MOSCOW BLOG: Happiness in the Garden of Eden

MOSCOW BLOG: Happiness in the Garden of Eden
The predominant economic paradigm puts growth at the heart of the model, but to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, maybe putting happiness at the centre would make more sense?
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 24, 2020

ED – The climate crisis threatens to completely change the way we live our lives. While the developed world has the resources to make changes to meet the challenge, the developing world is still focused on simply catching up with the richer nations. This is the first in a series of pieces that looks at some of the issues emerging markets face if they are going to participate in meeting this challenge.

Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world and yet the World Bank recommends it cut down its forests “sustainably” to boost growth.

“71% of #Bhutan's territory is covered in forest, but with a contribution of only about 2% to GDP per year, the forest sector remains underutilised. How can the country sustainably invest in its forests?” The World Bank said in a blog last year.

Bhutan has some of the most restrictive/progressive laws on protecting the climate in the world – depending on your perspective – even if these laws were not necessarily design specifically with environmental goals in mind, but have more to do with keeping the country beautiful.

About 51% of the total land area is legally protected and the Constitution mandates that at least 60% forest cover be maintained in perpetuity. Why? Because that is how the Karmapa wants it, the leader of the Black Hat sect of Buddhism and the counterpart to the Dalai Lama, who is the leader of the younger Yellow Hat sect.

The World Bank’s comment is telling, as all it can see is a “underutilised” resource, which can be used “more efficiently” to produce “growth.” However, being the World Bank, it is suggesting that this can be done “sustainably” and the forests can be chopped down without causing “environmental damage.”

But chopping down trees will cause environmental damage. Less trees will absorb less CO2 and add to the climate crisis problem. What the bank is suggesting in reality is limiting the damage to acceptable levels for the sake of making the population richer. At the centre of this argument is: how do we squeeze a little more growth out of Bhutan without wrecking the country’s ecology. And that thinking pervades the dominant economic model today.

The Karmapa’s priorities of “beauty” and “happiness” do not come into the equation. Ironically they do not feature in the growth model either, or rather there is an assumption that more wealth equates to more happiness.

Garden of Eden

The toss-up between happiness and material comfort is a very ancient question that goes back to the dawn of time. Human society began as hunter gathers some 60,000 years ago. The small population of the human race meant they lived in a world where there was plenty of everything. For example, megatherium, a giant sloth the size of an elephant, used to live in Australia, but after humans arrived on the seventh continent for first time about 10,000 years ago it became extinct within a few hundred years. We ate them all. The story is the same in Latin America, which was also populated by humans relatively late: all the large mammals disappeared within a few hundred years of the arrival of humans.

Scholars have argued that hunter gatherers were probably better fed and happier than humans after the Agricultural Revolution happened circa 10,000 years ago, when man learned to farm.

The hunter gatherer human’s diet was a broad mix of meat, nuts, berries, fish, fruit etc. But after man discovered farming and then cooking the diet reduced dramatically to grains and kitchen garden vegetables, plus the appearance of domesticated animals. However, the volume of food increased greatly, which led to a population boom that never ended and is still running today thanks to the succeeding agricultural revolutions. To give you an idea of how far this revolution has progressed, of all the animals that are alive today 96% comprises man and his livestock, and wild animals make up only 4% of the total animal population.

And we are on the cusp of a new agricultural revolution. When my father was born there were 1bn people on the plant. When I was born there were 3bn. When my children were born there were 7bn. And when their children are born there will be about 12bn – the upper limit of what the planet can currently feed. However, there is almost certain to be a new agricultural revolution to lift this ceiling higher. The vast wastes of Siberia and Yakutia will be covered with greenhouses to grow tomatoes in the freezing winters, for example – and indeed these projects are already being talked about by RusAgro, Russia’s leading agricultural company.

Humans are now well fed. No one in a developed market, no matter how poor, starves to death any more. But are the people any happier? In fact that since the first agricultural revolution the evidence suggests they are a lot less happy. The hunter gatherers gave up their carefree life to toil for hours a day in the field to produce the food they needed to feed their bigger populations.

The Garden of Eden story in the bible is an echo of these halcyon days. Adam and Eve can wander around and all their needs are met. Their downfall was to pick the fruit from the “tree of knowledge”, after which they were cast out of Eden – to become farmers. The implication is that this existence is a lot less pleasant and a lot more hard work than living in the Garden of Eden, although the bible doesn't say so explicitly.

Interestingly this story also hints at the animist religions that the hunter gatherers are thought to have believed in. As their livelihood came from what grew around them they believed that all things were imbued with spirits and had an equal right to life. The Garden of Eden is one of the only places in the bible where a story includes a talking animal – the snake. The advent of cultivation, especially of animals, cemented human’s dominance over the other species we share the planet with and animism gave way to theism that glorified man “created in God’s image.”

The point of the Garden of Eden story is that there is a clear pining for the ancient life when “life was easier than now.” So why would humans give up a pleasant life in the Garden of Eden for one of toil in the wheat fields? One explanation is Richard Dawkin’s “selfish gene”. The idea here is that it is our DNA, not individual humans, that are striving to perpetuate themselves. In this scenario human happiness counts for nothing. All that is important it to create the largest gene pool possible to ensure the transmission of our DNA to future generations: more food means more people and who cares if they are happy?

