To many of us, a society where no one goes hungry, where there is no unemployment, where people are happy and they have spacious homes and lots of leisure time seems like fantasy. But it’s not a fantasy for Helena Norberg-Hodge — she saw it firsthand in the tiny Himalayan region of Ladakh, a remote mountain community that borders Tibet.
During the course of 35 years there, she also saw what happened when Ladakh was suddenly thrown open to the outside world in the 1970s and subsidized roads brought subsidized goods to the region. The local economy was undermined, the cultural fabric was torn apart. Unemployment, pollution and divisiveness emerged for the first time.
“This was Ladakh’s introduction to globalization,” says Norberg-Hodge. The “story of Ladakh can shed light on the root causes of the crises now facing the planet.”
The account of Ladakh’s transformation opens the new film, The Economics of Happiness, created by Steven Gorelick, John Page and Norberg-Hodge, the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture. As Bill McKibben says early on in the film, according to a poll conducted every year since the end of World World II, happiness in the U.S. peaked in 1956. “It’s been slowly downhill ever since,” he says. “But in that time we’ve gotten immeasurably richer, we have three times as much stuff. Somehow it hasn’t worked because that same affluence tends to undermine community.”
Our consumer culture, driven by the engine of globalization, has resulted in an economic and environmental crisis — and, the film’s creators say, a crisis of the human spirit.
Through interviews with experts and activists like McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Zac Goldsmith, Richard Heinberg, David Korten, Keibo Oiwa, Samdhong Rinpoche, Balaji Shankar and Andrew Simms, among others, the film crosses six continents examining the pitfalls of globalization and how people are envisioning a more sustainable economy. It begins by exploring eight inconvenient truths about globalization.
1. Globalization makes us unhappy. More stuff and more wealth has meant less contact with community, rising levels of depression, jobs with longer hours, more time spent working at home and longer commutes. “Lonely people have never been happy people and globalization is creating a very lonely planet,” says author and activist Vandana Shiva.
2. Globalization breeds insecurity. Corporations are raising our children and driving what they eat, buy, wear and what they care about. Identity that was once shaped by one’s culture and language, molded by community leaders and family, is now filled by marketers. Across the world, sales of blue contact lenses are on the rise, along with products to lighten skin and hair as people try to fulfill a Western ideal and an emulation of American life.
3. Globalization wastes natural resources. Consumerism is threatening the planet, natural resources are stretched to the breaking point and yet we have an economic system that encourages us to consume more and more, says Norberg-Hodge. Consumer culture is increasingly urban and when rural people move to the city the food they used to grow themselves is now grown on industrial-sized chemical-intensive farms. Food must be trucked to cities, waste must be trucked out. Large dams are needed to provide water and huge centralized power plants must be fueled by coal and uranium mines.
4. Globalization accelerates climate change. Globalization’s “success” is often attributed to efficiencies of scale, but mostly it is fueled by deregulation and hidden subsidies that make food from around the globe cost less than food from down the street. With efficiencies of scale, it’s really the opposite, says British MP Zac Goldsmith, “Tuna caught off the east coast of America is flown to Japan, processed and flown back to America to be sold to consumers; English apples are flown to South Africa to be waxed, flown back to England to be sold.”
Treaties like NAFTA promote international growth through economic trade, which sounds good on paper, except that you end up with countries importing and exporting nearly identical amounts of the same products — which means we’re needlessly shipping goods across the world that we are already producing at home.
5. Globalization destroys livelihoods. Pension funds are now at the mercy of speculation. In the Global South, small farmers are being displaced from their land and forced to move to urban areas where they become cheap labor for factories producing more goods.
6. Globalization increases conflict. In Ladakh, Buddhists and Muslims who lived side by side for 500 years without conflict turned on each other after globalization caused unemployment and stiff competition for new commodities. Around the world, competition for scarce resources and jobs has resulted in the demonization of differences that were once accepted.
