Monday, April 30, 2007

More ≠ Better

Bill McKibben, who first sounded the alarm twenty years ago on global warming in his book The End of Nature, may have come up with the best argument yet about the evils of capitalism: it makes us unhappy.

In his latest book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben cites a variety of statistics to show that the More promised by capitalism does not equal Better, that in fact once we have satisfied our basic needs it produces dissatisfaction rather than happiness. (The only more surprising argument that I know, against technology with its unintended consequences, is that too many chemicals in the environment have been shown to shrink male genitals.)

I haven't read Deep Economy because my local library has not yet added it to the collection, and I'm currently trying to limit my purchase of books, or anything, actually. McKibben would like that, I think, since he has praised the virtue of limits (on consumption, the use of oil, big-box chain stores, etc.) in all of his writings. So to find out more about the ideas in his new book and the possibilities for an alternative to the destructive capitalist global economy, I read reviews in the New York Times and Boston Globe, his recent article in Mother Jones, a profile in AARP and an interview in (plus, of course, his Wikipedia entry). McKibben also has his own web site, and was instrumental in organizing a campaign to promote climate action, Step It Up 2007, with local protest marches around the country earlier this month. The man is indefatigable!

To explain capitalism's failings, McKibben goes back to the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith. His "core ideas -- that individuals pursuing their own interests in a market society end up making each other richer; and that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth -- have indisputably worked," McKibben writes. But now, research is revealing that "devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity." And finally, and most surprisingly, "growth no longer makes us happier." Because of our faith in capitalism, McKibben says, "that's as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity pushes apples skyward." More, in other words, is no longer automatically Better. It is quite frequently Worse, not only for the planet but for the possessors of more stuff than they can ever use or appreciate.

Traditional economics holds that if you buy something, it ipso facto makes you happy. You have made a rational decision about what will provide you with "maximum utility" by purchasing this item. But we also know how irrational economic decisions can be, and, just as in politics, we often thwart long-term goals for short-term gain. In 2002 a psychologist was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics by inventing the field of "hedonics" to determine well-being statistically, what makes experiences and life pleasant or unpleasant. Now happiness is no longer subjective, but a measurable phenomenon. And now, according to McKibben, this discovery
allows economists to start thinking about life in richer (indeed) terms, to stop asking "What did you buy?" and to start asking "Is your life good?" And if you can ask someone "Is your life good?" and count on the answer to mean something, then you'll be able to move to the real heart of the matter, the question haunting our moment on the earth: Is more better?
The answer, you will not be surprised, is no. We have more things, new and efficient technologies, storage lockers full of stuff, a GNP that has tripled in 50 years, and surveys show that none of it has made us happier. "It's not that we're simply recalibrating our sense of what happiness means," writes McKibben, "we are actively experiencing life as grimmer." Rates of alcoholism and suicide have gone up dramatically in every developed country, and one report in 2000, cited by the author, found that the average American child reported higher levels of anxiety than the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s.

"How is it, then," asks McKibben, "that we became so totally, and apparently wrongly, fixated on the idea that our main goal, as individuals and as nations, should be the accumulation of more wealth?" The answer, he says, is up to a certain point this process works. Research shows that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 income per capita. "That's a useful number to keep in the back of your head -- it's like the freezing point of water, one of those random figures that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet." Once basic needs are met with that figure, McKibben reports, the data on happiness gets scrambled. Rich Americans have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, the Swedes as a whole, as well as the Masai. The happiness of the homeless in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded, "but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations."

A world of More turns out to be a nightmare of hyper-individualism where the traditional bonds of community and friendship are severed; people in great numbers watch a television show where the goal is to end up alone on an island. "It's not so hard, then, to figure out why happiness has declined here even as wealth as grown." During the last thirty years, we "simply worked too many hours earning, we commuted too far to our too-isolated homes, and there was always the blue glow of the tube shining through the curtains."

McKibben lives in Vermont, where he teaches at Middlebury College, and practices what he preaches. His last book was simply titled Enough. He has undergone experiments in practical living, going without television and eating only locally produced food. Rather than destroy the market economy, he wants to revitalize and localize it. According to Lance Morrow's review of Deep Economy in the New York Times,
McKibben says in effect, All right, we are two nations: 1) Wal-Mart Nation (gigantic, globalized, unsustainable in the face of climate change and the trashing of nature and the coming exhaustion of the world's fossil fuels), a world predicted half a century ago by Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, desperately gobbling oversweet glut from the unstoppable assembly line; and 2) Farmers' Market Nation (manageably small, localized, communitarian, neighborly, calibrated to the human scale).
The question for me is: can we change, downsize, stop the global steamroller? Maybe we can, with a new environmentally and business-critical administration, but the developed world is racing to catch up with First World rates of growth. China by 2031 will have 1.3 billion people as rich as Americans are today. They will use 99 million barrels of oil a day, 15 million more than the entire world consumes at present. The mind boggles.

McKibben appears to be hopeful, at least in the material I read. But I can't help thinking the game is over already. As long as a few powerful people continue to get wealthy, and others hope they can join them, we are locked into an economy that harms both people and the planet. Only some catastrophe on a global scale, making 9-11, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina look puny by comparison, might shake people up enough to convince that the enough, in fact, is enough.

No comments: