April 2010 Archives

Blow, Baby, Blow

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My friends and foes alike tell me I don’t offer enough practical solutions to the problems of unsustainability. Maybe I have the causes right, they say, but your ways to bring about the cultural change needed to get off the unsustainable and on to the sustainability trajectory are too little and maybe too late. The dilemma I see is lies in the choice we must make between quick, invariably technological fixes and slower cultural shifts. Global warming demands that we choose to do something rather than dithering along doing nothing.

Geo-engineering, tinkering with the planetary system on a grand scale, has become increasingly talked up as a solution to meet the challenges posed by global warming. At the same time that many conservative political voices are denying that a problem exists, they are hedging their bets by touting geo-engineering solutions. One of the most popular goes by the name of the Mount Pinatubo solution, named after the volcano that spewed so much particulate matter into the atmosphere that the temperature of the surface dropped a bit. Ironically the physics that explains the effects of dust in the atmosphere is the same as that which explains warming due to increased concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Here is a quote from Discover, a website that reports on science and technology.

“Geoengineering would provide more time for the world’s economy to grow while investors and entrepreneurs develop and deploy new carbon-neutral energy sources to replace fossil fuels,” wrote Ronald Bailey of the magazine Reason. Teller, for his part, wrote in his 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that geoengineering “is not a new concept and certainly not a complex one.” The AEI’s Sam Thernstrom states that cooling the planet using the Pinatubo Option offers “three powerful virtues in a climate policy that mitigation, at the moment, cannot claim.” They were, he said, “fast,” “affordable,” and “effective.”
All it would take is to construct a synthetic volcano and let her rip. It might even be cheaper to get some of the other Icelandic volcanoes to let go. Those interested in learning more should read Eli Kintisch’s recent book, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe. My point here is not to argue for or against geo-engineering; there’s plenty out there on both sides. There are alternatives to this uncertain and risky path. A completely different model is one that rests in changing cultural values and consequent behavior: transition initiatives.
A Transition Initiative (which could be a town, village, university or island etc) is a community-led response to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and increasingly, economic contraction. There are thousands of initiatives around the world starting their journey to answer this crucial question, “For all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly rebuild resilience (to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil and economic contraction) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?”

The quote comes from an excellent British website devoted to educate people about this relatively recent incipient movement. They have prepared a downloadable Transition Primer that gives one all it takes to get an initiative going at home. Building or re-building community is a critical step in the way to sustainability. This initiative is a twofer, moving away from unsustainability and toward sustainability at the same time.

Just to weave the climate change and peak oil situations together…

- Climate change makes this carbon reduction transition essential
- Peak oil makes it inevitable
- Transition initiatives make it feasible, viable and attractive (as far we can tell so far…)

Neither of these, however, provides for the need for bold steps to reduce emissions quickly. The transition initiative carries the right message and sustainability values, but not the right political package. National, even global, measures are essential.

Social Media and Sustainability

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With Earth Day rapidly fading from view, I can get back to my routine carping. SustainAbility, the consultancy founded by John Elkington, periodically posts what are usually columns worth reading. The latest one tells of how companies are using the internet and social media to start and maintain a conversation with stakeholders. The opening paragraph sets the tone of the article.

“Open is good, closed is bad.” Not exactly what you expect to hear from a former top Shell executive, but when Björn Edlund took the stage at the first Just Means conference on social media and stakeholder engagement he was almost painfully honest. He argued that “large corporations are obsessed with control, rather than conversation,” but suggested that business thinking is beginning to shift.

I visited the several corporate websites mentioned in the article, and spent some time on the Timberland and Nestlé sites. These two examples of how companies can use social media are very different. Timberland has created a site of their own and invited the world to come. Nestlé has chosen Facebook as their window to the world. The differences between these two is striking. Timberland has created a rubric, Earthkeepers, for visitors coming to their site and constructed places for dialog and learning.

In both cases the companies achieved connections—Nestlé’s Facebook page has over 90,000 surprisingly active fans and the Timberland site has attracted a wide range of participants. Both also achieved a degree of contagion through the viral nature of blogs and Twitter that transmitted the stories beyond the confines of the individual sites. It was the tone and approach that positioned Nestlé on the wrong side and Timberland on the right side of this equation.

