The Economics of Happiness

The premiere of The Economics of Happiness at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong was a welcome spiritual boost, certainly for me, and probably for a lot of other people in the audience. It looked at the state of the world insofar as we are facing a major environmental crisis, a major economic crisis, a major energy crisis and a major population crisis, and it laid the blame quite firmly at the foot of the god of Economic Growth and Globalisation. Governments are hooked on growth, which requires constant ramping up of the economy in order to provide the goods which we are all hooked on buying, which in turn provides the profits which enable companies to invest further in more production of new models of everything, which we all rush out to buy, and so on ad nauseam. But not ad infinitum for the simple reason that we are running up against the limits of so many resources, especially oil, which is the lifeblood of our industrial societies.

Globalisation, which is basically the removal of trade barriers which prevent transnational companies from moving into markets wherever they smell profits, has had a drastic effect on Ladakh in Tibet. Helena Norberg-Hodge, who co-directed the film, and who spent many years living in Ladakh (see her book Ancient Futures) shows in the film how swiftly the dead hand of globalisation poisoned Ladakh society: an influx of vehicles brought pollution and rubbish; advertising and television made the inhabitants feel inferior to Western societies so that acquiring the latest gadgets became de rigueur; people began to see themselves as poor; depression and suicide (not mentioned in the film) soared; and people of different religions who had lived peacefully together for centuries began to fight.

The ridiculous thing is that more and more evidence is piling up which shows that, beyond the point of satisfying our basic needs, the increased wealth and accumulation of more and more stuff, far from making us happier, is actually depressing the hell out of us. Bill McKibben, one of many people interviewed in the film, said that the peak of happiness in the US was reached in the mid-fifties, since when wealth has increased enormously but happiness, perversely, has decreased. This is not what the economists and politicians are telling us!

So, why did I find this film uplifting? Well. just about everyone interviewed in the film – Vandana Shiva, Rob Hopkins, Andrew Simms, Richard Heinberg, David Korten, et al, are all advocates of localisation, the antithesis of globalisation, as the best way to begin to tackle these problems. And that, of course, is what we’re trying to do in Transition South Lantau in line with the principles of the Transition movement. Much more is needed on an international level, but getting stuck into practical projects designed to re-localise your economy, such as growing local, organic food, is very empowering and very rewarding. As well as eating good, healthy food instead of the tasteless, waxed and poisoned products on sale in supermarkets, you’re also helping to restore the soil which has been so badly abused and depleted since the introduction of chemicals for farming and gardening. You’re also doing your bit to build some local resilience in the face of that other major crisis we’re facing – the food crisis. So, getting the implicit stamp of approval from so many luminaries – heroes and heroines, even – of the movement towards localisation and true sustainability is indeed very heartening.

If you missed the film, you have another chance to see it on Saturday 5 March, 19.30-21.00 at Poly U, TU 107. However, I don’t think Helena Norbert-Hodge will be there to give a talk as she was on Sunday. Unfortunately, I missed that as our kids had had enough by then, so we had to take them home. It’s not really very gripping for under-10s! If you can, go to see the film. It’s one of those occasional films of which it can be said that everyone (over 10!) ought to watch it.

Don Latter


About transitionsl

I've been an English teacher for the best part of 30 years, teaching in England, Tanzania, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong. I've always been interested in nature and environmental issues, but it was the discovery of Peak Oil about five years ago that galvanised me into trying to help my local community to prepare for what will be a dramatically different world to the one many of us have been used to. I've been helping to run a transition group, following the guidelines created by Rob Hopkins's Transition Movement in the UK. This blog is an attempt to engage in discussion with a wider group of people in Hong Kong on the ways to transition from our current oil dependency to a state of fossil-free local resilience.
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