The “life was better in ancient times” thinking continued throughout history and was abandoned only in the last century. Our great-great-grandfathers believed that the ancients lived in a golden age. Things like the rediscovery of the ancient Greek philosophical text in the 14th century and the monumental ruins of palaces and pyramids after that was pretty convincing evidence – especially after the Dark Ages. In the 16th century the Hermes Trismegistus fraud was hugely influential during the Renaissance. His “Hermetic Corpus” was a series of writings purportedly from an ancient Greek sage containing ancient wisdom, but eventually were shown to be fake; a palimpsest of writings gathered from multiple sources and only a few hundred years old at best.

No growth

 

Perpetual growth is a new idea that has only been around since the industrial revolution. The rapid changes in society that followed the introduction of steam power soon convinced everyone that it was possible to change things for the better. The idea of “progress” was born and this was a truly revolutionary change in the way humans thought about things.
 

It was at this time that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. The key idea in that book was if a cobbler earns profits then he will investment them into hiring more workers who will make more shoes and make him more profits creating a virtuous circle of growth. This idea was brand new and we are still living under the same paradigm today.

“When an independent workman, such as a weaver or shoemaker, has got more stock than what is sufficient to purchase the materials of his own work, and to maintain himself till he can dispose of it, he naturally employs one or more journeymen with the surplus, in order to make a profit by their work. Increase this surplus, and he will naturally increase the number of his journeymen,” Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations.

 

And the industrial revolution was actually more of an agricultural revolution than anything else. The introduction of steam-powered machines was the mechanisation of agriculture that vastly increased the productivity.

Before the industrial revolution some 90% of the population lived and worked on the land. Today only 2% of the population is involved in agriculture in the developed world. Almost the entire population was suddenly freed from millennia of toiling in the field and free to go to work for Adam Smith’s rich cobblers, multiplying the growth many times over.

Although the industrial revolution began in Victorian times it took until the 1930s and '40s for industrialisation to turn society on its head. In Russia the tsarist system where some 3,000 princes lorded it over the serfs finally collapsed in 1917, whereas in the UK the landed gentry and the likes of Bertie Wooster hung on until the start of WWII. The two world wars only catalysed the mechanisation of the global economy but as a side effect created an industrial middle class that has taken over as the core of society.

The process accelerated with the advent of the widespread use of electricity. The World Fair in 1900 was a sea of light bulbs as power went into mass production. By the '60s mechanisation went up a level again with the invention of the transistor and you know the rest of the story after that.

The economic model now is driven by trying to improve the Moore’s law ratio: Moore’s law holds that the density of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, which limits the growth in the power of computers and hence our prosperity.

Happiness

Underpinning all obsession with progress is the assumption that more wealth means more happiness, but in fact there is no empirical evidence for this relation. If anything, pre-history argues the opposite is true.

The Victorian industrialisation of society may have freed millions from working on the land, but they simply moved into the slums, which led in Russia to a revolution because the workers were so unhappy with their conditions.

Since then things have become better and this century has seen many improvements for the man in the street. Even Bismarck, Germany’s famously austere Chancellor, introduced social services, universal pensions, and things such as universal healthcare and education have become commonplace.

But now the programme seems to be running off the tracks again. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the chaos caused by the collapse of the socialist experiment in the '90s the noughties were marked by a decade of optimism as the world was united for the first time by the ideology of capitalism.

However, this decade has been marked by increasing nationalism, the reappearance of fascism, the rise of illiberalism and new wars – both trade and military. What went wrong? One explanation could be: if capitalism won the Cold War then the model we should adopt going forward is more capitalism. Big corporates have flourished in their environment and been fed by the ever accelerating technological revolution that is Moore’s law.

But this is creating a new peasantry – the subscription slave. I used to be able to save my articles to my hard drive but now Apple have limited its size and is pushing me to buy storage space in the cloud. Subscriptions to things we used to take for granted are appearing everywhere, draining income and locking customers into dealing with monopolies that pay no taxes and have the politicians in their pocket. The US healthcare insurance scam is one of the most flagrant abuses of monopolistic power on the planet today.

And all this is done in the name of growth. But is it really necessary? Coming back to the Bhutanese, they have already achieved what every other country on the plant is promising to do. The EU recently adopted its “Green Deal”, which promises to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050 – far too late to prevent the climate crisis from happening, which is only eight years away.

The World Bank is looking at Bhutan and asking: can it be made wealthier? What it should be asking is: are they happy? The country is a theocracy and the Karmapa is much loved. Yes their life is simple and their per capita income is much lower than in the developed markets, but the deeply spiritual nature of the society makes it very difficult to answer the question: who is better off? The residents of Thimphu or someone that lives in Moscow, London or New York?

Clearly the economic model that puts perpetual growth at its centre has run its course as we have run out of growing room. Adam Smith’s model put no limit on the number of cobblers you could have and assumed an infinite supply of shoe leather; assumptions that are breaking down now. A new model that puts sustainability and happiness at its centre seems an obvious alternative, but we are a long way from having such a model. While developed markets are locked into their existing growth paradigms most of the emerging markets are still experimenting with the models they could employ. In this sense they are better equipped to develop sustainable growth models and environmental concerns are more prevalent, simply as environmental problems are more visible, from the smog in Beijing to the lack of landfills in Russia. Whether they rise to these challenges remains an open question.

 

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