Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Politics of Happiness

In a couple of days, the U.S. elections will be decided. As has been the case for more than a decade, many races are so close that the difference between winners and losers depends mostly on who is most motivated to actually vote. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that no matter who wins, at least half of us will lose. From a big picture perspective, however, all of us will lose, because virtually all the competitors have a fundamentally flawed worldview that practically guarantees it.

This worldview, that there are no limits to what can potentially be done to increase human happiness, is tempered only by the answers to questions that define people's values and seem to most influence how they vote. Such questions include: how much influence any of us should have over the happiness (and survival) of others; what, if any, is the minimum amount of happiness society should tolerate; and who (or what) can be denied the means of attaining happiness. If the worldview is right, then the proper application of ingenuity, effort, and social engineering by a society can sustain unending growth in the happiness of its members in accordance with its values.

The flaw in the worldview is the dependency between happiness and ecological impact: as happiness increases, we use greater and greater amounts of resources other species need to both survive and keep the world habitable. Over the past forty years, we've used so much that those species are going extinct at an alarming rate. Continuing and accelerating this trend is already endangering our own species, exemplified (but by no means limited to) the destabilizing effects of carbon pollution on the world's climate. As more species die off, and we directly consume many of the rest, the world will become so difficult to live on that our own life expectancy – and happiness, which is proportional to it – will reach a maximum and then drop in response, along with the number of people on the planet.

Worldwide, more people are getting this message, and are actively finding ways to at least become more efficient with how much happiness they get for the ecological resources they consume. Here in the U.S., we're still like adolescents who want the advantages of adulthood without the responsibilities, taking from our mother (Earth) without paying our own way. Other nations, such as the oldest in Europe, have experienced the consequences of overburdening their environments and learned to live within limits; we petulantly deride them for not being growth-oriented enough, not acknowledging that it is because they have already grown up.

Whatever the results of this year's election, we all need to work toward creating a healthier, more enlightened world, beginning with the people and places we personally interact with. Changing the dominant worldview is key to this; otherwise we will see a growing number of people lose much more in the years ahead.