Last Tuesday I arrived back in the UK after wrapping up my semester at Yale as a World Fellow. It has been an amazing and formative 4 months, the influence of which I am sure will be felt for the rest of my life.

The 2012 Yale World Fellows

One of my goals for the program was to find – or define – a mission that will keep me energised and busy for the next 7 or 8 years of my life, and I would like to cautiously say that I have found it. It’s still early days, so I am not going to say too much just yet, but here is a teaser as to the way my thoughts are headed.

From thinking about psychology and sustainability, I started to suspect that the best way to talk about the environment was in fact NOT to talk about the environment. I felt that too many psychological barriers slammed into place when the e-word was used – scepticism, suspicion, denial, guilt, shame, hopelessness, helplessness, etc. – all of which are inimical to action.

I started thinking about how governments and companies could be incentivised to balance their short term needs to please voters and shareholders respectively against the longer term needs of people and planet. After considering various options, it seemed to me that the most promising direction was to use a new, more holistic metric as a measurement of success.

I was already aware of the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness, spanning 9 domains of human wellbeing – living standards, good governance, education, health, ecology, community vitality, time use and balance, culture, and psychological wellbeing – and thought it an excellent idea.

Around this time, serendipity stepped in. Over Thanksgiving I was on a trip to Seattle, and took the opportunity to connect with John de Graaf, to whom I had been e-introduced some time ago by our mutual friend Betsy Rosenberg. John is the author and filmmaker responsible for bringing us Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Bk Currents). At our meeting he gave me a copy of his new book, What’s the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness, which questions our reliance on GDP as a measure of progress. This meshed with the work of Professor Tim Jackson (Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet), which had already been a significant influence on me.

Bhutan – can Gross National Happiness work elsewhere?

John told me that earlier this year the UN had launched an initiative called the New Development Paradigm, under which a working party will consider how to roll out this metric globally. This year the UK’s Office of National Statistics started to report on national happiness, demonstrating that the metric can be applied to a developed country, not just to small Buddhist countries in the Himalayas.

The more I looked around, the more work I found had already been done to find a more holistic approach of measuring human wellbeing. Various NGOs, consultancies, authors and speakers have been talking about these ideas for years, if not decades.

But no matter how good a concept, the timing has to be right. These early pioneers were the outliers on the bell curve, and my intuition is that the time is now ripe for the idea to go mainstream. The loss of faith in the banking system, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the Occupy movement, and the emergence of intentional communities, transition towns and alternative currencies, make me feel that we are ready for this new measure of success.

This notion really resonated with me on a personal level. Having grown up in a poor family, I was very willing to believe the Thatcher-Reagan ethos that money and materialism would bring happiness. I had to spend 11 years in the rat race, acquiring the big house, the nice car, the foreign holidays, etc, only to find out that these things did not make me happy as promised. Quite the opposite, in fact, with dismal work-life balance and a steadily declining self-esteem as I slaved away at a job I didn’t like to buy stuff I didn’t need. I had to go through a difficult period of soul-searching while I redefined my own personal measure of success, realising that measuring my worth purely on a financial basis was not working. Since that process of self-redefinition, I now measure my success not by what I own, but by my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing, the quality of my relationships, and having a purpose and passion in my life.

I’d like to add “SHOP LESS”

The new paradigm also meshes well with my environmental passion. I have felt for a while that our excessive consumerism was a misguided search for happiness, an attempt to fill the void created by an increasingly secular and disconnected society. But it has been shown that beyond a certain level, additional material wealth does not increase happiness and in fact sometimes has the opposite effect. We are trashing the Earth and it’s not even making us happy. So if we could get people to look for happiness in the right places, as listed above, we could in one fell swoop be happier and reduce our environmental impact, in a win-win situation for people and planet.

Another blog (a short one) on this subject tomorrow!

Oh, and by the way, Happy Birthday to me!

[Featured image: me between outgoing Yale President Levin, and incoming President Salovey, holding my World Fellows Program certificate]

 

24 Comments

  • Great ideas Roz, There are still huge hurdles to overcome, like the distrust of anything associated with the UN by people like those living around me, but it has been my goal for years to add “shop (buy) less.” And yes, Happy Birthday to you.

  • If you are not already familiar with Will McDonough and the “Cradle to Cradle” concept, I think this is one approach that “industry” can be convinced is a good approach. The book, “Cradle to Cradle, Rethinking the Way We Make Things,” is a good introduction.

  • Congratulations Roz! and Happy Birthday! I think you are totally on the right track and have done well to notice that a lot of the pieces are there but we need people like you to find a way to take it all forward in the current context. ( a new economic model notwithstanding).
    I give you an A+. You’ve graduated and have a vision for the future and I look forward to having you lead the way!

    As homework, you should look into the work of Edward Bernays (if you haven’t already), and how his thinking has, in part, led us astray in the last century ( eg: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-century-of-the-self/ )

    • P.S. Wow, that documentary is nearly 4 hours long! It might have to wait until Christmas is over and I’m busy procrastinating, I mean, writing my book!

