The Economics of Happiness
The Economics of Happiness

International Society for Ecology and Culture
A film by Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick and John Page
2011, 67 minutes DVD, $25

Documentaries that cover peak oil or deal with resource depletion tend to be downers on the whole, offering few pleasures beyond the snarky joy of Schadenfreude.

Even with a few cheery bits thrown in to make the apocalypse go down a little smoother, unless you really want to see your obnoxious brother-in-law the oncologist with his whole 6,000 square foot McMansion outside of Dallas go down in flames, a film like The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream or A Crude Awakening – The Oil Crash offers little reassurance that a future where we are forced to live inside our ecological constraints will have much to look forward to.

This kind of film can certainly make you mad enough to take action. Or it may make you so depressed and overwhelmed that you decide to leave the problem for somebody else to figure out.

A deep and pervasive positive outlook is what makes The Economics of Happiness so great. Of course, the film surveys the grave problems that threaten globalized capitalism and make even its success seem like failure: income inequality, pollution, resource depletion and of course, depression and anomie.

But from start to finish, this film presents a vision of a better future beyond economic growth that is among the most convincing and credible that I’ve seen.

It’s easy to share a vision of an eco-friendly future that’s desirable, where life is more about people than stuff and where the pace is slower and the intangible rewards — the only ones that contribute much to happiness — are great.

But it’s not so easy to make a vision of post-globalized living believable. The Economics of Happiness does just that by drawing on host Helena Norberg-Hodge’s lifelong love affair with the mountainous region of Ladakh, a tiny semi-autonomous kingdom in Nepal known as “Little Tibet” that until recently was largely isolated from industrial society.

Paradise lost

Ladakh demonstrates how people can be happy in a society that meets their basic material needs but is rich in community. In traditional Ladakhi culture, there were no celebrities. This allowed ordinary people to shine. Everyone could be a singer or a dancer and take joy in the natural human urge to make noise and move around. And children found their role models not in professional teachers or figures in the media, but in the adults who surrounded them every day and who taught them useful skills and modeled mature ways of dealing with emotions and other people.

Sadly, Ladakh also teaches us what people lose when their society rapidly embraces globalization. Pretty soon, men and boys need to get jobs to afford all the stuff they see on their village satellite TV from Hollywood and Bollywood. But a lack of paying work puts young people out on the streets, where they start to get into trouble — drinking, drugs and violence.

Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future reminds us in the film that, according to surveys, Americans reached the height of happiness in the 1950s, just before the truly big post-war consumer binge began. As that same binge now starts to wind down, sociologists say that we’ve just entered yet another 40-year cycle characterized by a rejection of the values of extreme capitalism — competitiveness, materialism, individualism — and an embrace of cooperation, deeper meaning and community.

A perfect storm for localizing happiness

The Economics of Happiness gives good reason for a thinking person to believe that a shift in values combined with physical restraints on economic growth could be just the combination needed to bring people in globalized societies, whether the US, Europe, East Asia or now Ladakh itself, back to a kind of contentment enjoyed by our ancestors or sought by today’s kingdom of Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness Index.

And thankfully, even as it looks back to the past, the film is 100% free of nostalgia or sentimentality. A battery of experts as clear-headed as they are warm-hearted, from Vandana Shiva to Michael Shuman and David Korten to UK Member of Parliament and eco-heartthrob Zac Goldsmith, ensures that the film’s ideas for an economy beyond globalized capitalism are well thought-out and based on convincing physical science, economics and psychology.

There’s plenty in this film to make you mad too, but I wound up feeling more sad than angry over what the Ladakhis and the rest of us had lost when we let multinational corporations and banks loose to roam the world in search of cheap labor and resources to exploit for quick profits. Since I was already motivated to act on the issues of peak oil and climate change, the film’s positive vision provided valuable reassurance that I was on the right track, that it’s not futile to push for a more local, human-scale world because that world is both possible and better than today’s globalized economy.

But I’m not sure the film leaves the viewer new to the issue of eco-economics with enough resources to connect with the movement working on solutions and responses to the issues in the film. Anyone screening The Economics of Happiness to an audience would do well to frame the film with information about the Transition movement and local or Internet-based groups dealing with globalization and encouraging re-localization.

Fans of the Transition movement will especially enjoy seeing appear in the film Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins as well as Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute.

— Erik Curren