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Can humanity still be saved?

WE have inherited a single planet. But what have we made of it? The Earth is today an endangered heritage, and the species itself is at risk.

UNESCO has just published Making Peace with the Earth (Berghahn Books/Unesco Publishing), the third anthology in the 21st Century Talks series edited by Jérôme Bindé. With the collaboration of some fifteen leading scientists and experts, such as Paul Crutzen, Nicolas Hulot, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, Michel Serres, Mostafa Tolba, Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Edward O. Wilson, we offer a future-oriented analysis of the global ecological crisis, together with some proposals for action, which are the substance of this article.

Are we fully conscious, even after the latest assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Bali Conference, of the colossal challenges that humanity will have to meet, within time frames that have already been overrun? I shall not labour the diagnosis yet again: climate change, desertification, global water crisis, deforestation, ocean degradation, air, soil, water and sea pollution, and the increasing erosion of biodiversity – the picture is all too familiar.

The economic and geopolitical consequences of this situation are just starting to be quantified. The cost of our war on the planet is liable to be comparable to the cost of a world war, as the Stern Review points out. There is moreover a risk that the war on nature could lead to war in general, given the growing scarcity of fossil fuels and natural resources and the 150 to 200 million eco-refugees anticipated by futures studies.

Yet what we call problems – starting with climate change – are more in the nature of symptoms. The real problem, in fact, is that of material growth in a finite world, which was identified back in 1972 in the Report to the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth. But in 1972, as the Report’s joint author Dennis Meadows points out, ‘humanity was within its limits, now it is beyond them.’ This is borne out by the data on the ecological footprint of the human species calculated by the team of Mathis Wackernagel. In 1972 we had reached 85 per cent of these limits. Today human resource consumption stands at about 125 per cent of the level sustainable in the long term.

So can humanity still be saved? Yes, we can do so, and without preventing the human species from developing and combating poverty. We need to combine growth and sustainable development, rather than seeing them as opposites.

But how can this be done? We shall need more knowledge, more restraint, less matter, more concreteness, and more – rather than less – ethics and politics. What this adds up to is another contract, a natural contract and an ethic of the future.

More knowledge firstly: there are many who regard techno-science as the enemy. Yet the sickness contains its own cure. We shall not succeed in saving the planet and its guest, the human species, unless we build ‘knowledge societies’ that prioritize education and research. To address the challenges of sustainable development, we must strengthen our capacity for foresight and prospective analysis. Unesco’s work of compiling a global knowledge base on the environment and sustainable development goes back several decades, to a time when there was still little awareness of the problem! In 1949, Unesco launched the first international study on arid zones; in 1970, it created the ‘Man and the Biosphere’ (MAB) programme; and its global scientific programmes on the oceans and the geosciences are recognized as unique resources. The IPCC has drawn very fully on this database, which must continue to be developed and expanded in the future.

More restraint: we need to invent new modes of consumption that are less wasteful and more efficient. For, given the increasing spread of western modes of development and consumption to the emerging economies of the South, what other choice do we have? Three or four planet Earths would be required if the current consumption patterns of North America were to be extended to the planet as a whole.

Less matter: we shall have to ‘dematerialize’ the economy and growth, for it is probably impossible to halt growth. We shall, therefore, have to reduce the consumption of natural resources and raw materials for each unit of economic production, whether it is energy, metals, minerals, water or wood. This shift of the economy towards the immaterial has already begun with the revolution that replaces atoms by bits, which is central to the rise of the new technologies and knowledge societies. ‘Dematerialization’ of the economy could even favour development in the countries of the South, if the countries of the North were to commit themselves to dematerializing a little more than the countries of the South for a period of about 50 years.

But the greatest transformation of our societies will be in the realm of attitudes and behaviour. How can we dematerialize production if we remain materialistic? How can we reduce our consumption if the consumer within us devours the citizen? Education for sustainable development will be the key to this change.

More concreteness: concrete and realistic projects, including at the international level, will be needed to bridge the gap between utopia and the tyranny of the short-term. Take the case of biodiversity. To safeguard the 34 top priority ecological zones, which cover only 2.3 per cent of the Earth’s land surface but contain 50 per cent of the known species of vascular plants and 42 per cent of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, the cost is put at some $50 billion, or less than 0.1 per cent of global GDP.

