Tag Archives: ecological footprint

Consumption and happiness

54-happinessThe search for happiness really is as old as our species and, quite understandably, has a major influence on our actions. It therefore sounds logical that, if we want more control over our brains, we should start by understanding what makes us happy.

In this first happiness post, we will look at one possible road to happiness: increased consumption. This topic is covered first simply because the actions of the world appear to suggest that increased consumption is the primary goal of human existence.

People will do extraordinary things for money and the things money can buy. Actually, our entire way of life (our fundamentally flawed system of perpetual exponential economic expansion) is based on the assumption that increased consumption will improve the human condition. This is what economic growth is. Increased GDP = increased consumption.

Naturally, lots of research has been done on the connection between money and happiness. The following main findings have been reported:

  • People in richer nations are happier than people in poorer nations
  • Increases in national wealth within developed nations have not, over recent decades, been associated with increases in happiness
  • Within-nation differences in wealth show small positive correlations with happiness
  • Increases in personal wealth do not typically result in increased happiness
  • People who strongly desire wealth and money are more unhappy than those who do not

So, can money buy happiness? From the data, the answer is yes … up to a point – a point that most developed world citizens have long since crossed.

Data collected by the good people who put together the Happy Planet Index shows this trend quite clearly. Initial increases in GDP per capita (personal consumption) cause strong increases in happiness, but further increases have progressively smaller influences.

Happiness vs wealth

When plotting the number of happy life years (happiness multiplied by life expectancy) achieved by the average person against the ecological damages caused in the process, a very similar pattern emerges. It is therefore clear that increasing ecological footprints bring longer and happier lives only up to a point.

Happy life years vs ecological footprint

In addition, measurements of average happiness over time also confirm that gradual increases in material consumption over time bring little or no happiness. This trend for the USA has featured quite regularly on this blog.


But still, income remains a small, albeit significant, factor in determining happiness within nations, implying that it is not so much the absolute consumption that influences happiness, but more the relative consumption. Our very sad “keeping up with the Joneses” dynamic therefore appears to decrease the happiness of those who perceive themselves to have inferior material possessions relative to their peers.

Keeping up with the Joneses

But the primary point that should be taken away from these data is that, in developed nations, consumption only has a very minor influence on happiness. Inflicting further damages on our planet through even more unsustainable consumption will not bring any more happy life years. As we will discuss in the next post, happiness can be gained much more easily in much more ecologically intelligent ways.  

Filed under: Mental control – Happiness

Health: Potential for global crisis mitigation

The primary aim of the One in a Billion project is to contribute to the mitigation of the multifaceted sustainability crisis bearing down on us (summarized here). As discussed in the first action plan post, each of the ten major categories covered in the One in a Billion project will be closed by three posts discussing the potential for crisis mitigation, the benefits to individuals implementing the strategy and the primary resistances to change that individuals are likely to experience. This first post will look at the potential for crisis mitigation under five categories:

  • Climate change – carbon footprint reduction
  • Resource depletion – ecological footprint reduction
  • Economic crisis – sovereign debt reduction
  • Social inequality – increase in social mobility
  • Societal complexity – reduction in interdependence and increase in adaptability

The estimates given below represent the potential impact if the average American implemented these strategies and reduced his/her need for healthcare by a factor of five. As discussed in some previous posts (1, 2, 3), this is certainly possible and, as illustrated in the figure below, a number of countries already spend less than 20% of the massive American sum while actually achieving a greater lifespan (you can also confirm this yourself on Gapminder.org). (American statistics are used simply due to the large pool of available data.)

Climate change

Living a healthy lifestyle based on a nutrient-rich plant-based diet and more travelling on foot or by bicycle can truly make tremendous dents in the average carbon footprint, but this will be covered in subsequent categories. Here we will only look at the carbon footprint of actual medical services themselves. The US healthcare sector accounts for roughly 8% of total CO2 emissions, implying that the American carbon footprint could be cut by 6.4% if people simply looked after themselves. 