7. Globalization is built on handouts to big business. “If there is one thing that political parties from the left to the right seem to agree on today, it is the power and value of the free market,” says Goldberg. “But the irony is that the majority of really polluting things that happen today wouldn’t exist in a genuinely free market — nuclear power, for example, wouldn’t exist without massive state support … We’re about as far away from a free market as it’s possible to be.”
Globalization has resulted in subsidies for some of the wealthiest multinationals as well as the deregulation of trade and finance. “It is basically a system that criminalizes the small producer and processor and deregulates the giant business,” says Shiva.
8. Globalization is based on false accounting. Our current economic model is based on infinite growth on a finite planet, which is a recipe for disaster. Political leaders believe that more economic growth is the answer to all our problems — bailouts to big banks, stimulus to make us spend more, carbon trading schemes — but all these do is reinforce a system that is inherently broken.
Our way of measuring our worth is so twisted says Helena Norberg-Hodge, that when there is “an oil spill, the GDP goes up; when drinking water is so polluted we have to buy it in bottles, GDP goes up. War, cancer, epidemic illnesses — all of these involve an exchange of money, so they end up on the positive side of the balance sheet.”
A Different Path Forward
The first half of The Economics of Happiness provides a detailed reminder of why globalization has been a failure for the environment and for the economy. The second half of the film explores the movements that are providing us with an alternative. Instead of letting corporations dictate policy and regulation, instead of measuring the success of our lives by GDP, we can take a cue from countries like Bhutan. In 1972 the King of Bhutan initiated a measurement of Gross National Happiness and sought to embed that in his development policies.
Since that time we’ve also seen the advent of the Genuine Progress Indicator, which is based on “full cost accounting.” How much does an item cost once you figure in the environmental and social metrics? The sticker price of what we pay for goods today is only part of the story. The GPI tells the whole story:
The things we measure and count — quite literally — tell us what we value as a society and determine the policy agendas of governments. The Genuine Progress Index (GPI) presents a better way to measure our societal progress and well being. The GPI assigns explicit value to environmental quality, population health, livelihood security, equity, free time, and educational attainment. It values unpaid voluntary and household work as well as paid work. It counts sickness, crime and pollution as costs not gains.
So how do we truly improve our standard of living — including protecting our environment, building healthy communities, having a stable economy? Localize, the filmmakers say. We don’t need to eliminate international trade entirely or be completely self-reliant, says Norberg-Hodge. But we do need to create “more accountable and sustainable communities by producing what we need closer to home.”
This means that taxes, subsidies and regulations should not favor multinationals over local businesses. Studies have proven that more money spent at local businesses has meant more money staying in communities, which is a win-win. The benefits are similar with local food and energy systems.
Already there are examples of this in motion: Ecovillages, Transition Towns and Post Carbon Cities are working to rebuild economies with a focus on localization. The organization Via Campensina is “an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small- and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe.” It has members in 69 countries and represents millions.
Two new books build on many of the ideas in The Economics of Happiness. The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crisis looks at the convergence of population, water, energy, food and climate threats. All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons shows how communities are reclaiming shared spaces and resources to better the economy and the environment.
Those books and the film bring home three essential points. First, we simply cannot continue to follow the trajectory we’re on. Local economies are being decimated and the global economy hangs by a thread that will snap, likely in short time. Our planet cannot support our hunger for resources, our disregard for sustainability and our shortsightedness.
And second, there are alternatives to globalization and suicidal capitalism. As Asher Miller writes in The Post Carbon Reader:
Our starting point for future planning must be the realization that we are living today at a critical moment in the long arc of human history when numerous crises are not only converging simultaneously, they are interdependent and affect virtually every living thing on the planet. The sheer scale and complexity of the challenges at hand are unprecedented … It may sound bombastic to say, but it’s nevertheless the truth: The success or failure of the human experiment may well be judged by how we manage the next ten to twenty years.
Which brings up the third point: It’s time to get going.
To find a screening near you, visit the Economics of Happiness.
Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.