Last week I attended a screening of the Economics of Happiness. The film is about how our current mode of life in the West is unsustainable and is not making us any happier. In fact, we are more overworked and stressed out than ever before. We are disconnected from our communities and from our natural world and whether we realize it or not, we need these connections to feel happy and fulfilled.
The root cause of all this disconnection? The movie claims it is due to our highly consumptive lifestyle where we define the sense of ourselves within the image of this consumption – I am defined by the car I drive or the house I live in, by the designer clothes I wear, the furniture in my house and the smart-ness of my phone. What if instead – we were defined by our place in our local communities, our families, our contributions and joy that we bring each other? What if we saw ourselves as part of nature, and realized that we are nature? Right now we are so disconnected from nature and from each other that it’s making us lonely and sad.
What is driving this consumerism and disconnection? The movie claims that it is big companies, big banks, big media. We are increasingly homogeneous on this planet of ours, as we all feed into the same images of beauty, wealth, affluence, success. Local customs, cultures, even languages, are being lost to the Western culture of consumerism.
The solution? Localism – lessening the distance between buyers and sellers, so much so that we can look the seller in the eye knowing that he has produced what we are about to buy, and have a conversation with him and build trust. We will perhaps then better respect the natural materials that went into build it, grow it, and the human effort it took. My goods don’t have to travel across the globe to get to me, I don’t have to contribute to poor working conditions in halfway around the world to get my product. It may cost more, yes. But what if the cost to me was the true cost of the product, including the cost to the people who made it and the cost to the environment?
This movie has really struck a chord with me. It goes against what I was taught in business school, and everything I thought I knew about free trade and globalization.
I remember in one economics class in University, having a debate about globalization. Is it better for large companies to have their goods made in the developing world, under poor working conditions with a barely livable wage, or to have them made in the developed world, under good working conditions with a fair wage? If the goods are made in the developing world, the end price of the product will be cheaper for the consumer. Also – it gives people jobs, without which they might have nothing. Are we doing them a favour by exporting these cheap labour jobs? Who benefits more? The western consumer for the lower prices, or the poor migrant worker with poor working conditions and a poor wage (but without the job, could perhaps be in even a more dire situation)?
In that economics class, I argued that it was better to give the person the job; that it was more efficient to have the goods made there than here as they have more resources of cheap labour, and that this combination brings the most good to both parties.
A poor job is better than no job right?
Now I am not so sure. What right do we have to export all the crap jobs over to China, where there are few worker safety regulations? In the West we could not force people to work in these same conditions, in some cases it would be against the law. How ethical is it to buy our goods from these places, knowing this might be the case?
Back to those people who need the job – if we don’t give it to them what will happen to them? Well this movie argues that people are being taken off the land, away from farming, and moving into large urban centres to work in these large factories to make stuff for us in the West. This is happening all over India and China right now. Migrant workers move away from their families to work in the city, and lose their connection with their communities and with the land. But they are getting a job right? But wait a minute – isn’t farming a job? The movie argues that it is okay to be a farmer; we must not look down upon it, we must not see the mass migration from sustenance farmer to urban factory worker as necessarily a good thing. The sustenance farming communities are often very sustainable, and employ much of the community in the work. Just because people don’t have a lot of material goods and drive cars and have a lot of money, does not mean that they are not happy. In fact, the movie claims that some communities are happier in that they have a deeper connection with their community, with each other and with nature.
So why is success defined through economic prosperity, instead of through a measure of happiness?
The movie also commented on the power large corporations have over governments these days, and how much power they have over us as citizens (consumers). They form incredibly large and well-funded lobby groups; they fund political campaigns and buy off politicians to further their own agendas. They mesmerize us with their commercials and billboards and magazine images. Who exactly is in control here anyway?
This is also something that goes against what I have always believed in. Corporations are key to capitalism right? And capitalism is the most economically prosperous type of system right? Corporations are efficient, they are working towards innovation, they create jobs for people; create wealth for pensions for people. Right?
Now I am not so sure. Why do they have so much control over governments? This is so evident on the issue of climate change. The scientists tell the government that we need to change to avoid disaster and oil companies tell the government that we don’t have to change. Who have the governments of the world listened to? 97% of climate scientists? No. Oil companies? Yes.
This is precisely the reason that 350.org is launching a campaign against the US Chamber of Commerce, which is a large and well-funded lobby group for big business that has been persistently trying (and succeeding) to block action on climate change in the United States. 350.org is asking businesses and people all across the US to sign up and say that the “US Chamber does not speak for me“.
So what can I do? Well I can choose local food, locally made goods, handmade goods made right here in my city, or in my province. Perhaps these goods will better reflect the true cost to the people and to the environment. I can support local industries, help them flourish. I can be part of the solution. I can limit my purchases of consumer goods I don’t need. I can think twice about buying products from places where the working conditions may be questionable.
Getting local, getting back to our roots, connecting with our communities, with our families, each other, and with nature – it has to be a good thing!
- A new documentary about the real wealth of nations – happiness (grist.org)
- Bill McKibben on ‘The Economics of Happiness’ (mnn.com)