Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: The Economics of Happiness

A new movie to burst on the scene, The Economics of Happiness, gives one the opportunity of an hours contemplation on the role of local economies, global economies, the mad rush of modern life, the simplicity of rural traditional villages, happiness, contentment, feelings of well-being and connection with our fellow travelers through life, etc. Does globalization make us happy or unhappy, give us security or insecurity, etc? Do all the gadgets and gizmos of modern life bring happiness, or are they a false panacea leaving us wanting more?

One major theme the movie revisits over and over is the people of Ladakh, in Tibet. The main narrator explains she's been working with the people there for a couple decades. When she first arrived the people were happy, they all had plenty of food, plenty of free time, large houses, etc. Then the Chinese built a subsidized road to their area, brought in subsidized food in subsidized trucks with subsidized fuel, and the local economy collapsed to become subservient to the global economy.
In essence that's what has happened everywhere over the last 500 years beginning with the European colonization of the world. That colonization led to the giant mega transnational corporations we have today and today's demand for deregulation and globalization is simply a lather-rinse-repeat cycle of the global economic powers subverting local economies and entrapping the people into global economic relationships.

This is how the movie makers interpret e.g. the colonization era. In the colonized nations, whether they were African or South American or Asian etc, there were local self-reliant communities, world-wide. Each were able to feed themselves and each had local cultural practices and languages which fit the local conditions. But the colonizers purpose was to build global economic power systems, just as todays transnational corporations still work to build and maintain global economic power systems. What's different are the mechanisms and scale, but it's the same pattern.

The movie makers suggest that this pattern is bad in many ways. It destroys local connections, local values, local self reliance, and so on. It makes us unhappy, breeds insecurity, accelerates climate change, destroys livelihoods, etc.

Globalization is defined as: 1) The deregulation of trade and finance in order to enable businesses and banks to operate globally; 2) The emergence of a single world market dominated by transnational companies. It is said to be the most powerful force for change in the world today.
Globalization would not be so horrid if it weren't for the massive scale world-side shipping industry that can whizz stuff around the world in a flash. A bit of ridiculosity the movie discusses is some of the globalized transactions that seem utterly ridiculous. For example Tuna that's caught in the U.S., shipped to China for processing, then shipped back to the U.S. Or Apples grown in England, shipped to South Africa to be waxed, then shipped back to England.

Because of this transportation system we're now sitting in each others laps. One reason traditional local economies worked is due to the inefficient transportation of former times. But as transportation became global, especially over the last 20-30 years, it would naturally affect local economies. Transportation technology is what puts us in contact with our brethren on the other side of the world.
The last third of the movie presented many leading figures in the relocalization movement talking about the value of local economies, local food, local culture, and so on. Many of the people preaching relocalization came to it via peak oil or climate change, but the movie discussed it as a reawakening of traditional culture.

What does humanity lose when it loses a local tradition, or a local language? Just as biodiversity helps forests etc be more resilient, so too would cultural diversity help our global society be more resilient. In theory. What are we losing by heading towards a monoculture where every place is the same as every other place?

The Economics of Happiness is on a world-wide tour at this time, and local screenings are being arranged around the world. Visit the web site for more information.