How to be happy and save the world
29 May 2013 | Stan Rosenthal
Living a happier life isn't just good for people, it
could also hold the key to saving our planet - by encouraging us to
focus less on excessive material consumption and more on the things
that really make us happy.
First of all let there be no doubt that the world needs saving
as a habitat for human beings - and much sooner than many of us
realise. There are a number of inter-related threats to civilised
life on this planet all coming to the fore at the same time, the
most serious of which is climate change. But please read on as I
believe there can still be a happy ending...
A world sleepwalking towards disaster
Extreme weather events are now being experienced all around the
world with an unusual level of intensity and frequency. The
Washington based World Resources Institute documented over 40 such events in 2012, including Europe
suffering from the worst cold snap in a quarter of a century,
extreme flooding in Australia, Brazil, China and the Philippines, a
record low precipitation in South Australia, drought in the Sahel,
heat records being broken in the continental United States,
Hurricane Sandy hitting the US Atlantic coast and the extended
rainfall period in Britain.
But these unusually severe weather events could be just
harbingers of much worse to come if urgent steps are not taken to
curb the carbon dioxide emissions which are driving climate change.
The existing measures proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (which represents the overwhelming consensus of
scientific opinion on this matter) are designed to keep emissions
within a limit producing no more than a two degrees Centigrade rise
in global temperatures (the global temperature increase causing our
current weird weather is well below that).
Unfortunately, a report produced by the International Energy
Agency indicates that we are already generating a level of carbon emissions that is taking us
close to the two degree safety limit. It goes on to warn that if we
continue to build fossil fuelled power stations and other
infrastructure as we have been doing up till now the level of
carbon emissions for creating the two degree increase will be
reached as early as 2017 and continuing CO2 production will
inevitably take us beyond the safety limit, leading to catastrophic
climate scenarios in the decades to come.
Just a couple of weeks ago we learned that levels of
climate-warming greenhouse gas had reached 400 parts per million. To put this worrying
milestone in context, the last time the earth saw greenhouse gas
levels so high was several millions of years ago, when the Arctic
was ice-free and sea levels were tens of metres higher than
The global warming crisis is also accompanied by a resource
crisis as the world population moves towards the nine billion mark,
with everyone aspiring to the standard of living of the
West. China and India are beginning to stake their full claim
in this respect and other emerging nations will follow. These extra
demands on the world's finite levels of fossil fuels, minerals, raw
materials, and inputs for food growing were already being felt
before the 2008 financial crisis in the shape of steep rises in
their prices. The rise in food prices, in particular, caused riots
around the world, most notably in Tunisia where they were partly
responsible for the Arab Spring. Pressures on resources (and the
related price rises) have been eased somewhat by the recession
following the financial crisis but will no doubt be resumed once
the global economy recovers.
Can happiness help to save the world?
So what has all this to do with happiness you may well ask? The
simple answer is that if enough people switch to being truly happy
in the way described elsewhere on this site the gloom and doom
scenarios outlined above can potentially be avoided. This is
because being truly happy does not require the sort of hyper
consumption that is the driving force behind the escalation in CO2
levels and the depletion of the world's resources at an
The new science of happiness has also revealed that above a
certain level of material comfort you do not need more to be
happier. Indeed the pursuit of wealth beyond this point can be at
the expense of things that really matter in your life, like good
relationships, caring for loved ones, indulging in creative
activities and enjoying the simpler things in life, not to mention
one's responsibilities to the rest of the community.
In the richer countries, like the US and the UK, measures of
happiness show that levels of life satisfaction have not increased
despite very significant growth in income per capita. There is
therefore ample scope for redistributing some of this additional
wealth to help lift people out of poverty, for enhancing the
quality of living (as opposed to the standard of living) and for
reducing the pressures on the planet's finite resources and
life-support system. The major change that is required is for the
goal of modern society to be switched from just maximising material
prosperity to instead maximising people's overall well-being, as is
now being advocated by the United Nations and the OECD, among others.
One potential blueprint for how such a change can be made is
the Prosperity without Growth report published
by the UK's Sustainable Development Commission, before it was
abolished by the present government. The bad news is that
politicians are unlikely to act upon these, or other similar,
recommendations unless there is a huge groundswell of opinion from
the public at large urging them to make Gross National Happiness
not a rising GNP our priority.
Action for Happiness is playing its part in making the change by
showing that happiness does not lie in the rat race for riches and
pressing for a cultural shift to a less materialistic way of life.
However we need many more supporters if we are to have the desired
impact in the relatively short period of time in which the shift
needs to be made. In my view raising our numbers to the required
levels can only be done by introducing a sense of urgency into
joining the movement. And this urgency can be best achieved by
presenting what we are doing not only as a way of finding true
happiness and creating a happier society but also as a means of
helping to solve the enormous environmental problems that confront
If this wider dimension were to be explicitly included in our
message then our rallying cry would surely become... Be
Happy AND Save the World!
Stan Rosenthal is an environmental campaigner and political
advisor. He has been a supporter and member of the Action for Happiness
movement since launch.
Live life mindfully, Be part of something bigger, Be a Happiness Activist