Happiness, simplicity and apocalypse – May 1

May 1, 2011

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.

Happiness theory at center stage in Soros economic conference

John Cassidy, New Yorker
Inside George Soros’s “Monstrous Monkey House”

Snow-capped peaks; nightcaps with Larry Summers; discussions of complexity theory over breakfast; Tennyson quotations from Gordon Brown at lunch. No it’s not Davos—it’s Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, where over the weekend the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), which George Soros set up in the wake of the financial crisis, held its second annual conference.

… Soros launched INET in 2009 with the intention of fostering fresh ways of thinking to replace an economic orthodoxy that manifestly had failed. Two years on, it’s not clear how far he’s succeeding in that enterprise, but Rob Johnson, a former Capitol Hill staffer and employee of Soros Fund Management, who heads up INET, has certainly put its annual meeting on the map

… The highlight of last year’s INET conference was a lecture on the failures of mainstream economics from Lord Adair Turner, Britain’s top financial regulator, who heads up the Financial Services Authority. … Invited back to give another keynote address, Turner on Saturday evening stepped back from the financial crisis and talked about the policy implications of so-called “happiness economics.” As is now well known, surveys of individual well-being show that beyond a certain income threshold—about twenty thousand dollars a year—additional income and consumption produces little or no extra happiness. Countries get richer. Their residents earn more money and purchase more goods and services, but their reported levels of happiness stay pretty much the same. This is the so-called “Easterlin paradox”—named after Richard Easterlin, the American economist who first documented it. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, two economists at Wharton, have recently queried its existence, identifying in the data a positive relationship between well-being and income. But even if you accept the findings of Stevenson and Wolfers, beyond a certain level the impact of additional income is very slight: in rich countries, most people are trapped on a “hedonic treadmill.”

In view of the Easterlin paradox and other research showing that people’s happiness falls sharply when their income drops or they lose their jobs, Turner argued that policymakers should do all they can to stabilize the economy and prevent recessions but concentrate less on increasing absolute growth rates. Whether the British economy grew over the next twenty years at an annual rate of 1.75 per cent or 1.9 per cent was a trivial question relative to preventing mass unemployment, Turner argued. This line of reasoning represented a return to the arguments of Keynes, Hansen, Modigliani, Samuelson, and others, who during the middle of the twentieth century placed macroeconomic stabilization at the center of economics.
(14 April 2011)

The ‘I’m-happy-I’m-green’ consensus won’t placate our lust for novelty

Pat Kane, Guardian
A critique of consumer culture must answer both the human itch for excited engagement and the call of the damaged Earth

… Yet for me, there are unresolved questions in this emerging “I’m happy I’m green” consensus. Will dissatisfaction, yearning and the human lust for novelty be so easily placated by mind science, soft paternalism and sententious life lessons from government and charities? I have my doubts.

Look at the way we have embraced social networks and games platforms over the last five years. Of course, much of this is a straightforward amplification of social behaviours we already perform. We expand our ideas of friendship via software tools. We render our idle daydreaming and role-playing as warrior trolls in the gamespace.

But there is still something deeply attractive about these very objects and services that have amplified our natures. In their shapes and signs, they express beauty and ingenuity. The latest smartphone in our pocket is a toxic clump of hydrocarbons, rare metals and duplicatory design. Yet it’s also a mystic portal in our hand: a gateway to instantly useful information (or even cosmopolitan and concerned journalism), a dream-catcher of our experiences and intensities, perhaps even a toppler of dictatorships.

One of the push-backs to eco-austerity in the developed west will always come from our sheer delight in the intricate innovations that our fellow humans serve up to us. We are radical animals – able to distance ourselves from our instincts sufficiently enough to shape the world according to our imaginations.

But we radical animals face the barriers of the planet’s carrying capacity. How to confine our illimitability – our creative and destructive capacity to reframe reality – within the toughest of natural limits? My studies of the power and potential of play over the last decade have shown that humans truly thrive when they are able to act freely, to master skills they choose to master, and can take non-fatal risks under conditions of ultimate security.