Resource depletion

About 4.3% of the American ecological impact comes from medicine, implying that a factor of five reduction in health service consumption could slice off a good 3.4%. 

Economic crisis

This is the area in which better health can make the biggest direct impact. Based on the 2011 budget, the US currently pays about 36% of its tax revenues directly back in the form of Medicare and Medicaid. A healthy population would require about 20% of this sum, allowing the US to slash its spending by $668 billion (18.6% of total spending) and slash the humongous budget deficit by 53%. In addition, the increased productivity from a healthy population would increase the tax base. The average American worker takes about 14 days of sick leave per year for own illness and to care for the illness of a family member. Cutting this number by a factor of 5 gives 11 extra days or about 4.5% extra working time. If this translates in a 4.5% increase in the tax base, another $104 billion could be collected to further reduce the deficit. 

Social inequality

Illness is a massive problem for poor people and this is where a culture of excellent personal health can work miracles. Such a culture of excellent personal health within the billion wealthiest individuals will make healthy living a whole lot easier by forcing government and private enterprise to adapt to consumer demand and greatly increase the availability and affordability of organic plant-based whole foods instead of processed meat-based junk foods. This will make healthy living much more accessible to the poor, giving them an honest chance at the radiant health required to build a much better life. 

Societal complexity

Poor health significantly increases the interdependence and vulnerability of society. A person on five different kinds of permanent medication is completely dependent on the manufacturers of this medication, the insurance company financing this medication and the science behind it (which is sometimes dangerously sloppy). On the other hand, healthy individuals are fully independent and will be able to adapt to the future environmental, economic and societal shocks that are heading our way. 

In summary

  • Climate change – 6.4% reduction in carbon footprint
  • Resource depletion – 3.4% reduction in ecological footprint
  • Economic crisis – $772 billion (33.5% of total tax base) saved and gained
  • Social inequality – large potential to alleviate inequality
  • Societal complexity – large reduction in interdependence and increase in adaptability

Understanding the threat

It really is vitally important that people understand the significant amount of trouble we are in already today – mid 2012. Very briefly summarized, the problem looks like this (click here for a more complete version):

Our economic system must grow every single year for it to continue existing. If the nominal GDP stops growing, unemployment will rise, people will not be able to pay back their extraordinary amounts of debt and the entire system will implode. The fact is, however, that perpetual exponential growth will run headlong into fixed planetary boundaries probably within this decade. This will cause the cost of living to spike as never before, plunging hundreds of millions into poverty and have hundreds of millions more fighting for their very survival.

In order to prevent this from happening, our civilisation requires massive infrastructure investments in the sectors of renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, water management, waste management, clean transportation, clean industry and green urbanization. Unfortunately, however, our labor market is structured totally for consumerism and is therefore totally incapable of pulling this off.

If you look at the labor market of any developed country, you will see that we manufacture/produce almost nothing. The vast majority of the labor market is in the service sector, designed to bring goods produced by other nations to local consumers as effectively as possible. In the USA for example, less than 2% of the workforce are qualified as engineers/architects implying that, even if we miraculously manage to scrape together the money, we most certainly don’t have the manpower required to construct this massive amount of new infrastructure.

Meanwhile, our already unsustainable carbon footprint, ecological footprint, debt, social inequality and societal complexity continue to rise year in and year out. How long do you think we can keep this up?

Filed under: Introduction – Key concepts

Crunch some numbers

People (and counties) are constantly measuring themselves up against each other. This can be a good thing and lead to some healthy progress, but unfortunately, we tend to measure progress and prosperity in all the wrong ways.

People (and countries) still value conspicuous consumption very highly. For individuals, this can be reflected in a massive house, many fancy cars and a walk-in wardrobe with enough clothes and shoes to open a small retail outlet. For countries, it is that all-important measure called GDP.

