant feedback on SDG exercise. October 26th

Two examples: The 12-page 2022 Colorado County Health Rankings Report features a common set of 35 indicators for ranking the counties in Colorado that gives equal weight to Health Outcomes and Health Factors. Similar reports for each state have been published since 2010. Since 2014, the Social Progress Imperative has produced a Social Progress Index (SPI) of 50+ social and environmental indicators for most countries annually and for U.S. states in 2018. Participants share feedback on connections between SDGs and the goals and indicators of an NGO or agency of interest/involvement.

Looking ahead to week 7: 

Documents Week 7:


Session #8 – Promoting measures of human and ecological wellbeing (HEW) in Colorado—what’s next? November 2nd
Some guiding questions: Should Colorado join other states in developing and promoting a consensus dashboard” of 30-50 key indicators that span economic, social, and ecological dimensions of wellbeing? What about convening an annual or biennial Forum and/or report? Would a “clearinghouse” that tracks several different HEW frameworks with measures of wellbeing for Colorado be useful?

Looking ahead to week 8: 

Documents Week 8:

    • two Meadows items
      • the WEAll memorandum in answer to the Powell Memorandum and
      • one by Donella herself that focuses on the leverage points. John suggests trying this click here


  • Carlson, David L. 2016. “WTO reforms, sustainable development and climate clubs: calls for new thinking,” Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law. Vol. 34, No. 1, 126-136. See especially pp127-130 for a brief U.N. history with sustainable development. Note: I’m trying to find out if OLLI students can access this article at no cost through the DU library system (David Carlson).
  • Cobb, Clifford, Gary Sue Goodman, and Mathis Wackernagel. 1999. Why Bigger Isn’t Better: The Genuine Progress Indicator—1999 Update. Redefining Progress. Available at
  • Daly, Herman E. 2015. “Economics for a Full World.” This essay has been adapted from a speech on the occasion of the Blue Planet Prize, Tokyo, November 2014. Available at
  • Raworth, Kate. 2014. “Why It’s Time for Doughnut Economics.” TEDx talk [17 minutes]. Available on YouTube at
  • Sachs, Jeffrey D. 2017. Building a new American Economy: Smart, Fair and Sustainable. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Stiglitz, Joseph E., Jean-Paul Fitoussi, and Martine Durand. 2019. Measuring What Counts: The Global Movement for Well-Being–The Movement for New Metrics, Beyond GDP. New York: The New Press. Available in paperback.
  • United Nations. 2015. “Sustainable Development Goals.” Available at

David Carlson, EEE Forum founder; BOLLI BIO – click here

Paul Belanger, EEE Forum webmaster; OLLI BIO – click here