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Talking happiness

 

I’m writing this on a plane, on my way home from four conferences on the “new economy.” Clearly there is rapidly growing interest in this subject, due in no small degree to the ongoing disintegration, and worsening dysfunction, of our present economic system. All four conferences (one in Berkeley; one in Tarrytown, New York; one at Harvard, organized by students; and one at the United Nations) were interesting and important, but the UN conference on “High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm,” organized by the nation of Bhutan, was especially noteworthy.

That conference encompassed four days, of which the first, third, and fourth were working sessions tasked with producing an agenda and preliminary report. The second day was a more public event (still by invitation) in which I participated. Six hundred dignitaries, scholars, and NGO representatives crowded into a windowless UN meeting hall for six hours of speeches, comments, and questions—all focused on the government of Bhutan’s initiative to replace or augment GDP as a measure of national and global economic progress.
 
Bhutan has already done impressive work along these lines, beginning in the early 1970s, developing a “Gross National Happiness” indicator and continuing to refine methods of measuring personal, social, and environmental well-being. This tiny Himalayan, mostly Buddhist, kingdom of 800,000 still has a low per capita GDP, but its citizens are among the happiest in the world. The current King and Prime Minister are evidently unwilling to rest on these accomplishments; they have set their sights on global happiness.
 
The conference featured opening statements from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the President of the UN General Assembly, the President of Costa Rica, and official representatives of France, Australia, the UK, Israel, Morocco, and Thailand. Renowned economists Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz spoke of the limitations and perversity of GDP and of recent efforts to develop alternatives. All the speakers seemed delighted to endorse the notion that happiness is a desirable societal goal.
 
Fittingly, the boldest and most eloquent statement of the day came from Lyonchhen Jigmi Thinley, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, who observed that GDP growth is killing the planet, destroying our future, and making humanity less equitable and, on the whole, more miserable. This framing of the situation placed him on one side of a subtle (and in fact never clearly articulated) divide that persisted throughout the conference—a schism between those who see GDP growth as fine and necessary, especially for poor nations, though needing supplementation with growth in other dimensions; and those who see further GDP expansion as unattainable or undesirable.
 
The inadequacy of the former, ostensibly more moderate, position was revealed in a presentation late in the morning by Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network, who pointed out that humanity is already using resources at one-and-a-half times the rate Earth can regenerate them annually (the temporary imbalance being enabled by a one-time-only drawdown of fossil fuels). This being the case, then presumably our global consumption of resources—and hence the global economy itself—must actually shrink substantially if we are to avert the catastrophic consequences of ecological overshoot.
 
The strategy of reining in population as a way to reduce total consumption without as much per capita sacrifice was not mentioned by anyone during the day.
 
Neither did anyone in the room explicitly call for de-growth. There were plenty of expressions of disgust at overconsumption in rich nations such as the US, and at the predatory behavior of the financial elite (the now-infamous “one percent”). But most speakers hewed to a politically safe notion that less-industrialized nations need more GDP growth in order to eradicate poverty.
 
Vandana Shiva of India garnered hoots and vigorous hand-claps for her insistence that farmers and the food system be put front and center in economic reform, pointing out that agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of the ongoing loss of biodiversity on the planet, and that the majority of people in many poor countries are farmers who are being forced by global agribusiness either to go into debt to adopt expensive soil-killing technologies, or to give up and move to the city (or, in the worst instance, commit suicide, as a quarter-million Indian farmers have done).
 
Prince Charles of Great Britain put in an appearance by video recording, eloquently ticking off the ecological and social crises brought on by industrial growth and calling for development along other lines.
 
Spiritual leaders of several faiths chimed in to point out that happiness, as a state of mind, can be actively cultivated regardless of one’s material circumstances.
 
Many mentions were made of the Rio Plus 20 meetings set to take place later this year, where nations will propose and agree upon strategies to expand the “green economy.” While all speakers seemed eager to include happiness and well-being economic indicators in those discussions, the prospects are not good. It’s late in the game: the Rio agenda is already largely set.
 
Further, that agenda may actually be regressive in its implications for people and planet. I had recently come from a meeting of indigenous leaders and ecological economists, most of whom are actively preparing for the Rio gatherings. The word from the indigenous leaders is that the “green economy” (as designed and marketed by the world’s wealthy nations and big corporations) will actually consist mostly of a monetization or commodification of nature’s services, such as carbon sequestration by forests. Indigenous communities may in some instances benefit from payments for forest protection, but in the end the result will likely be competition and division among native communities, along with an explosion of trading in carbon derivatives—which will merely further enrich the “one percent.”
 
There are likely to be impediments to the realization of a global happiness and well-being agenda. As one of the speakers pointed out, unless all nations make substantial new investments in surveys and the management of statistics, the adoption of Gross National Happiness targets and metrics will be practically meaningless. I might further mention (though no one did so publicly at the conference) that governments will find it nearly impossible to reduce their manic pursuit of GDP until they find another way of financing their operations (since declining GDP means a declining tax base).
 
A Chinese delegate offered a highly nuanced and somewhat admonitory official comment, while a handful of EU official representatives made somewhat more encouraging noises. But notably absent was any official representative of, or statement from, the United States. One can only imagine the puzzlement among State Department functionaries at the notion of Gross National Happiness, or the hoots of derisive laughter in Congress should the issue ever arrive there for consideration.
 
The next steps following from the conference include a report to the Secretary General, which will be forwarded to all UN member nations; the establishment of an ongoing commission to further study the development of a new economic paradigm; and the building of a global new-economy movement that includes youth organizations and a wide range of NGOs.
 
I had the sense of being at a milestone event, at which a couple of heads of state and several high-level national government representatives were saying almost exactly what ecological economists like Herman Daly have been telling us for years. Here is a nation—a tiny one, but a nation nonetheless—making its voice heard in the international community, calling for an end to the monomaniacal pursuit of GDP growth above all else. Despite the difficulties ahead, this is a cause worth celebrating and supporting. Once it becomes clear that further GDP growth will be ever more difficult to achieve, national leaders will desperately need ways to make life tolerable for their increasingly restive constituents. It’s plain that environmental, psychological, and social well-being must be the new goal, and we can thank the government of Bhutan for realizing this and blazing a trail that others may follow.
 
image credit: Stan Honda, AFP

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