19 January 2011

Documentary Review: The Economics of Happiness

The Economics of Happiness is a new documentary by Helena Norberg-Hodge that offers a simple, though not easy, solution to our current environmental, economic and social malaise. It features the voices of many familiar names: Richard Heinberg, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibbon and Rob Hopkins to name a few. The film starts off by showing us Ladakh, a remote Himalayan region of India where the people have long experienced a high quality of life and wellbeing until the past several decades when the forces of globalization have resulted in a loss of connection to the land and community. We see the rural Ladakhis living in idyllic, harmonious environments, with huge smiles, while the urbanites suffer from unemployment, inequality and pollution.

The Economics of Happiness lays out a very clear case that globalization is a major cause of much environmental, economic and personal distress and a relocalization of our lives and economies is the solution. We've been brainwashed into believing that globalization is the cure for poverty in less developed countries and that economic growth is the cure for everything in developed countries. Of course, all of this globalizing and growing is just large corporations taking advantage of our insatiable appetites for more and better to strip us of our private and common wealth and concentrate it in fewer and fewer hands. Governments and corporations are in cahoots to keep us striving for more money, more stuff, and more security. As long as we're striving, we're spending and working. And we're willing to work more and in poorer conditions. Perhaps the higher-minded of us can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that at least some poor person in the global south has had their life improved by having our old job. Sadly, the working and living conditions forced on the new corporate employee hasn't made up for the loss of her land to unfair subsidies or outright theft by multinationals. Corporations have hijacked the business of governments so that trade agreements are drafted and regulations eliminated in order that the largest companies in the world can pursue their money making agendas unhindered.

One point that I found particularly interesting was how inefficient globalization actually is. We've been told that we've reached the pinnacle of efficiency by offshoring and outsourcing, but there is astonishing waste in a system that routinely transports goods thousands of miles, sometimes multiple times for the same item. Fish caught in Canada is shipped to China for processing and back to Canada for sale. Many food items that are routinely imported are also exported in similar quantities. It is a bit ironic that an apple that has traveled from South Africa to Canada can cost less than one grown within an hour's drive. All of this transportation represents vast resource consumption and pollution that could all be eliminated by producing goods for local markets.

The Economics of Happiness challenges the notion that globalization has benefitted the third world. Instead it demonstrates that globalization concentrates wealth in the hands of the rich at the expense of poorer people who are forced to resettle in urban slums with little job security, while being bombarded with the message that they are inadequate and their cultures are backward. Of course, these messages of inadequacy are ubiquitous in the developed world as well, causing many people to frantically pursue more and bigger and better.

Normally, I'm cynical about the hopeful ending of documentaries which so often feel like they've been tacked onto the end so the viewers don't kill themselves after watching the first three quarters. This film has a very clear message though: globalization is bad for everyone and everything except corporate profits and localization is good. Local food, local culture and local business all contribute to greater connections with nature and community which results in greater happiness. The “what you can do” part of the film doesn't seem like an add-on so much as the logical conclusion. Whether the message gets through to enough people to make any difference is another thing (and perhaps a more important one). Transition towns, eco-villages and peasant movements are all mentioned.

I agreed with almost everything said in the film, which made me suspicious that I enjoyed it as much as I did because of my own confirmation bias. I did feel that although the filmmakers are proposing a huge change in the way we live, they really haven't gone far enough. I completely agree that industrial globalization has accelerated the destruction of the planet as well as making a lot of the world pretty unhappy, and I completely agree that relocalizing our daily lives is necessary and inevitable, but I don't see how it will happen in any significant way before it is forced on us by peak oil and economic collapse. The status quo is being tenaciously defended by politicians, business people, educators and the mainstream media so meaningful change may not happen until some crisis or other reveals the horrible mistake we make by trusting our children's future to large corporations. As long as folks in the rich world refuse to relinquish their sense of entitlement to consume as much of the planet's resources as they can afford, I'd say the relocalization movement will stay on the fringe. We can only hope that those who have decided to go down that road now will be willing to guide the rest of us when the time comes.

I was lucky enough to see a review copy of the documentary, but you can check The Economics of Happiness website for information on screenings near you. Be warned - you'll be thinking about this movie for a long time and you'll never hear another political speech or trade agreement the same way again.


  1. Thanks for the heads up, I look forward to seeing this in its entirety.

  2. Yes, thanks from me too. There's an awesome annual documentary film festival here that's coming up in March; hopefully they'll show this one. As a pre-festival fundraiser, they're screening 'Inside Job' on Wednesday. Have you seen it?

  3. I haven't seen 'Inside Job' but I did just watch 'Plunder, The Crime of Our Time', which kind of sounds like it might cover much of the same territory. Also I recently read 'Griftopia' by Matt Taibbi, which I would highly recommend. Actually, I would highly recommend anything by Matt Taibbi. He writes for Rolling Stone magazine where you can find some good examples of his work.

    The rot in the system is sure starting to stink. You gotta wonder why there aren't riots in the street a la Tunisia, but now I'm starting to sound like JHK.

    I'm playing with the idea of hosting a screening of EOH myself.



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