    • Belatedly Happy Birthday and a positive New Year.

      What Steve says about that documentary “The Century of Self” is on the money, a worthwhile time investment Roz. I am surprised that it is not referenced more in this conversation.

  • Hi Roz,

    Congratulations on successfully completing your stay at Yale and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! (Did I miss where you said how old you are?) I always admire your drive, perseverance and accomplishments. You’ve chosen a tough and honorable road.

    I wanted to share/impose a few climate thoughts that have been gelling with me as a of late. I have been pondering the environmental/climate situation for years. I’m going to confess that it’s more Edvard Munch than Degas. Here’s what I see:

    1. The last time atmo. carbon dioxide was at 400 ppm (today’s level) was about 15-20 million years ago. Temps were 5-10 degrees F higher than today. There was no permanent ice at the poles. Sea levels? About 100 feet higher than today. We can’t pull the CO2 out of the atmo. that we’ve put in and it hasn’t yet begun to change climate. The changes it will bring are lagged by about one century.

    2. We going up about 2 ppm per year. On this trajectory we will fly past 500 ppm by about 2050. As it stands, there is absolutely no stopping this juggernaut. Global carbon emissions are increasing 3% each year, not leveling off, and not being reduced. Kyoto et al. apparently don’t work. It’s a tragedy of the commons: Why should country X reduce carbon and suffer economically when country Y is not? It’s human nature to want the “portions” to be “fair.” There HAS to be a concrete incentive to make a move and there currently is absolutely none. Strangely enough, Earth’s physical systems are oblivious to politics and fairness.

    3. We should therefore devote our energies to adapting to the changes that are already here and will continue to develop. At this point, trying to stop climate change is futile. I’m a short-term (regarding a few generations forward) optimist, and a long-term pessimist (regarding long-term human civilization). What do we do in the short term? Develop local, off-the-grid economies. Prepare to relocate the over 100 million people currently living within three feet of the high-tide line. Grapple with the persistent decreasing per capita arable land caused by pop. growth in addition to decreases in ag. output from climate change. Prepare for the new normal of extreme weather events and drought.

    I need to stop before I depress myself. But you get the idea. There’s a lot to think about and I’m still working through it. Climate is fundamental because it is tied to so many other issues. But the only way I see forward is tinkering on the community level to increase local resilience.

    Onward,

    Bruce

    • Bruce, I share your pessimism, but I don’t believe we can afford to give up trying to avert the current trend. It is time to drop everything and fight as though all life and humanity as we know it is at stake … because it is.

      Just a few quick additional “imponderables” to your list: 1) species extinction, 2) ecological collapse, 3) food chain collapse, 4) diseases run amok, 5) social collapse, 6) economic collapse. I really doubt that we can adapt, nor that we have the will to even try on the scale required, in the time required.

      Jim Hansen has written in a paper a couple years back that ice formed on the planet at 425 ppm +/- 75 ppm. Just to underscore your point, we are taking earth back to the condition that existed tens of millions of years ago, pre-life. It may take a few centuries given the inertia … so we do have time … barely.

      I don’t count on government body or any one “messiah” any more, so I am banking on an industry captain — like deceased Ray Anderson, or alive-and-well Rex Tillerson — finding his heart and being the modern-day Charles Grant as suggested by Polly Higgins at http://WhoIsCharlesGrant.com because he could lead the change, compelling Congress to follow with a carbon fee.

      All Rex has to do is denounce business-as-usual as immoral, and make an announcement that ExxonMobil will schedule the retirement of all liquid fuel refineries over the next two decades or so. That will trigger a de facto carbon fee, and shift investment away from expanding hydrocarbon fuels to exponential research and development of carbon-free energy technologies.

      We WILL pay the piper sooner or later. So, let’s get started. Join me and http://TellRex.com to take the lead now.

      BTW, I got notification of your other comment re hurricanes … I am no expert, but the experts are now saying it is worse than the models have been built to predict based on scientific understanding of the complexities of our natural world … newly acquired knowledge shows the significance of what we did not know before … time to pull out all the stops and reduce CO2 emissions. The arctic ice melt and the methane release in the tundra are the “wild cards” we don’t want to be played.

      Happy Birthday, Roz!

      Here’s to two score and a handfull more.

      And Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all.

      2013 is a new beginning: Time to get to work on those memes! http://fb.me/1qwKtAMRl

    • Hi Bruce – thanks for your insights. I agree with all of that. Unless 2012 truly has brought about a major shift in consciousness, as many believe, I can’t see us getting our act together in time to avert catastrophic climate change. This is profoundly embarrassing for a supposedly intelligent species. Really not so smart.
      I veer between optimism and pessimism. Ultimately, I believe that whatever happens, the earth will survive, although many species (including humans) may not. And although we can be complete idiots, I actually do believe we are worth saving if we can rise to be our higher selves.
      While the idea of the new metric / wellbeing / happiness might seem to be fiddling while Rome burns, I actually think it could have a significant effect on consumerism (and hence environmental impact) in a way that other campaigns have not. And hey, if it all comes to the worst, at least we’ll die happy(ish).