Nestlé is simply using the Facebook technology to create a large number of “friends” who respond to posts placed there by Nestlé. I am not impressed. Recently Nestlé scolded a number of the respondents who used an altered version of the Nestle logo as their profile picture, but had to soften their position. The pushback, referred to in the quote above, was loud and angry, and the company apologized.

I did not sense any real communication going on. Nestlé posts lots of PR statements on their page and people come and comment. The comments look like those for any popular website, friends and flamers alike. Mostly what I read was just noise and rants. I would agree with the SustainAbility piece that the use of social media is a great way to establish connections to a large audience. But that doesn’t mean that this channel will be effective in promoting sustainability. Looking at the specific posts on the Nestlé site, I would guess that they emanate from the PR department who almost certainly runs the page. The responses in turn go back there, and I am skeptical that they go much farther into the recesses of the company where they might actually have an impact. PR departments are designed to deflect virtually anything that is aimed toward the corporate body.

Timberland, conversely, is operating a site where useful information about sustainability, or better, greening, is passed back and forth. I have to add my usual complaint that the site confuses greening and sustainability as almost all similar sites do. I am sure that the company pays attention to what their respondents post, but there is not enough educational information coming the other way. Yes, companies need to listen carefully to the world of stakeholders. It’s good business and it’s mostly good for the Earth. But the same people who offer input to Timberland often lack a understanding of the full scope issues being discussed. Timberland and all consumer products companies that talk to the world through advertising and product information have a large role to play in educating the consumers, beyond product talk, about the complexity of sustainability. Such talk will eventually force companies to tell the truth about the state of the world and what must be done to produce sustainability. Timberland has taken a step in that direction. I encourage them to make even more use of their website as an example of the power of social media to initiate real change in the world.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

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Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

I usually wait until later in the day to tend to my blog, but today, being Earth day, I began first thing. I start triggering my thoughts by scanning the web for stories, and today the first instance came off of the front page of the NYTimes home page. I’ll comment about this in a moment, but, first, why this very moving, sad song by Peter Seeger.

I should be celebrating, but all I feel this morning is deep sadness for the Earth. After 40 years of Earth Days, consciousness of the Earth as our home, our dwelling place has dimmed, being replaced by a ritualistic, commercialized version. But then so have all of our once meaningful holidays gone this route. From the Times:

Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.

And later in the same article:

In part, said Robert Stone, a independent documentary filmmaker whose history of the American environmental movement is being broadcast on public television this week, the movement has been a victim of its own success in clearing up tangible problems with air and water. But that is just part of the problem, he noted. “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.”

I agree with him and always point to the need for transformation at our cultural roots if the situation is to change for the better. Fixing the myriad of environmental problems by buying green products and using more efficient machines of all sorts is illusory. The problem lies deep in the culture. Until we stop acting out of the sense that what we have defines us, and discover that it is the depth of our relationships with people and planet that is what makes us whole, Earth Day will be little more than another opportunity to express ourselves through consumption. Forget eco-dentistry and go give a tree a real bear hug.

I Wasn't Kidding about Good Deeds


Thanks to Environmental New Bits for this tidbit to chew on.

Thursday, April 22nd is the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day! To raise awareness about protecting the planet, Earthjustice has created the Twittearth Day page where people can check out what everyone is doing for Earth Day and twitter their own good deed for the day. Twitter is going to help promote Earth Day by tweeting to its more than 3 million followers! Help make this a big Twittearth Day success by letting your readers/members know about Twittearth Day and linking to http://twittearthday.com. And don’t forget the hash tag #twittearthday!

I wrote the last post before I spotted this. I really don’t think Mother Nature will be blown away. She hasn’t bought an iPhone yet.

Erev Earth Day

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Jewish holidays start in the evening prior to the calendar day. And the day before, Erev whatever is celebrated by preparing. Erev Shabbat involves, for the observant, cooking and cleaning so the next day is free for rest and contemplation. Today, then, is Erev Earth Day, a time to prepare for the contemplation and commitments to be made tomorrow. Forty years after the first celebration of this special day, the Planet is arguably in much worse shape, in spite of grand efforts to curb the excesses of the affluent nations.