Now there is nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, but if most of the contestants in the race are running in the wrong direction, you have a problem. The real goal is a happy, healthy, wealthy and sustainable life, but unfortunately, most of us are constantly becoming unhappier, unhealthier, more broke and an ever-growing burden on the planet.

The fundamental mindset that has gotten us running in the wrong direction is called consumerism. As we have discussed before, consumerism does not bring any happiness and presents a big threat to our environment, our economy and our social structures. We really have to start running in the right direction.

The correct measures of individual success are linked on the right-hand sidebar of this blog under “lifestyle calculators” and the correct measure of success for a country is called the Happy Planet Index. Please determine how you are faring in this crucial race and then please make a commitment to at least start running in the right direction.

Filed under: Introduction – Key concepts

Growth vs. prosperity

This is a very important distinction to be made on our way to a more sustainable life. In practice, growth means “more”, while prosperity means “better”. Sustainable living demands that we consistently choose prosperity over growth. 

Unfortunately, our society has become totally obsessed with growth. We see 5000 advertising messages per day screaming at us to buy more stuff, our malls are filled with “bargains” trying to get us to buy things that we don’t even need, and low-cost-low-quality consumables of all kinds are now so common that it has become the norm to replace our entire arsenal of miscellaneous stuff yearly.

With regard to the environment, growth implies that we consume more and more planetary resources (both because growth-oriented consumables are so cheap and because they break all the time), while prosperity implies the exact opposite.

When looking at the economy, low quality, growth-oriented products derive their price from the planetary resources they are made of, while high quality, prosperity-oriented products derive their value from the labour needed to develop and produce products of real quality.

And when it comes to personal finances, high quality, long-lasting products will often actually work out cheaper in the long run becuase they have a very long lifetime and tend to run much more cost-effectively.

Choosing prosperity over growth therefore implies that we will take less from the environment while simultaneously increasing the number of jobs in the economy and raising the standard of living of individual consumers. Pretty handy combo, right?

So, next time you are out shopping, make our world a better place by choosing prosperity over growth.

Filed under: Introduction – Key concepts

Consumerism and happiness

So, thus far we have seen that consumerism leads to major ecological, economic and societal problems, but has still managed to become completely ingrained into our way of life. There must be a good reason for this and, if the advertising industry is to be believed, this reason must be euphoric happiness through consumption.

Unfortunately though, research has clearly shown that developed nations are not becoming any happier despite them consuming like we had 4 planets and leaving carbon footprints 10 times that which is sustainable.

It has even been shown that very happy people are on the decline with rising consumption, especially among women.

So, in effect we are killing our planet, ruining our economy and creating massive social inequality all for no reward whatsoever. And, as discussed quite often on this blog, this massive over-consumption also ruins our health, personal finances and creative capacity.

I don’t know about you, but to me this qualifies as utter insanity. We desperately need to break out of this very dangerous and self-destructive cultural trance.

Filed under: Introduction

Consumerism as an institution

As we have seen in the previous three posts, consumerism is the primary driver of our environmental, economic and societal problems. It lies at the root of every major global crisis, but, on the flipside, also represents the single best channel through which we can most effectively save our world.

Unfortunately, consumerism is now accepted as the totally unquestioned norm in developed nations. It is completely normal and totally accepted to consume like we had five planets, leave a carbon footprint 10 times that which is sustainable, be neck-deep in debt, live from paycheck to paycheck to try and keep up with the Joneses and to seek riches through speculation instead of production.

In addition, our politicians are fueling our consumerism with inflationary monetary policy, artificially low interest rates and excessive government spending. Yep, consumerism has indeed grown to become a worldwide institution.

It is vital for the future of our civilization that people become aware of the hazards of unchecked consumerism. And it is even more important that people realize that consumerism is the single biggest thing standing between them and a happy, healthy and wealthy life.

Please become mindful of this threat/opportunity. The series of Youtube videos starting with this one is a good place to start. You can also take a look at the summary of our sustainability crisis or the reasons why our current society is guaranteed to collapse.

Filed under: Introduction