  • The constant drive for “growth” has constantly been a puzzling conundrum to me….a goal set by economists regardless of all the other implications. I have never ever been happy or satisfied as the result of the national GDP figures!. Christmas sales figures are being quoted as a mantra to the success or failure of a nation…things = happiness?..poppycock!
    I too have been down the route of being swept along on the Financial Services bandwagon..whilst I had enough financial resource as a result…it certainly did not make me happy and i fell off the bandwagon ultimately. You had the foresight/ good fortune and guts to get off and change direction… BRAVO for that!
    No doubt i will be put right by some smart economist who says the drive for growth (whatever that is measured by in economic terms) equates to full employment etc etc. BUT..if our economic efforts were directed more , for example, into developing sustainable power, eg wind , solar, tide, geothermal and wave instead of politically expedient short term “dash for gas “type solutions there could be two wins….. long term , reduced pollution power generation, and a nation / world that could maybe feel happy it is doing its best to keep the planet alive.
    As you indicate…you are convinced, as am I , that we HAVE to change the way we are driven by growth, GDP, consumerism etc which brings with it the waste, pollution and skewed priorities. …and it fails to make us happy.
    How this “New World” message is sold to others is such a difficult challenge.
    Thank for doing your very best to get the ball rolling…the World needs inspiring people with dedication. passion and importantly the charisma, energy and communication skills to , at the very least, make people stop and think!
    And finally….HAPPY 21st BIRTHDAY 🙂

    • Yes, 21 again!! How many times has that been?!

      I’m glad to find that my blog seems to have resonated with so many people. Gives me hope that the time is ripe for this idea. Time will tell.
      Am on the train to Leeds now, en route to see my mother and sister for Christmas Eve.

  • Happy Birthday, Roz!
    I like the idea of GNH, just thinking about how to promote that. We used to live in many smaller but more self-sufficient communities. Many people are trying to get back to that and I think about how each of us can affordably do it. An energy-efficient house, a garden, bees, a few chickens on a small plot of land; we have so much unused
    land here in the USA but people congregate in urban areas because that’s where they can find jobs. Surely we’re getting to the point where many more can work from home and energy efficient technology is affordable. This year I made various jams in the summer and am giving small jars of jam or honey from my bees for holiday gifts, trying to stay away from the crazy shopping at the malls. Looking forward to hearing more about your evolving ideas.

    • Good for you, Karen!

      I have mixed feelings about cities – on the one hand, they concentrate people into a smaller area, leaving more space for the other species. On the other hand, it’s harder to be self-sufficient in a city. But I think there is a good middle ground, as we find better ways to make use of our urban spaces, with city gardens and living roofs. No matter where we live, I really believe there is more we can do to be happier and less damaging to the environment. It just takes a bit of creativity – but humans are good at that!

  • Happy Birthday Roz.

    Can the global economic growth behemoth be turned? Who knows? Events of the past 5 years have exposed the fundamental flaws behind most growth models, and future generations will pay the price across most developed countries. And what is “developed” anyway, if not a flawed measure? In my other life, i am a financial planner and my observations of money and its impact do not lead me to see any real value in the eternal pursuit of “growth”. Dealing with people from the start of their working lives through to their planning for aged care reinforces the transitory nature of our existence and the treadmill approach to life that evolves when finances are the focus of the individual. And countries are prone to the same inanities.

    If you direct the creativity and effort of shown in your rowing then just maybe there’s a chance that your efforts will identify the catalyst required for that watershed moment on sustainability understanding. It certainly is a grand endeavour, and likely to keep you even more busy for years to come.

    Philosophically, i like the conundrums posed by aiming at being ‘good’ while trying to be happy, which is roughly what you are proposing. There has been so much written on happiness, yet it remains stubbornly absent from so many people’s lives. And for all our “developed” titular grandeur, there is very little focus on simply “being good”.

    As you say, an environmental approach to environmental issues falls into the trap of the boxing and categorising that the human brain uses to filter the world. In doing so, a genuine and balanced environmental approach is placed right next to every extremist version of protest, non-conformism and anti-establishment’ism that has ever existed – and that’s not a great setup for meaningful and effective communication.

    Happiness is a good starting point for redirecting communal energy into more sustainable outcomes. i very much hope that you make the difference in something that has so far evaded all attempts at resolution.

    Michael

    • Hi Michael – as you say, this is no trivial endeavour – by some it might even be seen as presumptuous or arrogant to think that it can succeed. But we’ve got very little to lose by trying, and potentially a lot to gain. I believe that some of the contacts and skills that I have built up over the course of my ocean rowing years will come in useful. The project has the feel of a quest, in which I can deploy the various “talismans” that life has provided. I am certainly looking forward to the attempt, and will be very open to any other words of wisdom you may have to offer as I pursue my goal.

  • Roz, happy birthday and nicely written. I look forward to reading more about your future pursuits… P.S., love the list, I hope you don’t mind but I borrowed it to share with others. Happy New Year!!

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