With so many people, businesses, and governments becoming green, the pace of destruction may be slowing down, but we are far, far from a level of damage that can be absorbed by the once resilient Earth. Growth, the imperative of all modern economies, promises to more than offset any gains won through greening. Celebrating Earth Day is not going to change that one bit. Certainly raising conscious of the damage we are doing to our home should be helpful, but I fear that those who need to hear the message will be blissfully unaware of this day. And for those that do celebrate the day as meaningful, they are largely fooling themselves that either their intentions or actions will turn the tide. They are fighting only a rear-guard battle, not the war

The war that must be waged is not against those forces that threaten our earthly home, but against ourselves. It’s not the Earth that needs regeneration and love, it’s ourselves. Unsustainability is fundamentally a human disease. We have forgotten what it means to be a human being. Our malaise is existential. In blindly accepting the modern way of living, we have lost the caring core that makes homo sapiens unique. Waiting for the next iSomething from Apple has become a major occupation for too many. Yesterday I passed a long line of mostly young men waiting outside a shoe store to buy the latest in sneakers, I think, from Nike. Some had been there waiting overnight since the day before. I looked inside to see what was so special. but to my eyes, all I saw was just another pair of shoes made somewhere overseas. If you are suspicious that something is wrong here, just take a peek at this video from the Nike website.

We act and are treated only as if all we are is a skinbag full of needs to be satisfied, almost exclusively, by buying or acquiring something. But that is not what we are at the core. We are fundamentally creatures that care about the world around us, about ourselves, our family, friends, and others with whom we relate, and, lastly, about the Planet and everything on it . If we do not recover our core, then all our promises to do something about the sad state of the world are hollow. We are only responding to what we hear from the crowd telling us what to do, not from our heart or soul. At best, Earth Day might wake us up and change the focus from out there to inside. At worst, it will only fool us into thinking we are doing all it takes. Buying a few extra green things tomorrow is not going to help.

More Synchronicity and the Bottom of the Pyramid

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The synchronicity starts with grading final papers for my two classes at Marlboro College all weekend. The quality of the student’s offerings has made this norma chore a satisfying experience. Two of the students chose to write about Stuart Hart and C. K. Prahalad’s concept of the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP). In this strategic model for generally large multinational corporations, the four billion people living at low income levels are seen as a virtually untapped new market for corporations, especially those in the business of offering consumer products. The assets of each individual may be very small, but the aggregate for this economic slice is 9-10 trillion dollars.

Hart and Prahalad have been criticized for promoting a strategic model that is insensitive to the particular needs of this market, which is very different from that forming the bulk of the firms’ current business. I won’t dwell on this as there is plenty of analysis already out there. See for example, Landrum, Nancy E. (2007) Advancing the “Base of the Pyramid Debate. Strategic Management Review, 1(1), 12.

The next piece of synchronicity comes from a course I am co-leading at my Institute for Learning in Retirement. The broad theme is about the way reality shows up in the modern world and, in particular, how it gets filtered through the lens of Cartersian dualism and the reductionistic techniques we use to access knowledge about the world. Part of the syllabus has been an excursion into Martin Heidegger’s thinking. The last fragment of his work we read had to do with the role of art and artists in revealing the meaningfulness of the world to us. As is much of Heidegger’ philosophy, this idea seems remote and hard to accept.

But then, the third piece of synchronicity showed up today. I took a break from paper grading to finish a novel for a book club meeting tomorrow. The book is Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. It’s about two women, a young Nigerian girl who had never left her small village before, Little Bee, and a British lady, Sarah, who encountered each other under horrifying circumstance in Africa and then met sometime later in Sarah’s home.

At one point Little Bee is talking to herself about how she would explain life in England to “the girls back home.” She is sitting in the living room of Sarah’s house musing about the coffee table and the wood floor, and how no one at home would understand how a table is made from coffee.

Imagine how tired I would become, telling my story to the girls from back home. This is the real reason no one tells us Africans anything. It is not because anyone wants to keep my continent in ignorance. It is because nobody has the time to sit down and explain the first world from first principles. Or maybe you would like to but can’t. Your culture has become so sophisticated, like a computer, or a drug you take for a headache. You can use it, but you can’t explain how it works. Certainly not to girls who stack up their firewood against the side of the house.

This passage illustrates to me the basic flaw in the BoP concept. No matter how hard a firm tries to understand the new market, even with a lot of participation and dialogue, as Hart suggests, the cultures are just too distant. The values and norms coming from the corporation are likely to push out the indigenous set simply due to an imbalance in power. Life may appear better through the lens of standard of living, but something important to flourishing always seems to get lost. I discovered that art in the form of literature can, indeed, reveal the world in a way that analysis cannot.

