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Monthly Archives: June 2011

How your happiness can save the world

Thomas Friedman

June 9, 2011

Port KemblaA new ‘happiness model’ of living will reduce environmental degradation and overconsumption to help save the planet, claims a new book.

As a consumer-driven society breaks down, happiness will prevail, writes Thomas Friedman.

You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century – when food and energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes ploughed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all – and ask ourselves: what were we thinking?

How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural-resource/population redlines all at once?

”The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.

”When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

Gilding cites the work of the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists which calculates how many ”planet Earths” we need to sustain our growth rates. GFN says we are growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future.

While in Yemen last year, I saw a tanker delivering water in the capital, Sanaa. Sanaa could be the first big city in the world to run out of water within a decade. That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 per cent of sustainable capacity. ”If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees,” writes Gilding. ”If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the Earth’s CO2 blanket, the Earth gets warmer.

”If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation; this is high school science.”

It is also current affairs. ”In China’s thousands of years of civilisation, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” China’s Environment Minister, Zhou Shengxian, said recently.

”The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.”

What China’s minister is telling us, says Gilding, is that ”the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit.”

We will not change systems, without a crisis, but we’re getting there. We’re caught in two loops: One is that population growth and global warming together are pushing up food prices – rising prices cause political instability in the Middle East, which leads to higher oil prices, higher food prices, and more instability.

At the same time, improved productivity means fewer people are needed to produce more stuff. If we want to have more jobs, we need more factories. More factories making more stuff make more global warming, and that is where the two loops meet.

As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, Gilding says, ”our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilising as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy in just a few short decades.” We will realise, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven model, based on people working less and owning less.

”How many people,” Gilding asks, ”lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”

Sounds utopian? Gilding says he is a realist. ”We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

The New York Times

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