COP15 Day 4: Cherishing True Wealth

Yesterday morning – my first morning in the Bella Center, the main conference venue at Copenhagen – I ran into my good friends from Kiribati, the Solicitor General David Lambourne and his wife Tessie, who is the Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Immigration. After an hour chatting with this amazing power couple, my brain was ready to explode with new insights and ideas which have formed the basis for my next few blogs.

I’d like to emphasize that the ideas about to be expounded are mine and mine alone. Although inspired by this morning’s conversation, they do not in any way claim to be the views of David and Tessie, nor the government that they represent.

So, here is our current situation. One planet, 195 countries – all with different cultures, economies, industries, geographies, and political landscapes. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s over-simplify and categorize them as developed, fast-developing (China, India, Brazil, Russia), and slow-developing.

A blur of activity at the Bella Center

A blur of activity at the Bella Center

The developed countries got there first. They took the earth’s finite resources of fossil fuels and used them to build big economies and a high standard of living. Now the fast-developing countries want the same, but the developed countries are telling them that fossil fuel usage has to be cut, and in any case the fossil fuels are about to run out. Meanwhile the slow-developing countries are about to bear the brunt of potential climactic changes, and are asking for help from the chief culprits to help mitigate the effects.

I’d like to offer my perspective on this. It is human nature to aspire to improve. That is what has led us from being just another animal to being the dominant species on Earth. But at some point along the way, improvement became synonymous with monetary wealth and conspicuous consumption. I would like to suggest that these are not truly conducive to human happiness.

Clean water, healthy food, shelter, sanitation, medicine, education – these things matter. With sensible allocation of resources we can provide these fundamental rights to a much higher proportion of the world’s population.

Huge houses, multi-car households, frequent air travel and the accumulation of possessions – these things are not necessary, and the provision of such luxuries is using up our finite resources at an unacceptable rate. And the chief point to grasp here is that there is no causal link between these commodities and health or happiness.

The world in our hands - photo at the Bella Center

The world in our hands - photo at the Bella Center

Not only do the developed countries need to radically cut their demand for such things, but somehow the developing countries need to be convinced that we have been sold a myth by advertisers and corporations in search of enrichment through infinite economic growth – and we don’t need to buy the lie. We need to embrace a new simplicity, either voluntarily or, if necessary, through legislation.

It made my heart sink when I visited Peru in 2003, and I would see the humblest of shacks with a TV aerial stuck on the roof. I knew that inside they would most likely be watching Baywatch on a grainy black and white TV set, and dreaming of the California lifestyle. I wanted to run inside and beg them not to believe it, as I had done.

Coming from a family that, by the standards of a developed country, was relatively poor, I was desperately aspirational as a young adult. I really believed that money would buy me happiness – and was lucky enough to get just wealthy enough to discover what a treadmill materialism can become. More is more, and enough is never enough.

So having realized this, I shed all the trappings of a “successful” western lifestyle and bought an ocean rowboat. I fitted it out with a view to keeping it as light as possible to maximize my speed across the ocean. I thought I had the bare minimum on board. Then the ocean came along and took away half of it. Things broke, got lost overboard, or were found to be superfluous. My original “minimum” turned out to be far more than I actually needed, and I learned the lesson of simplicity. I have found that the less stuff I have, the more time and energy I have to focus on the important things in life.

I’m not saying that rich people can’t be happy, or that poor people can’t be miserable – I’m just saying that your position on the happiness spectrum has much more to do with the state of your mind than the state of your bank balance.

Latest News from Copenhagen – via today’s Rapid Response Dispatch issued by Fission Strategy

1) Danish text – has been very detrimental to the talks, deepening divisions between developed and developing countries. The story has gained traction in mainstream media. Fission Strategy suggest to media and bloggers that this is an opportunity to:
a) spank the US, UK, and Denmark for this – calling on them to support a strong and *fair* deal
b) call for a more transparent process: sharing documents, making the process clear, who they’re consulting with, reporting back

2) Japan finance issue – this Friday the Japanese Prime Minister will meet with his senior team to determine their position on long-term financing and targets. Japan has demonstrated some positive leadership on climate change, the outcome of these meetings is very important, and positive encouragement would be constructive.

3) Breaking news: there was just a rapid response demonstration inside the Bella Center by the main plenary hall. A delegate from the island nation of Tuvalu was blocked from speaking up and calling for a real deal.

300 people assembled outside of the hall for a spontaneous and passionate rally in support of the Tuvalu delegate. The UN security closed off the area temporarily, initial footage (brief clips) here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdhh-GOQvCM
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR8mEp9K9K4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTesidvZd8c

  • Doug Stewart

    Dear Lady Roz, Amen, sister! You’re absolutely right: “it IS human nature to aspire to improve.” And that as a result, over the centuries the age-old concept of “The more the merrier!” has shifted from how much bison meat was filling the tummies of how many family and friends around your cave’s cooking fire, to how many SUVs are filling your garage and driveway . . . from how many loved ones at Christmas dinner to how many Christmas presents under what was formerly a green but now dying Christmas tree. In short, it is increasingly apparent that we can no longer indulge ourselves in a more-the-merrier lifestyle without paying an exorbitant global price – a price we longer have the global resources to pay. Thank you, Lady Roz, for sharing your own life experiences to point out a truth now coming home to roost in our own formerly green trees: “The More the Merrier” is no longer a laughing matter. – Doug S.