A natural contract: if we are to cease being the Earth’s parasites, we shall have to sign a new peace treaty with nature. We had a social contract, which binds human beings together, and we must now bind ourselves with nature. The idea will seem strange to some, but it follows on logically from the growth of ecological awareness. If in future we protect endangered species, if we preserve landscapes in natural parks, we shall gradually be recognizing nature as embodying genuine rights. Foresight will be an absolute precondition of the true democracy of the future. The ethic of the future, which demands that we transmit an inhabitable world to our children, will supply the link between the economy and ecology, between growth and sustainable development.

Koïchiro Matsuura


Development as happiness

IT is increasingly being realized that for true well being and for a good fulfilling quality life, external social and economic development should lead to or be accompanied by internal satisfaction and happiness or subjective well being. Development has been conventionally reduced to economic growth and GDP, ignoring equity, human development, quality relationships, unpaid work, and subjective fulfillment. On the other hand happiness in the narrow sense of simply desire satisfaction and instant gratification is limiting and not meaningful or profound. Therefore, well being including subjective well being is a broader and more valuable concept. Here we will be concerned with subjective well being or happiness in a broader sense of satisfaction with life over a long period of time and the conditions favourable for its achievement.

Both Aristotle in the western tradition and Dalai Lama today in the East, agree that happiness is so essential because it is an end in itself and we pursue other goals because they can lead us to happiness which, therefore, should be the main purpose of life.

Aristotle advocated the concept of eudemonia roughly translated as happiness which was to be achieved by being virtuous, and the life of reflection and wisdom which he rated very high may be seen as a kind of higher virtue. The Dalai Lama whose book, The Art of Happiness, which was on the best-seller list for years, contains conversations with a western psychiatrist emphasizing the power of compassion and love for all as a happiness therapy. In an inter-related world where everyone is related in a mutually supportive manner, compassion is twice blessed, blessing the receiver and the giver. Many wise people have described their peak experiences as occurring while communing in or with nature.

The philosopher Bertrand Russel in his book, The Conquest of Happiness, suggests that a satisfying life is one which consists of social engagement and reflection. He himself found happiness in love, pursuit of knowledge and sympathy for the poor. During the good old days when economics was part of philosophy and ethics, J.S. Mill proposed that the aim of economics should be happiness. He defined happiness as desire fulfillment, but desires were to be divided into higher and lower. It is enshrined in the American Constitution that all have an inalienable right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. But happiness in the American ethic has been reduced to the happiness of the free market.

Recently Richard Layard, Professor at the London School of Economics in his book, Happiness: Lesson From a New Science, argues that public policy should be devoted to increasing happiness rather than wealth or success. Similarly Paul Martin in Making Happy People proposes how we can bring up our children to be happy because happiness is arguably the most important thing in life. However Natasha Walker, reviewing recent books on happiness in the Guardian, suggests that we can increase the sum total of happiness not as an end in itself but as a side-effect of other pursuits like justice, freedom and love.

It is widely accepted that minimum basic social and economic needs have to be met before subjective well being can be developed. Others like some Buddhists believe that subjective happiness exists relatively independently of social and economic factors and what is more important is how people react internally to the outer reality. Most scholars point out the requisites of basic needs and relatively comfortable economic and social conditions. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in terms of first security, second affective needs, third needs for self-esteem and finally need for self actualization, still remains a significant benchmark to build the pyramid of well being.

Problems persist about finding cross-cultural and meaningful measures of subjective well being which do not reduce happiness to western hedonistic individualism or American pop psychology which lays too much stress on the romantic power of positive affirmations. In western culture much emphasis is based on personal and individualist forms of happiness while in the non-western societies, particularly in the East, people seek happiness more as part of a collective, for example in terms of family or community norms.

Some years ago the King of Bhutan suggested the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH). It represents a general aspiration towards environmental conservation, culture promotion, equitable growth, community living and emotional well being. Instead of the gross sounding term gross, which is an aggregated measure that ignores the issue of equity and distribution, a better term would simply be national equitable happiness index. Second, more spiritual and psychological goals and indicators need to be developed. Yet the idea of GNH is significant because it is transforming the discourse of development and well being and helping in redefining priorities.

