Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 12/13: Trapped in a consumer cycle of unhappiness

No 29, Posted by fw, June 22, 2010

In Pt 11, Rees contended that if the developing world is to have its fair share of the earth’s finite resources, those of us in the developed world must drastically reduce our consumption. This is the really inconvenient truth.

In Pt 12, below, Rees shows no positive continuing relationship between rising incomes, beyond a certain basic level, and health indicators such as felt happiness, personal wellbeing, longevity, and infant mortality. Not only are we not benefitting from economic growth, we’re destroying the biological basis of life in the bargain. Why do we so-called intelligent beings do this to ourselves? The transcribed excerpts that follow are from Part 7 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or by visiting You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 7.

Happiness ain’t what it used to be. How come?

Incomes rise but happiness remains flat

“Here is a graph from a book called The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies by Robert T. Lane. What Lane documents here is the lack of any continuous correlation between felt wellbeing, between people’s sense of happiness, security in the future and all of that and rising incomes. This happens to be data from the United States, so from 1949 to 1990 there was an increase in US per capita GDP in adjusted dollar terms from $6,000 to $20,000 per capita. But during that whole time the numbers of people reporting themselves to be happy or very happy was in steady decline. We see no connection between rising incomes and happiness through that entire period. In fact if you were acting logically, and happiness was your goal, then you’d want to get back here to $6,000 per year as soon as possible to increase the happiness quotient.”

As income rises longevity levels off“That was in a subjective indicator. If you plot objective indicators of wellbeing we see much the same thing. This is a plot of longevity versus income in the world’s countries. Economists are quite correct that rising incomes produce benefits but only up to a point. What we see here is countries of no income, or very impoverished countries have very low life expectancy. But as they get richer this curve rises. But it doesn’t rise indefinitely. It flattens out at about 10,000 in international dollars per year purchasing power parity adjusted. After that there’s no response.”

The downside of economic growth — impoverished quality of life

“Countries that are way out here at $60,000 per year aren’t doing any better than countries down here at $10,000 or $12,000 a year. So again, no correlation between indicators of population health and income beyond a certain point. The United States’ life expectancy is now in decline even as incomes rise as the average health of the population declines with excess consumption. What this curve says is we should be – since it is the case that economic growth is doing two things – it’s destroying the biological basis of our existence and people out here aren’t benefitting from that growth. So it should be redirected to the people over here who can benefit from it. It’s contraction and convergence again.”

“Moreover we might ask, what’s the optimal scale of the economy? It’s an economy that produces $10-12,000 purchasing power parity adjusted dollars per annum. Once you’ve reached that point, you don’t need further growth. You should work half a week and go home play with your kids for the other half. Or go sailing or cycling or take a walk. Meet your wife once in awhile or husband as the case may be.”

There’s lots of room here greatly to improve the quality of your life even as your income drops without for a moment changing your longevity – we’ve done this with infant mortality rates, post-operative survival, a whole array of indicators remain very high even if we lose three-quarters of our income.”

“So when we talk about reducing our footprints by 80% that would mean coming from here down to here with no change in the objective quality of our existence. That’s not such a bad deal if in the meantime you help out a bunch of impoverished people – remember we’re compassionate – and we stop destroying the planet. Hey, that’s a good idea.”

So the question: What would an intelligent species do? It would start talking about the optimal scale of the economy. What is the appropriate level of consumption to maximize health, to maximize the capacity of people to self-actualize, to use a yuppie phrase of a few years ago?”

“The good news is we have the technology to enable a 75% to 80% reduction in energy and (some) material consumption while actually improving quality of life. The bad news is we don’t act.”

We may all be in the same boat, but not all of us in the boat are the same

Not hard to see what's wrong with this picture

“Privileged elites who have the greatest stake in the status quo, those who will defend their political positions because they’re operating from the reptilian brain stem, the wealthy who use the wealth – see social status as far more important than the absolute quantity of wealth. The people in power have the most to lose by acting. And they’re the ones who can literally control the levers of power.

Ordinary people hold to the expansionist myth. We don’t ask those questions because we’re all caught up in this incredible scramble to hang on to the jobs we’ve got and compete other people out of the planet and to keep working ourselves into the grave.

The rest of us have been conned into participation in this insane suicidal path. We are the most socially engineered generation on the face of the earth. And every year hundreds of millions, no billions, of dollars are spent to entrain you in the consumer cycle of unhappiness. What is advertising designed to do? To make you feel miserable about the car you bought last year, about the computer you have now that doesn’t have like this stuff [electronic gadgets]. Do you see what I’m getting at? We plan to make ourselves unhappy. I think the advertising industry probably hires more psychologists who are figuring out all the time how to make you ashamed of your house, your car, your wife, your kids and whatever else, so you can buy your way into happiness. So we bought into it lock, stock and barrel. Unfortunately we’re not even aware of this. It’s programmable and we’re not even aware of it.”

“And society remains in eco-paralysis.”

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.


End of Part 12

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This entry was posted on June 22, 2010 by in evidence based counterpower, sustainability and tagged , , , , .
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