Earth Day Puts the Focus on the Wrong Subject

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It’s only a couple of days to Earth Day, 2010. There’s little reason to celebrate this year. More people than ever question the reality of global climate change or the need to do anything serious about it. But at the same time, people are more positive about the state of the environment, but don’t act to maintain its quality. Pretty confusing statistics—all from the Gallup organization that has been tracking theses trends for a long time.

The uptick in feelings comes with the Obama election. I wonder if this is an artifact reflecting a general change in confidence that came in 2009. Although the trend line showed an upward movement, the positive respondents are still less than half. Joel Makower has done a very nice piece analyzing these results. He highlights the evident selfishness in these data and other indicators of attitudes towards greening. My own sense of what’s happenings is close to his. People are acting in selfish ways driven in part by the cultural voice that tells them to worry first and even only about themselves. Fear drives people in that direction, and we live in a culture driven largely by fear.

Makower sees a shift from concern with the health of the planet to one focused on the self. I don’t think there has ever been much concern for the planet and all of its inhabitants, animate or not. The latest data are only a change at the margin. I also don’t think this has to be the case. What is often missed in discussions like this is recognition that the “self” is not a fixed machine that runs primarily to satisfy some mysterious inner needs. The self has been very different over historical time and in many indigenous cultures. There is no special magic in indigenous people. They alone provide evidence of alternate models of self that have become lost under the onslaught of modernity.

The great challenge of sustainability, as I have been writing, is to recover the mode of being often found in these cultures. Having, as Erich Fromm characterizes our way of living, focuses us strongly inwardly and so we satisfy our needs without being aware of or caring for the world outside the body. The press of technology exacerbates this tendency.

The lesson for Earthday, in a nutshell, is that the roots of the environmental problems we are trying to solve are not out there. The solution is not to be found in the myriad of green practices we are adopting. The heart of the problem is right inside each of us. The environmental problem or, more broadly the unsustainability problem is a human problem. As long as our society and each of us that constitutes it acts out of the having mode, we will continue to see our concerns fluctuate, driven by the vagaries of the economy and political outlook. Only a fundamental transformation of our conception of what it is to be human will be able to change our way of living and the way we respond to the unintentional consequences that always show up, even if we come from a paradigmatically different foundation.

Perhaps, we would make more progress on Earth Day, if instead of recommitting ourselves to care for the Planet, we took time out to look deep inside us and ask how can we discover the caring that goes with being human, but has gotten lost. Such an exercise, if it opens up a path to recovery, would be far more effective toward taking care of the Planet than all the pledges to recycle more this year.

An Ell-uva Difference

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I am still mulling over the sufficiency conversation I was into this last weekend. I don’t know quite why it happened, but I got this vision of two words: being and bling. No two distinctions could be much farther apart in conveying a sense of what we humans have available to us as possibilities, but the only thing that distinguishes them in print is the letter “L,” instead of “E.” I found this definition of bling via a web search. It would be hard to find another pair of words where the substitution of a single letter would make such a difference in meaning.

The word “bling” refers to any unnecessary accumulation of metal or jewellery (sic) which impresses the simple-minded. Examples of bling-related activity include: driving a car with shiny platinum rims, arriving at a movie premiere in a hat made of glittering diamonds, or pointing at a big block of gold and cooing away for hours on end like an unforgivable moron whose mere existence ultimately cheapens us all. Bling is the single most shallow, boring and willfully superficial cultural phenomenon ever to excite humankind, which is saying something for a species already hooked on internet poker.

Being takes us to the other end of the existential spectrum and to the possibility of leading an authentic life. Only in authenticity can one find satisfaction with what one has. It is only there where the clamor of the cultural voices pressing you to buy more, and especially, more things that literally or metaphorically shine or glitter, can be silenced. In authentic being, sufficiency make sense, as the world opens up as a space for care and love, rather than only as a huge supermarket or mall exerting an irresistible pull. By now, my readers should know which of these carries sustainability, the possibility of flourishing.


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I’m just back from a weekend conference close to home in Cambridge, sponsored by the Global Sufficiency Network. I was invited to participate in a panel moderated by Lynn Twist, author of The Soul of Money. Our panel focused on the connection between sufficiency and sustainability, a very challenging conversation because neither term is well understood. Those in the audience that talk about sufficiency didn’t have a clear idea about sustainability and vice versa, even though we we all concerned abut the same issues and the need for action.

I went in with a view of sufficiency colored by past immersion in the sustainable consumption community. My understanding about it was more or less having enough, but not more than enough, to take care of whatever needs we have as human beings. This places the concept still in the having mode of living and although it would go along way to sharing the planet’s resources equitably, it falls short of transporting us into the being mode.

I left with a much better sense of what this community is doing and a clearer view of the positive connections to sustainability, as I talk about it in terms of flourishing. Lynn Twist opened the Sunday session by recalling an encounter with Bucky Fuller quite a few years ago. I didn’t take notes so am recapping her comments from memory. Fuller said back in 1976 that we have enough of what it takes to enable everyone on the planet to live a healthy (and happy) life, but we can’t see it and won’t for another 50 years. Our culture has lost its way. What we see culturally is a world of scarcity and have created our institutions under that light. Lynn put it into a neat apposition “your or me” rather than “you and me.” Economics starts from the get-go as the study of the allocation of scarce resources, including money as if it were also a real resource.

With not too much effort I can listen to this as another case of having instead of being. You or me is a call to have as much of those scarce resources as possible. You and me is all about relationships and caring, the basis of being and thence flourishing. So, in spite of all the semantic differences, I found myself much at home in the gathering.

Language does matter, however. I have struggled for a long time with sustainability and the critical importance of getting the meaning right because, if we don’t, little power can come from attempts to muster the immense coordination effort to turn the cultural juggernaut around. I think this community has still some work to do on getting their language clear. Here are two statements I took from a new Sufficiency pledge the organizers tried out on the audience.

Sufficiency is the freedom to have enough, to do enough and be enough to care for ourselves and the world we share.
“Sufficiency” is a state of mind of enough where we experience an appreciation of all we have and all that we are.

The first quote is quite a mouthful. I see care as the beginning, not the end. We human beings need nothing at all to care. Caring comes with simply being human. Care comes to us without doing or having anything. Shaping the world around us into the artifacts used in caring is something that came along with the development of civilization and language. I am uncomfortable about the phrase “be enough,” but need more time to think about this. I am not sure that it makes sense to modify “being” by any word that suggests that it can be measured.

The second quote is also a mouthful. It would make more sense to me to define sufficiency something like a way of being such that we speak our experience in terms of satisfaction, appreciation, or similar descriptors of completion. It’s not too big a stretch to see a connection of this way of speaking to authenticity, the mode of being in which one makes one’s own choices, among all the possibilities open at the moment without following the cultural crowd. Like sustainability, sufficiency is used in so many ways that it is critical that this community be very, very clear.

Can A Company Be Happy?

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Continuing on the “happy” theme I have been on, I just read an article entitled, “How to Build a Happy Company,” in the latest issue of Newsweek. While the article is interesting, the headline is nonsense. How can a company ever be happy? I have never seen one and won’t ever—no more than I can ever expect to stumble over a happy rock. Only people can be happy.

This kind of metaphor is not helpful even to the kind of companies the article points to. Attributing human possibilities to non-human things, except perhaps in poetry, produces at least two bad outcomes. One is the diminution of what it is to be human. If a company, generally seen as some kind of machine producing things, money and jobs, is thought about in anthropomorphic terms, this usage will only reinforce the already existing background hum that that speaks to what humans are: some sort of machine. All the recent talk that GDP, an indicator representing the machine-like metaphor of an economy, cannot capture the richness and qualitative nature of human being highlights this same danger.

The second problem is the suggestion that happy companies (whatever that is) are needed to produce happiness out in the world. Happy companies may be able to do this, but I expect that such firms have the same problems making the world of people and nature happy as do sad companies. Perhaps Adam Smith and his contemporaries had an understanding of the connection between what companies were supposed to do and happiness out in the world, but such understanding is completely missing in today’s model of a firm and its place in the economy. The author of the column, Ted Leonsis, touts his raising of ticket prices to produce more revenue so he could bolster his poor hockey team, the Washington Capitals, and, that way, make people happy. His hockey team as a business was richer, and maybe happier, but all this says is that money can buy happiness. We know that this isn’t true in general. Except maybe for long-impoverished Capitals and, of course, for the even longer-suffering Chicago Cubs fans.

The Road to Hell . . .