A survey of literature on well being, cross-cultural human values, psychological assessments, and social indicators reveals the following common features: basic needs (health, safety), work and leisure (employment, quality of work and leisure), knowledge (education, and ability to make sense of life experiences), relationships (personal, including family and professional, trust), empowerment and participation (empowerment, dignity, democratic participation and participation in decisions that shape one’s life), identity and creativity (meaning in life, arts, creativity), and harmony and peace ( spirituality, world outlook, including harmony with nature and with one’s true nature. Peace within and outside).

The Canadian Council for Social Development describes quality of life in terms of being, which includes firstly health, psychological (thoughts and feelings), spiritual (beliefs and values), second in terms of belonging which includes physical (living place), social (people around), community resources, and third as becoming, which includes practical (daily things to do), leisure (for fun and enjoyment), growth (coping with change). The WIDER Institute in Finland advocates a simple approach, which consists of outer qualities, living in a good environment and being of worth for the world, and inner qualities, being able to cope with life and enjoying life.

A Welfare Index has been evolved for Scandinavian countries, which combines the three aspects of having, loving and being. The index includes income, quality of housing, political support, social relations, health, education, being irreplaceable, doing interesting things, and life satisfaction. The WHO Quality of Life indicators include physical environment, home environment, financial resources, social support, safety, information, and transportation. The inner quality consists of physical health, mental health, work capacity, learning capacity, energy, absence or presence of pain and depression, satisfaction with self, and satisfaction with life.

The New Economic Foundation in London has developed a Happy Planet Index which combines measures for sustainable use of natural resources with indicators for a long and happy life. On the basis of its findings, the Foundation argues that to live a happy and long life one does not have to consume natural resources extravagantly but that we can find fulfillment through non-economic factors like quality relationships and community engagement. Similarly, Positive Psychology proposes good personal and social relations, doing fulfilling work through excelling in what one is good at and finding meaning through larger and altruistic purpose.

The countries of Scandinavia have consistently achieved very high ranking in terms of human development and well being. Denmark is probably the most equal society and also the happiest according to some studies. Norway is on top of the gender equity scale. Scandinavia enjoys high levels of trust and peace in their societies. Why they score high is not only because they are homogenous societies with little history of wars and with a high standard of income but also because they have charted a third humane and caring way to overcome the ills of both capitalism and socialism.

Some objections have been raised to the major approaches to measure well being. The first one focuses on opulence and consumption of more and more goods and acquisition. It does not lead to a good quality of life because it ignores good relationships, social and ethical values and a sustainable relationship with the environment. The second approach lays stress on fulfillment of desire, pleasure and the utilitarian ethic of greatest happiness of the greatest number. By emphasizing the majority viewpoint it ignores justice for deprived minorities, tribals, lower castes, migrants and those displaced by big dams or big development projects. The third approach is concerned purely with subjective feelings of well being, for example poor people’s subjective feelings of well being are problematic because, as Amartya Sen says, their subjective perception and expectations can be restricted to such an extent that they either do not recognize or are unable to articulate their basic needs and their need for well being and dignity.

Objections that the pursuit of happiness ignores the need for justice, eradication of poverty and social and ecological responsibility have to be taken seriously. Most studies agree that up to a certain level improvement in economic standards directly leads to increase in happiness, which supports the idea of basic needs first for the poor as a precondition for happiness. The studies also indicate that after achieving certain comfortable economic standards, happiness is not dependent on further increase in affluence.

This implies first the need to focus on enhancing non-economic factors and second, to redistribute wealth from the very rich, who do not derive happiness from it, to the poor who will gain greater corresponding happiness. Those who have satisfactory material comforts and would otherwise be happy feel envious and dissatisfied when they compare themselves with those who are even better off. This phenomenon provides an argument for reducing inequalities for greater sense of well being. Empowering the poor and deprived people to define and rate their happiness levels and satisfaction with life in an informed manner is a positive grassroots exercise in defining well being which far too long has been left to experts and bureaucrats in a top-down approach.

Economic standards in the last fifty years, particularly in the West (and recently elsewhere), have increased hugely but without corresponding increase in happiness. (This is partly due to ever-rising expectations.) On the other hand incidence of depression, breakdown of families, the lack of a feeling of community, social-psychological dissonance and lack of meaning especially among the young, which results in anomie, drug, sex and cyber addiction and so on, have increased manifold. Meaningless affluence for its own sake may actually lead to the disease of what has been called ‘affluenza’. Happiness cannot buy money but after a certain stage of material comfort money cannot buy happiness either and at that stage it is not worth buying anyway.

Prahlad Singh Shekhawat