A green politics has to be thinking passionately about zones of creativity and innovation for human beings, as well as the constraints and duties of low-carbon living. Otherwise the transformative dimension of our own nature will end up repressed and frustrated.
(26 April 2011)

Simplicity Institute report shows that less can be more

Samuel Alexander, Simplicity Institute
We live in an age that faces many great problems, ranging from ecological overshoot, poverty, overpopulation, limits to economic growth, peak oil, and widespread consumer dissatisfaction. Promisingly, however, there is a quietly emerging social movement that provides a remarkably coherent and attractive lifestyle response to these and other contemporary challenges.

The Voluntary Simplicity Movement is a diverse social movement made up of people who are resisting high consumption lifestyles and who are seeking, in various ways, a lower consumption but higher quality of life alternative. By limiting their working hours, spending their money frugally and conscientiously, growing their own vegetables, riding bikes, rejecting high-fashion, and generally celebrating life outside the shopping mall, these people are new pioneers transitioning to a way of life beyond consumer culture.

The Simplicity Institute recently launched a multi-national online survey for the purpose of gaining empirical insight into this ‘post-consumerist’ social movement. Presently 1748 participants in the movement have completed the 50-question survey and that makes it the most extensive sociological examination of the movement available.

The results of the study are both fascinating and potentially important, as they offer a deep empirical insight into a social movement that is rethinking the question of how much money and how much stuff is ‘enough’ to live well. Some of the central findings include:

  • In the developed world the Voluntary Simplicity Movement is comprised of approximately 200 million people exploring ‘simpler lifestyles’ of reduced or restrained income and consumption.

  • 87% of those who voluntarily choose to live more simply are happier for making the change, despite having less income. This suggests that reducing the environmental impact of our consumption habits may be in our own self-interest as well as the planet’s interest. It also shows that there is a viable and desirable alternative to high consumption lifestyles.
  • There is an emerging ‘group consciousness’ and political sensibility within the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, with 89% of participants stating that they would vote for a political party dedicated to promoting ‘simpler lifestyles.’ This suggests that the movement may become an important political force in the future.

The Simplicity Institute Report looks deeply into these and other research findings. The results of the study are freely available for download at www.simplicityinstitute.org/publications
(1 May 2011)
The Simplicity Institute was founded by Samuel Alexander and Dr. Simon Ussher.

Samuel Alexander is a lecturer at Melbourne University in Australia and editor of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009). He is also the founder of the Simplicity Collective – a grassroots social network dedicated to advancing the voluntary simplicity movement. Samuel has recently submitted his PhD for examination through Melbourne Law School, entitled “Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity”.

Dr. Simon Ussher is a medical specialist in Melbourne, Australia, and a passionate advocate of the holistic benefits of simple living, both personal and global.

The 22-page report is online as a PDF: The Voluntary Simplicity Movement: A Multi-National Survey Analysis in Theoretical Context

Bideo presentation by one of the authors, Samuel Alexander: Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (24 min)

I hope we can put up an excerpt from the report soon. -BA

Prophets of the Environmental Apocalypse

Peter Laarman, (A)theologies
Twilight wars in the Middle East, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe, Deepwater Horizon, worldwide crop failures, massive die-offs of long-established species: it’s all so very scary. Looming over all of it is the idea that we foolish humans have triggered some deep-level physical processes (methane gas release, ocean acidification, etc.) that now possess an ominous life of their own.

In these circumstances the word that slides naturally from the tongues of pundits is “apocalyptic.” It strikes many that we are now entering an apocalyptic scenario without precedent in recorded history. My interest here is comparing and contrasting the End Times as envisioned by certain of the faithful and the End Times as conceived by, say, James Hansen—the NASA climate change prophet. I’m interested not only in what the doomsday prophets say but also in how we receive what they say—in the part of ourselves that actually thrills to it.

… Let me be clear: I am not saying that our best environmental prophets—not Jim Hansen, not Bill McKibben, not Wendell Berry, not Vandana Shiva—are “out there” in a way that should give us pause. These are all sober, scientifically-grounded people. But sober and well-grounded people who have seen the future and who are terrified by what they see find it rather difficult to put up with the temporizing and tergiversation that mark the mainstream response to such an overwhelming crisis. Their sense of acute urgency can easily be mistaken for fanaticism. And of course it is precisely that slight edge of hysteria that their well-organized opponents love to seize upon in order to dismiss them as mere cranks.

There are other marked differences between environmental prophets and faith-fueled apocalypticists. One is that the enviros aren’t talking about a single catastrophic moment or event but rather a series of events—albeit rapidly evolving—that will dramatically transform conditions on the planet. Another is that the enviros don’t believe for a minute that after the very bad days there will be some kind of clearing or deliverance in the way that millenarian Christians believe.