  • http://web.mac.com/answerthecall/iWeb/Site/Actions.html Unca Doug

    Some people write tomes to develop a thought. Thank you, Roz, for distilling this down to a few paragraphs. It really is very simple and clear. Personally, I started losing interest in accumulating possessions several years ago. I think it was when I first heard George Carlin talking about Stuffit hit home. [some XXX language]

  • http://www.joantsherwood.com Joan in Atlanta

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the bloated value attached to things and excessive consumerism. The problem that lies in reducing our fanatic attachment to “stuff” is related to yesterday’s topic on population, though. Soooooo many people in this world currently owe their livelihood to the to the production of stuff we don’t need or providing services we don’t need. Think about how many people would be out of jobs if there were no factories cranking out the crappy junk we think we have to have, or the luxury industries, or the companies that make all the parts and tires for the giant SUVs, or the massive bulk of entertainment and advertising industry. Every time I think, “God, I’m sick of ads,” I realize that without them I wouldn’t have the bit of entertainment or information that I’m consuming without them paying for it. And then I think about how many companies, organizations and individuals are completely supported by the income from advertising.

    A rapid decline in excessive consumerism that isn’t concurrently joined by a large decrease in population will require a whole new economic basis or strategy for the world. We could refocus some jobs to more productive ends, like reclaiming waste and building materials from unused/abandoned sites, but there’s only so much of that to be done and only so much income it could feasibly generate for its employees. You could employ millions of people in cleaning up and repairing the damage we’ve done to the planet already, but how could we pay them?

    It’s a quandary.

    Well, it’s not a quandary. The solution is to stop having so many kids, stop using so much valuable brain resource in extending our lifespan whether its quality life or not, stop buying so much stupid stuff. But can we do it?

  • Richard in Austin

    I like the new Roz. :) Well, I like the old Roz too. :) But the new Roz seems to have gotten an even more insightful focus, and that’s impactful and appealing. You and I (I think) believe fundamentally the same thing: that “our planet” will ultimately survive and be quite fine (eventually, in the future), but that it’s the future of the humans on the planet that is in doubt. Maybe I read too much Darwin and Malthus while at university, but it seems to me that the planet has a habit of getting rid of species that aren’t performing up to par, and humans seem to be falling into that category. Somewhere along the line, the planet might decide to get rid of us. And to stop that from happening, it would seem that a good idea would be to bring ourselves into better alignment and harmony with the planet. I think you’re also very right in talking about how this is more than just an “environmental” issue. The “materialism” and “conspicuous consumption” and “waste” of developed countries are all appalling, and reducing those things alone will begin to solve a lot of environmental problems. To paraphrase something out of The Horse Whisperer (book and movie), it’s not so much that we humans are having “an environmental problem”, as it is that the environment is having “a human problem”. And I am constantly reminded of the statistics showing that the general health of peoples actually improves during times of austerity (say, World War Two). “Less is More” is often very true, and I think there’s a brighter and healthier and happier future for all of us once we unload some of this excess (materialism, consumption, waste). In my conversations with people, I also find that many people are confused or turned off by all the environmental discussions, but that they actually agree on the materialism discussions. Well, fine. Let’s go in through that door (materialism, consumption, waste). Whatever works, and gets people working toward common goals.

    You’re doing an excellent job of spreading the word and keeping us informed, Roz. Many thanks for all the great updates.

  • Roz Savage

    Joan – I think I might have an answer for you. Or at least the beginnings of an answer. Coming up in a blog soon.

    Richard – glad you’re enjoying the blogs. I have to say that the Copenhagen conference seems to have unleashed a flood of blogging inspiration. Several more in the pipeline. Stay tuned.

    Doug – LOVED the George Carlin video. Had never heard of him before, but wow, what a sharp wit! Spot on…http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8896213084482448693#

  • Ron in Vancouver BC

    Dearest Roz,

    Your Perception, perspective and prospective and right on top. Keep them there.

    Continue being yourself, which we honor and fully support. By sharing yourself with us, as we share ourselves with you, our voice and actions are growing exponentially.

    Hope is but a dream – Faith brings it to life! My faith in your mission is absolute. Stay on the ‘bottom line’ Roz; that is crucial at the moment.

    -Achates

  • David Brankley

    Roz, et al,
    I have good news. None of what I say here is false or faulty, but none of what I say is likely to be believed by those true believers in the “stop global warming” camp. Carbon Dioxide levels often rise as a result of increased temporatures. There is no need to put the cart before the horse, unless there is some other agenda apart from saving the world from what you call “global warming”. Further more, there were periods of the last ice age ( which I’m assured was rather cold ) when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were higher than they are today. In the long history of life on Earth it has been quite normal for CO2 levels to be higher. The plants kind of like it that way.
    As the recent scandal at the University of East Anglia, Climate Studies, has demonstrated it is not unnusual for scientists to be so convinced of their hypothosis that they will falcify, hide, and ignore their own data if it gets in the way of a good theory. What we have in the concept of manmade global warming, and the hysteria that ensues is not even a good theory. It is a dangerous myth and a hoax.
    Apart

    Apart from all that ,I hope you have a fine time in Copenhagen.
    David Brankley, Telluride, Co

  • http://web.mac.com/answerthecall/iWeb/Site/Actions.html UncaDoug

    David, check out RealClimate.org and ClimateProgress.org and if you want to really roll up your sleeves, see what Dr. James Hansen and his NASA GISS team have to say. Lots of good stuff is available at http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/ and http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/