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Film review: "The Economics of Happiness"

The concept of localisation is one increasingly being discussed as the debt-based, high carbon, energy vulnerable model of economic globalisation increasingly comes apart at the seams. A recent conference run by Transition Colorado had the subtitle “food relocalisation as economic development”. I think we might argue for localisation in general, not just in terms of food, being seen now as a key strategy of economic development. ‘The Economics of Happiness’, as a film that argues that “’going local’ is the way to repair our fractured world – our ecosystems, our societies and our selves” has therefore arrived at the right time, but is it the convincing, accessible and rousing film about localisation that we need in order to raise the issue to the next level of the debate? Here is the trailer:

 

Running for 65 minutes, it is certainly a very well-produced film which crackles along with good pace. There were never any moments when my eyelids began to feel heavy or my attention drifted elsewhere. The film builds its case against globalisation patiently, its centrepiece being 8 arguments against globalisation. It doesn’t pull its punches. Globalisation makes us unhappier, less skilled, less socially connected, was only made possible because of huge subsidies from governments, is catastrophic in terms of climate change and reduces food security (among other things). This is not a film that seeks to give a balance to both sides of the argument, it has a case to make and it makes it very well.

When Naomi Klein visited Totnes recently, she argued that the climate change movement is losing the argument, and that what is needed is a new coalition of organisations built around the arguments that dealing with climate change will also make us more equal, healthier, better educated, and generate more new jobs and economic activity than not dealing with it. She argued that this wasn’t capitalism, communism or socialism, but an as yet un-named new ‘ism’. This film argues that that should be ‘localism’ (or ‘localisation’ to be more exact).

This is a powerful argument, one that is only just now starting to be convincingly made, through the work of Michael Shuman, various local economic development organisations, Transition initiatives, groups like Local United, New Economics Foundation, and, increasingly, organisations such as the Development Trust Association and other organisations that promote community development. This film doesn’t present much in the way of research to back up its thesis, other than some work from the US about the multiplier effect which is mentioned briefly, but this is probably because not much work has been done on the potential economic benefits of localisation, and there is much to do. It is like the arguments around energy, and those who argue that it is better to invest in saving energy than in new generating infrastructure (‘negawatts’): similarly, getting money to do as much as it can before it leaves local economies would provide a huge boost to those economies.

One of the things the film does best is to explore some of the less tangible benefits of localisation. Helena Norberg-Hodge’s observations as to life in Ladakh prior to its being opened up to globalisation offer insights into some of the less tangible things that are being lost from our own culture; interaction between the generations, shared work, celebration and traditions to name just a few. Downsides? Personally, great activist though she is, I thought there was a bit too much of Norberg-Hodge. The film seemed unclear as to who the narrator was; it has a male narrator doing a voice-over, yet she appears so often that it is unclear as to who is actually narrating the story.

While what she says is powerful, I wondered if there might have been a better way to do it. For me, the film’s power lies in the sections voiced by ordinary people, the Chinese teenager talking about how he loves America because everyone is happy there, the two Detriot urban food growers standing by their vegetable beds, and the two Ladakhi women looking, bemused and upset, at the lonely residents of a London old peoples’ home. I do also think that the film can, at times, be accused of over-romanticising indigenous peoples. It is, after all, not that indigenous cultures are entirely fantastic and Western culture is entirely bereft of goodness. Is it that the teenager in China so idealises the US solely because of being exposed to marketing that has undermined his sense of culture, or because there are also things in his own culture that are also deeply flawed?

The film can have a tendency to be a bit too black and white, and a more nuanced analysis might have been more honest and more useful. Does the West really have nothing whatsoever of value to offer? Do developing countries really need nothing other than being left alone? There are portions of this film that would appear to suggest this. The over-romanticised version of the lives of indigenous people, always laughing and dancing, children running around happily, is clearly somewhat idealised.

In the interview I recently did with Michael Shuman, he pointed out that often localisation is talked about in terms of shortening the distance between consumer and producer. The aspect of it that is less talked about is around ownership, and the importance of the community itself owning the process and benefiting from it. This is what academics call the difference between ‘reflexive’ and ‘unreflexive’ localisation, the former being one that builds community, fosters sustainability and the collective good, and the latter being one that doesn’t. That is an analysis somewhat lacking in this film. There was very little in terms of exploring new (or indeed tried and tested) models of ownership, nor any of the politics around that (but hey, in 65 minutes you can’t do everything).

That said, I really liked ‘The Economics of Happiness’. I felt that it argued its case well and that it presented a strong case for localisation. It has enough moments when the hairs stood up on the back of my neck for me to know that this is a powerful film. It is surprisingly political in its assessment that we didn’t end up where we are today purely due to ‘progress’, a collective push away from the local, rather it was foisted on us by corporations, legislators and successive international agreements which was presented as inevitable and as a step towards greater freedom and choice. Those that fell along the way, the small shops, the family farms, the local food processors, were all seen as unfortunate but unavoidable casualties. It will be interesting when the impacts of peak oil mean that we start to see, in effect, ‘reverse globalisation’ whether the same sense of fatalism returns.

I must declare an interest: I make an appearance in this film, so you might assume that therefore I am, of course, going to tell you that it is fantastic. However, you never know when you are interviewed for a film whether it is going to be any good or not. For example I appear in a recent film on Cultural Creatives, and the final result is, in parts, pretty toe-curling, pitching me alongside 2012 people and free energy machine advocates (although it has some good stuff in it too). You can’t win them all.

‘The Economics of Happiness’ firmly dispatches with the idea that the relocalisation of food production in the West would cause starvation in the developing world. This question, which I am often asked, is dealt with beautifully, arguing the food security needs, with great urgency, to be built in both places. Could you show this film to local businesses? To your local political representatives? I think that the answer is yes, this passionate, articulate and passionate film presents a clear and articulate vision of what a shift in the scale at which we do things would look like, and of the many other benefits it would bring. I would highly recommend it as a very timely and powerful addition to the Transition film club.

You can order the DVD of ‘The Economics of Transition’ here.

 

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