A third difference has to do with human agency. Most environmental prophets think it’s still possible—barely—that humans might just rise to the occasion and significantly change their destructive behavior. Most religious doomsayers do not seriously believe that any radical repentance will occur; and they rather hope that it won’t, because they so relish the thought of the wicked being consumed as the cups of divine wrath are poured out.

… Spreading fear can also prompt another unhelpful reaction: what we might call the “fear junky” response in which we actually become attached to the fear and create a whole culture around it, as with the Godzilla cult that grew up in Japan in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We see something like that today in the activities of radical environmentalists who don’t actually organize for change but prefer to wallow instead in the pornography of planetary decline and death.

… Here, too, is a clue for our environmental doomsayers: Don’t disdain all economic activity so much, but redirect it toward higher ends. If your only alternative to the Peak Oil economy is a nuts-and-berries economy, you have already lost. Try to show how the sustainability path is a joyful path, not a grim monastic path.

It may be true, as many have said, that the next revolution—the green revolution—will be the first revolution in history that cannot promise material advancement in the same way that people have traditionally construed such advancement. But that does not mean we will be living immaterial lives, or that living much more modestly upon the earth will not prove to be quite sublimely satisfying. Teach that, please! And bring your poets, not your polymaths, to the front lines of the green revolution.
(28 April 2011)

Venezuela Comes Sixth in Gallup “Wellbeing” Survey

Rachael Boothroyd – Venezuelanalysis.com
Coro, April 24th 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The results of the Gallup Organisation’s most recent poll on wellbeing placed Venezuela in sixth place out of 124 countries. The poll, which was published on Thursday, is the result of a series of telephone and face-to-face surveys conducted between February and December 2010.

Using the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, whereby respondents are asked to rate their current and future lives based on a scale of 1-10—with 10 being the best life possible—the poll found that 64% of Venezuelans considered themselves to be ‘thriving’, i.e., those who rated their current lives at 7 or above and those who rated their future lives at 8 or above.

In relation to the poll’s findings, president Chávez commented, “This means we are on the right path, even with all the errors that we have to put right. Nonetheless, this is the right path, the path of socialism, the redistribution of income.”

Beaten only by Denmark (79%), Canada (69%), Sweden (69%) and Australia (66%) and scoring the same levels of “thriving” as Finland (64%), Venezuela occupied the highest position of those countries considered to be in the “developing world” and came first out of all the Latin American nations. In keeping with Gallup’s results from 2009, the Americas had the highest rate of “thriving”, with a median of 39%. The study highlighted that out of the populations in 124 countries, only 19 (all in Europe and America) classified themselves as being prosperous, with the list of countries where ‘the majority saw themselves as thriving’ including predominantly richer and more developed countries. Despite this, some countries with larger economies, such as the United States (59%) and the UK (54%), conversely ranked lower in the poll and came in at 12th and 17th respectively. Furthermore, levels fell even further in countries such as Italy (37%), India (17%) and China (12%), with figures significantly below the 50% margin, suggesting that higher levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and national income do not necessarily correlate to how citizens view their overall levels of wellbeing.

A lengthier study, conducted from 2005-2009, showed that Venezuela’s ‘thriving’ level was 50% – demonstrating a rise of 14% between the two polls and an improvement in how citizen’s viewed their wellbeing. The previous study also contained a table of ‘daily wellbeing averages’, which measured satisfaction on a daily basis through questions such as; “Have you learnt anything new/laughed at all today?’ or ‘Do you feel stressed/well rested/as though you are treated with respect?’. Venezuela scored particularly highly on daily wellbeing averages, attaining an overall rating of 8/10.

In the same way that social researchers have argued to include indicators such as gender equality and access to health and education services within the definition of what constitutes ‘development’, Gallup suggests that behavioural economic data is just as important as other economic indicators such as national income. Julie Ray, the author of the Gallup report, wrote, “Gallup’s global wellbeing data underscore the diversity of development challenges worldwide. As the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt showed earlier this year, leaders should not rely on GDP alone as an indicator of how well their countries and their citizens are doing.”

This work is licensed under a Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives Creative Commons license
(24 April 2011)

Tags: Building Community, Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior, Overshoot