Boulder County and the economics of happiness

Film showing Friday Feb. 25 kicks off Transition conference

| Feb 22, 2011

Guest Posting by Carolyn Baker

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick, and John Page have spent three decades raising awareness and the past five years creating an extraordinary documentary which offers a big-picture analysis of globalization and demonstrates both the imperative and the potential which localization offers our species. The “Economics of Happiness” (2010) gives us a fresh, inspiring look at how we can turn a three-decade policy of globalization into mobilizing flourishing local economies in order to bring prosperity not only to our own communities, but to every community on earth.

Kicking off Transition Colorado’s Boulder County Conference, “Our Local Economy In Transition: Food Localization As Economic Development,” will be a screening of “The Economics of Happiness,” Friday, February 25th, at 7PM at the Unity Church of Boulder, 2885 Folsom St. This is a film not to be missed, filled with tough truths alongside inspiring possibilities for transforming our local communities.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), is intimately familiar with the people of Ladakh and their culture, and she believes their story can assist with the crisis facing the planet. Living with the Ladakh over the course of many years, Norberg-Hodge learned from them such things as personal, ecological, and sociological well being as well as values, and basic assumptions about the roots of happiness. This caused her to look at her own Western culture in a different light because the Ladakh material standard of living was high. At one time they lived in large, spacious houses; there was no unemployment, and no one went hungry. Their way of life was vastly more sustainable and far more joyous and rich.

But a momentous shift began in the 1970s when Ladakh was thrown open to the rest of the world. Cheap, subsidized food was trucked in on subsidized roads, and capitalism descended on the culture and undermined Ladakh’s local economy. The culture was bombarded with advertising and media images that romanticized western consumer culture at the same time that Ladakh culture was being portrayed as backward and poor.

Today, Ladakh faces a wide range of problems that were unknown in its traditional culture. Now there’s pollution, unemployment, divisiveness, depression—all this in a culture that had been very spiritually grounded for centuries. Intense competition has been created and has undermined intense community.

Norberg-Hodge believes that globalization is the most powerful force in the world today. Presumably, from the point of view of some, it’s the “solution” to all our problems. But for many others, it’s a fundamental cause of most of their problems. It’s all about de-regulation so that big banks can enter local markets and make profit. No longer do we see the traditional colonialism of the 19th century because that kind of colonialism has given way to another kind of colonial bondage—debt. In order to compete, transnational corporations keep demanding de-regulation of production and trade and foist their products and improvements on countries of the global south by way of keeping them in debt slavery.

A number of voices from all over the world are featured in “The Economics of Happiness”—some with whom we may be familiar and others not. They include: Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, David Korten, Andrew Simms, Eliana Amparo Apaza Espillico, Mohau Pheko, Richard Heinberg, and many more.

The film reminds us that the word “global” implies something “out there.” But globalization affects each of us in every aspect of our lives because it creates more pressure, more travel, more stress, more measuring ourselves against an opulent lifestyle. From the globalism perspective, what you have isn’t enough. It’s never good enough or big enough. In terms of the United States, Bill McKibben notes that the time in the U.S. in which happiness was highest was right around 1956. From there on, the happiness index went downward and continues to plummet.

Human greed is very easy to exploit—and the global economy blatantly creates UN-happiness. As the envy of consumer cultures is created by globalization, we find that children don’t want to speak their own language anymore. It becomes “cool” to aspire to a wealthier culture with more status. Kids have to have the “latest” of everything. And all of this leads to separation and envy.

Before consumer capitalism, peoples’ sense of self and identity were shaped by the values of their cultures. As the marketers came in, they essentially said, “Don’t worry about who you are. We will provide you with a packaged identity which you can acquire by buying our product to create a sense of self which you can then project onto the world.”

Richard Heinberg says that if you look at the images of advertising around the world, it’s all about emulating the American way of life.

Norberg-Hodge comments that encouraging consumerism ultimately leads to the breakdown of the ecosystems. Why? Because consumer culture is increasingly urban, and urbanization is extremely resource-intensive. Energy use shoots up, water use shoots up, and infrastructure needs are far larger than in a village. Food that traditional peoples once grew themselves must now be grown on factory farms and transported into cities on larger and larger roads. Providing water for cities involves building dams. Providing energy means huge, centralized power plants–thousands of coal and uranium mines. Waste that is produced, including valuable compost, must be trucked out of town and dumped, sometimes into the ocean. In summary, the film clearly demonstrates the enormous and formidable strain put on the ecosystems by the global economy.

Heinberg says we’ve gotten to the end of the supply chain, and if we decide in the name of fairness to try to industrialize the entire world, the result will be universal famine, ecosystems will collapse, and we will ultimately see the end of our species.

Globalization has an ever-increasing impact on earth’s climate. The very logic of globalization requires that goods travel ever-longer distances to get from production to consumer. A globalized economy is extremely wasteful but costs less. This gargantuan transport of products from place to place consumes ghastly quantities of energy and emits ghastly quantities of carbon into the atmosphere which directly decimates the environment and increases global warming.

