The Economics Of Happiness
Thirty-three years ago, I watched as a culture that had been sealed off from the rest of the world was suddenly thrown open to economic development. Witnessing the impact of the modern world on an ancient culture gave me insights into how economic globalisation creates feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, particularly in the young, and how those psychological pressures are helping to spread the global consumer culture. Since that time I have been promoting the rebuilding of community and local economies as the foundation of an 'Economics of Happiness'.
27 February, 2010
Today, the planet is on fire with global warming, toxic pollution and species extinction, with fundamentalism, terrorism and fear. The dominant media tell us that WE are to blame: our greed is the cause, and we as individuals must change our consumer habits. However, if we try to deal with these crises individually, we won't get very far. We need to stand back and look at the bigger picture. It then becomes obvious that the driving force behind our crises is a corporate -led globalization. Despite the apparent enormity of making changes to our economic system, isolating this root cause can be very empowering. Rather than confront an overwhelming list of seemingly isolated symptoms, we can begin to discern the disease itself. In so doing it also becomes apparent that joining hands with others is a key to reversing environmental and social breakdown.
North-South Divide And Tackling Global Warning
28 February, 2010
As signs of climate instability increase, radical and rapid action is becoming ever more urgent. One of the biggest obstacles to global collaboration, however, has been the foot-dragging and obstructionism of the US government, much of it based on the fear of giving Southern economies a 'competitive advantage' if they are permitted to emit greenhouse gases at higher rates than the North. Yet even within the environmental movement there is no unanimity on this thorny question: should the countries of the South have the right to increase their emissions as they industrialize and 'develop'? At first blush, it makes sense that they should, based both on equity and the notion that rich countries have no right to make demands of the so-called poor countries: "We in the North have benefited from 'development', how can we deny the South the right to follow in our footsteps?"
Beyond The Monoculture: Strengthening Local Culture, Economy And Knowledge
Despite the fact that almost every news item today brings information about the seeming endless list of crises there is hope that we have the power to turn things around. In recent years, more and more people are waking up to the root causes behind our problems—from global warming and species extinction to fundamentalism and fear. If we stand back and look at the bigger picture, we will see that all these crises are connected to the globalised economy. Although it may initially be difficult to perceive, the economic system underpins almost every aspect of our lives today—from our jobs to the food we eat, the state of the environment to the state of education, politics to health.
No more 'pseudo-solutions'
When ISEC first started our global-to-local work in the mid-1970s, there was widespread awareness that both policy change and individual action were needed to solve the world's growing social and ecological problems. In the last two decades, however, mainstream thinking in both the media and academia has focused almost entirely on market solutions rather than political ones. We have been encouraged to see ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, and to believe that the best way to effect change is through the decisions we make when we go shopping.
Personal Virtue and Public Responsibility
By now there is little doubt that the effects of global warming will be calamitous within a generation or two, if not sooner. There is no way to predict precisely what the impact will be in any given place, though it is clear that human habitation will be exceedingly difficult in many areas, no longer possible in others. As a consequence, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced, creating tremendous waves of environmental refugees with nowhere to go. The Ladakhis may well be among them if the glaciers that are their only source of irrigation and drinking water disappear.
If all this comes to pass, I wonder what our children and grandchildren, living in that degraded world, will think of us and our actions today. I imagine them asking, "why didn't you do something?" and wonder how we might respond. We certainly can't claim ignorance, since by now we should all be aware that climate change is real. Nor is there any shortage of suggestions about what we can do: every large environmental organization provides them, as does the mainstream media.
Is Local Organic Food Elitist?
ISEC helped launch the movement for local food because it is such an effective solution-multiplier: local food helps family farmers and other small businesses survive, thereby revitalizing rural economies; it minimizes the need for a wide range of inputs, from pesticides and chemical fertilizers to preservatives and packaging; it increases agricultural biodiversity, adding to long-term food security; and by reducing unnecessary food transport, it lessens our fossil fuel use and the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that go with it. What's more, a shift from global to local food would benefit self-reliant villagers throughout the South, while making healthy, nutritious food more abundant and more affordable everywhere.
Peak Oil and Localization
Whether we're seeking stronger communities, a cleaner environment, better prospects for the Third World, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or limits on corporate power, there is a clear way forward: economic localization. Lately a lot of other voices have joined ISEC in this refrain, as the implications of 'peak oil' become more widely known.
Local Food and Avian Flu
One of the ways that large, global corporations are given an unfair advantage over smaller, more local competitors is through health, safety and environmental regulations. In many cases those regulations are in place because of Big Business abuses, but end up harming small businesses that are forced to comply with the same rules.
The Pressure to Modernise
Why do traditional societies break down upon their first sustained contact with the modern world? The easy answer is that Western culture is intrinsically preferable—that blue jeans are simply better than homespun robes, the nuclear family better than the extended family.
My own view is very different. I believe that the most important reason for the breakdown of traditional cultures is the psychological pressure to modernise. I have come to this conclusion through almost two decades of close contact with the people of Ladakh, or 'Little Tibet'.
Bringing the Food Economy Home
Today's mounting social and ecological crises demand responses that are broad, deep, and strategic. Given the widespread destruction wrought by globalisation, it seems clear that the most powerful solutions will involve a fundamental change in direction - towards localizing rather than globalising economic activity. In fact, 'going local' may be the single most effective thing we can do.
The March of the Monoculture
For many, the rise of the global economy marks the final fulfilment of the great dream of a 'Global Village'. Almost everywhere you travel today you will find multi-lane highways, concrete cities and a cultural landscape featuring gray business suits, fast-food chains, Hollywood films and cellular phones. In the remotest corners of the planet, Barbie, Madonna and the Marlboro Man are familiar icons. From Cleveland to Cairo to Caracas, Baywatch is entertainment and CNN news.
