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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. 

Save The Humans

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 today.

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 unsustainable rate.

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 us.

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.




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