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Maybe it’s the spectacular weather of the past few days. Days in early April that outdo the best of mid-summer weather. The ladybugs are coming out of winter hibernation and the green sprouts seem to have grown 4 inches overnight. I’m finishing a syllabus for a course I will lead next trimester at Marlboro College Graduate Center’s MBA in Managing for Sustainability on the general topic of the [new] economics of sustainability. That’s part of my recent focus on economics-related issues. Even without my current lens, I am running into an unusually large number of articles on this general subject.

Today, I got triggered by a review of a forthcoming book in the NYTimes. The book is Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, by Heather Rogers. I haven’t read an advance copy, so am going entirely on the review. The theme of the book is that green practices by companies are undercutting the efforts by environmentalist to preserve the world.

Ms. Rogers is a muckraking investigative reporter who is also the author of “Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage.” She says corporate America has led us into thinking that we can save the earth mainly by buying things like compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid gas-electric cars and carbon offsets.
“The new green wave, typified by the phrase ‘lazy environmentalism,’ is geared toward the masses that aren’t willing to sacrifice,” Ms. Rogers complains. “This brand of armchair activism actualizes itself most fully in the realm of consumer goods; through buying the right products we can usher our economic system into the environmental age.”

The reviewer appreciates Rogers’s careful preparation for the book, but is not ready to buy all of her claims. He criticizes her for not offering up practical ways to reduce consumption, which I gather is her main argument. Companies, in advertising the environmental goodness of their offerings, neglect to point out that consumption, per se, is not good for Mother Nature’s health. I argue the same and add that our mindless, addictive form of hyper-consumption is not so good for human beings as well. Rogers rightly notes that nations with a strong capitalistic flavor (even China, I would add) cannot cope with reduced consumption levels.

At first, her muted call for a new frugality sounds almost as far-fetched as a carbon tax in the United States anytime soon. But it isn’t. This is something individuals could do on their own instead of waiting for reluctant politicians to act.

Frugality here and the use of sacrifice earlier imply a painful giving up. But that is not necessarily the case, as an rehabilitated addict might say. The process may be, but the results are not. The new found possibilities more than compensate for the absence of consuming substances (goods and services) that create harm. Given deeply embedded cultural beliefs and values about the need for material satisfaction, well meaning and concerned individuals have a hard time overcoming “peer” pressures, conforming to the norm. I do not think voluntary simplicity is a real option, except at the edges of a society.

The real flaw in all these kind of discussions is that they fail to see the deep-seated cultural roots of environmental and social impairment, and seek some sort of technical fix. Capitalism may still work after humans discover that relationships are what really matters. They will still need all sorts of goods and services, just not ever increasing quantities of them. Wall Streeters would have to struggle like ordinary people because the formation of capital for its own sake would not be be so critical. Just like consumers who will have to do with less stuff, so will the capitalists.

Happiness Again

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I can’t tell if it’s my mental filters or something out there, but I am seeing a lot of stories about happiness these days. Most question the connections between the way human beings express their reflections about how life is going and about some objective measure that is supposed to correlate with these feelings. Yesterday I wrote about the growth model of human well-being. Before that I was pointing to David Brooks’s op-ed piece on the failure of economics to account for the existential or emotional side of [well-]being.

Today here’s yet another article I came across—this one while I was reading the New Yorker in bed last night. Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed three books all about happiness. The theme in all is that happiness is not everything in life, or, more accurately, pursuing happiness only with the economic machine doesn’t work well once one has reached a plateau where the basic [Maslovian] needs of life are being satisfied.

Two of the three books she reviewed—Derek Bok’s The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Well-being, and Carol Graham’s Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires—argue for changes in domestic and international economic policy. One main theme is that the indicators used to design and track these dominant policy domains are deeply flawed, based on much empirical data. Bok raises a very serious challenge to any policy intervention arguing that people don’t always know what will make them happy. Cass Sunstein, now responsible for shaping relevant policies in the Obama administration has argued in his book (reviewed here) with Richard Thaler, Nudge, along these lines that policy should nudge people toward choices that are good for them. Given the studies on which the Bok and Graham books are based and on much other research, any policy designed to produce happiness needs to be approached with great caution and humility.

At the end, Kolbert makes the tie that always get my attention, connecting the planet’s ailing state to the search for happiness through consumption.

Consider again the finding that a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction. This is a disturbing fact, and certainly one that seems pertinent to discussions of economic policy… But let’s imagine, for a moment, that we had enjoyed ourselves for the past fifty years. Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don’t. The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality. Happiness is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.