Buddhism in the Global Economy
Over the past two decades I have had continuous contact with Buddhist communities, in both traditional cultures and the industrialized West. These experiences have made me keenly aware that industrial development affects not only our way of living, but our world view as well. I have also learned that if we are to avoid a misinterpretation of Buddhist teachings, we need to look closely at the fundamental differences between societies that are part of the industrialized global economy and those that are dependent on more localized economies.
Social Costs of Globalisation
"... America is a new kind of society that produces a new kind of human being. That human being - confident, self-reliant, tolerant, generous, future-oriented - is a vast improvement over the wretched, servile, fatalistic and intolerant human being that traditional societies have always produced."- Dinesh D'Souza, What's So Great About America
Implicit in all the rhetoric our leaders spout about globalisation is the idea that the rest of the world should eventually be brought up to the standard of living of the West, and America in particular. Read between the lines of the 'sustainable development' argument and you'll find the American Dream lurking: it is globalisation's touchstone, its apparent endpoint.
But if this is the direction globalisation is taking us, it is worth examining where America itself is headed. A good way to do so is to take a hard look at America's children, since so many features of the global monoculture have been in place their whole lives. They are like canaries in a mineshaft: if the American Dream isn't working for them, why should anyone, anywhere, believe it would work better for their own children?
Tipping the Scale
Looking back on the latter half of the 20th century, a dominant theme that emerges is the way large scale has steadily supplanted small scale. This scaling-up is closely linked to globalization — shorthand for the relentless expansion of the western industrial model — and has expressed itself in several interrelated ways:
The Case for Local Food
If you want to create a more sustainable society, a good place to start is by helping to rebuild your local food economy: food is something everyone, everywhere, needs every day, which means that even relatively small changes in the way it is produced and marketed can have immense effects. And since eating is a natural part of daily life, we all have frequent opportunities to make a difference.
Globalisation versus Community
Society today is faced with a choice between two diverging paths. The path endorsed by government and industry leads towards an ever more globalised economy, one in which the distance between producers and consumers will continue to grow. The other path is being built from the grassroots, and leads towards strong local economies in which producer-consumer links are shortened. I believe that moving in the latter direction may be one of the best ways of solving a whole range of serious social and environmental problems, from rising rates of crime and violence to the greenhouse effect. This may sound absurdly simplistic, but it is a conviction based on long-term observations in societies at very different levels of dependence on the global economy — including heavily-industrialised America, socialist Sweden, rural Spain, and most importantly, Ladakh, a traditional culture on the Tibetan Plateau.
"Globalisation is really a code name for corporatisation. It's an attempt by the largest corporations in the world, and the largest banks in the world, to re-engineer the world in such a way that they won't have to pay decent wages to their employees, and they won't have to pay taxes to fix potholes and to maintain parks, and to pay pensions to the old and handicapped."
— Paul Hellyer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada
The global marketplace is becoming increasingly vulnerable and volatile. Financial turmoil on the other side of the world has led to job losses much closer to home. Hardly a day passes in Europe and North America without another take-over of a community business by a distant transnational corporation (TNC) — leading to increased job insecurity and reduced job satisfaction. As the failings of the global economy become more evident, all our political leaders can offer is more of the same — in other words, more 'free trade'. They still believe that the liberalisation of trade and finance will create employment and raise the standard of living in rich and poor nations alike. They still believe that international competition is the way forward. They still believe in globalisation.
Globalisation and Terror
It did not take long for the horrifying images of September 11 to mutate into a spectacle of high-tech, stage-managed warfare, complete with cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs, and remote satellite imagery of further death and destruction. So little time was devoted to considering how we arrived at this pass that we are likely to revisit it again and again. The knee-jerk retaliation by the US and British governments will only lead to heightened rivalries and friction between local ethnic groups (already happening in Afghanistan and Israel), the undermining of regional governments (already happening in Pakistan), and further anger and resentment aimed at westerners in general and Americans in particular (already happening in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world). By bombing a war-torn, defenceless country we are pouring oil instead of water on the fire. How many Afghanis who have watched innocent children killed will be willing to sacrifice their lives to avenge these deaths?
Rambo, Barbie and Wordsworth
The scene is a classroom in Leh, Ladakh, twelve thousand feet up in the western Himalayas. A young teacher stands in front of her class of 12 year-olds.
"I appreciate the poetry of ...", she starts, inviting her students to complete the sentence.
Milarepa? Nagarjuna? Tagore, perhaps?
"Wordsworth", they dutifully respond.
The Farm Crisis
Glamorous excess is a staple of the mainstream media, even in its economic reporting. Stories about soaring corporate profits, exorbitant CEO salaries, improbably high stock prices, and the billions made by obscure dot-com start-ups so dominate the news that one could easily believe the globalised economy is making everyone (else) rich. But high-flying winners are the exception in today's economic casino, and no-one is losing out more than small farmers.
Reclaiming Our Food
Paris in the 1970s was a city full of character and life. Each quartier had its own colourful market, selling wonderful fruits, all kinds of vegetables, meats, superb cheeses and wine. All of that diversity originated at no great distance: most of it came from different regions of France, if not from the immediate surroundings of Paris. Today it can be difficult to find garlic in Paris that has not travelled from China. In the supermarkets, grapes from Chile and wine from California are increasingly commonplace. The diversity of French foods is in decline, and those that are available are becoming more and more costly.
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