At the heart of globalization is outsourcing. Livelihoods are tremendously threatened, and small farmers are some of the worst victims. Displaced farmers have nowhere to go but to the city. Vandana Shiva reminds us that over 100,000 Indian farmers have been driven to suicide in recent years. Moreover, when thousands of people are pushed into cities from rural areas, cultural and religious differences are accentuated as people compete for the few scraps of prosperity available there. This leads to fear, fundamentalism, and conflict.

Globalization gives people only a few options, and in fact, it helps create terrorism and disharmony. When your language and roots are destroyed, you become nobody. Globalization also creates a very dangerous and homogenized world view. In Ladakh, Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side for 500 years, but with the advent of the global economy, unemployment increased exponentially and so did competition for jobs and new commodities. So within only a decade of being “globalized,” Buddhists and Muslims were killing each other.

It’s widely believed that globalization is unstoppable, driven by free markets and de-regulation. But it couldn’t continue without support, subsidies, and de-regulation policies from governments. At the global level, regulations are being stripped away. But at the national level, there’s ever-more red tape and bureaucracy which places a larger burden on small businesses and forces them out of business.

So Norberg-Hodge asks: If the global economy is such a destructive force, why do policymakers continue to promote it? Because they believe it will promote growth. Every problem we have, they argue, can be solved by economic growth. Yet using the measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by itself is little short of madness, she says. For example, the more pollution goes up, the more the GDP goes up. If there’s an oil spill, the GDP goes up. If there’s more cancer, the GDP goes up. All of these adversities involve a positive exchange of money and end up on the positive side of the balance sheet.

“The Economics of Happiness” stresses that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Superficial solutions abound, and they are about changing only individual consumer behavior—what some have called “greenwash.” The economics of GDP tries to convince us that these issues are personally-caused problems. But the “Economics of Happiness” brilliantly demonstrates that we have to do something about the institutions that are at the heart of the problem. The only power they have is the legitimacy we give them. If we withdraw that legitimacy, they can’t exist.

Norberg-Hodge says that we have to start with imagining an economy that isn’t about growth but about producing goods and services people actually need. One such measure is GPI or the Genuine Progress Index which takes into account our human, community, and social wealth—counting full social, environmental, and economic cost. In the current system, the distance between production and consumption is growing. It must shrink. We have to localize everything—economy, culture, even our spirits.

This is a systemic, far-reaching alternative to corporate capitalism. It’s about reducing economic activity and creating more accountable and sustainable economies by producing what we need closer to home. In summary, local needs should come first.

Norberg-Hodge emphasizes 3 key mechanisms of government that we need to focus on:

What they choose to regulate
What they choose to tax
What they choose to subsidize

Currently, these three now favor the corporation; they need to favor the local.

David Korten, who has been deeply involved with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), states that change will only happen when we get local businesses to withdraw their dependence on the global economy and focus on creating a strong local economy by weaving together local relationships and local values.

Michael Shuman, a consultant for BALLE says that we must redefine problems as local vs. global. The financial crisis has reminded us that local banks and local pensions give us much more economic security. It’s important to note, however, that turning away from globalization has nothing to do with isolationism or turning away from international cooperation. Vibrant, local economies can support other local economies everywhere.

Agriculture is one area where localization is absolutely necessary. In local economies based on strong economic relationships between farmers and consumers, consumers pay less, and farmers’ earnings increase. Localization is linked to diversity on the land, so it’s in the farmer’s interest to increase the variety of their products.

The rapidly growing local food movement presents a huge challenge to globalization. Therefore, those favoring globalization are trying to co-opt that movement through their marketing. They also argue that if we localize, we’ll be depriving the third world of prosperity. Vandana Shiva says that is not true because globalization is actually causing the global south to export its food, water, and resources to industrialized countries. Shuman says the smarter thing to do is to help communities in the third world achieve self-reliance. That’s a vision for eliminating global poverty entirely.

In terms of our lifestyle, Norberg-Hodge argues that we must get back to basics and ask if we really need all the stuff that consumer culture is foisting on us. Among the many reasons for doing so, it is axiomatic that if we cut out the outrageous waste in the current system, we’ll be able to meet far more of our energy requirements from renewable sources.

When we give children a localized model, we give them focus on their culture and their community rather than looking outside of these for role models. When they identify with real flesh and blood people instead of consumer models and celebrities, they have a sense of belonging which builds a deep sense of self-respect and self-confidence. What is more, they will feel more deeply connected to the earth.

On every continent, a pattern is emerging—localization movements everywhere. In some communities, even local governments are supporting these movements. They realize that localization movements are about building community as well as a strong economy.

Norberg-Hodge notes that some people argue that we shouldn’t tell people in the third world that they should not be consuming when we are consuming off the scale. That is true, she says, but what we can tell them is that they are not stupid and backward and that they can create thriving local economies instead of seeking to emulate ours.

“The Economics of Happiness” demonstrates that bringing the economy home is not about sacrifice but about enriching our lives because rediscovering the values of community and mutual caring is where real happiness lies. As we decrease our level of economic activity, we increase our scale of happiness. That’s because at the deepest level, localization is about relationship– connecting and re-establishing our sense of interdependence with others and the natural world. These are fundamental human needs.