Tag Archives: happiness

Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.


I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

Here Comes the Stuff

Don’t buy me any gifts for the holiday season.

Not that you were planning to (I assume!), but that’s not the point. I’m “consumed,” as it were, by the quantity of things surrounding me and by emotions like garbage guilt. I look around at most of the stuff in store windows and catalogs, and realize that, not only do I not need most of it, I don’t even want a lot of it. Our place is full. If anything, we need to shed possessions. Clothes we rarely wear. Books we rarely read. (Why is it so hard to get rid of books?) Sentimental things we’ve been given but don’t know where to put. Unthinking things we’ve been given and would rather not find a place for.

I’m happy that we have no hamburger-patty-maker type kitchen appliances, and not only because we don’t have anywhere to store them.

When I look at those things, I can’t help it: I see all the materials and energy that went into making them, and I see the space indefinitely occupied in the landfills that they’ll end up in, often sooner rather than later. That’s what I mean by garbage guilt.

Yeah, I know that’s no way to look at a festive season, or at the well wishes and good intentions of those who give gifts. Bah humbug, Grinch and all that. But really I’m happy with – and prefer to have – those well wishes of my relatives and friends, just without the material encumbrances. Let’s have a meal or go to a movie together. Or send a donation to a charity.

Plus I’m picky and hard to buy for, but that’s another topic entirely.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss




Our apartment is decent sized by NYC standards, though tiny, I’m sure, compared to many a suburban home. It’s certainly much larger than Graham Hill’s Life Edited apartment ten blocks away or many of the other micro digs featured these days in TreeHugger and Inhabitat. But it’s overflowing with stuff, as is our storage space crosstown. Factor in that I’d much rather be a minimalist, and it really doesn’t (or does!) add up.

And this is without venturing into the even more guilt ridden point that there are others who need things far more than I do. So I don’t think I’m being a killjoy in dampening the consumer wave.  (You know, the one that’s supposed to rescue the economy.) What’s the point in having (or being given) something you don’t need – or worse, don’t like? Actually, I think the concept is quite positive.

When you start looking at stuff this way, it quickly becomes a weight on your shoulders. I don’t want go all Buddhist or something on you, but I truly think I’d be happier with fewer material things. I’m not alone in that either. On Grist.org this week, a post is titled “Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed.” But Greg (the author of the post) and I are apparently far from the norm. His idea was deemed so unusual that it warranted not one, but two, film crews and interviews.

Like Greg, I grew up with a mountain of gifts, piled in our case beneath a “Hannukah bush.” (In my teen years, we developed early eco traditions of using the Sunday “Funnies” for wrapping paper and buying live trees, which I would lug out the patio door and plant in the back yard on New Year’s Day – having dug the hole at Thanksgiving.) I remember not being able to sleep on the Christmas Eve when I strongly suspected there was a train set awaiting me on sawhorses in the basement. For theoretically Jewish kids, we made out great. Of course the holidays should be joyous for kids and gifts are part of that. But let it be things with meaning, not plastic throw-aways. I loved that train set and spent many a weekend building elaborate landscapes for it. There were many other gifts, though, whose longevity could be counted in hours.

Fortunately I don’t work in a company where we have Secret Santas. If I did, would it be acceptable for the wrapping to enclose a card acknowledging a charity donation? Or perhaps a gift certificate to a local business? I’d be plenty happy receiving either.

However, if you’re still unconvinced, there are of course things I covet. (That enlightened I’m not.)  But they tend to be expensive and electronic, so I’ll settle for a fun dinner at a local joint.

Less is More, More or Less

Thanksgiving, the celebration of bounty, seemed a completely appropriate time to contemplate the corollary concept of enough. Hence one of my tasks for the weekend (why do I always think a day or two off, or even a long plane flight, will give me the time to catch up on everything?) was to read the advance copy of Enough Is Enough sent me by co-author Rob Dietz. A bit overoptimistic I was. I’ll blame the lingering L-tryptophan effect. But I’ve only missed the goal by a bit.

Dietz is the executive director of an organization called CASSE or the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, a mouthful as large as the (first) slice of leftover pumpkin pie I had for breakfast on several of the days following the feast. “Enough Is Enough” rolls off the tongue much more easily (than CASSE, not pumpkin pie), and the strong, memorable title makes me almost wish CASSE would change its name to accompany the book.

The basic tenet of the steady state economy (or SSE) is an observation that makes complete sense: you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system. Unfortunately, conventional economics – perhaps in an attempt to defy its characterization as the dismal science – says otherwise. Its faith in unending growth portrays it as both possible and desirable.

EcoOptimism, though based (obviously) in optimism, doesn’t subscribe to this delusional belief in the virtues of growth. In another post, I’ll discuss how that self-serving faith is actually more akin – as faith-based ideas tend to be – to a religion than it is to a science. So much so that, in attempting to escape the “dismal science” moniker by being less dismal, conventional economics may have instead lost its reasoned science aspect.

What’s in a name?

Part of the politically untouchable faith in growth derives from the positive nature of the word growth. How could growth possibly be bad or undesirable? And, even after proving that it is, finding an appealing word or phrase to convey that idea is a difficult task, yielding less than positive terms. Ungrowth? Uh uh. Degrowth? No better. Is the opposite of growth diminishment? Nothing appealing in that. Another suggested term, post-growth, gets warmer, but still doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

And so we get to steady state economics. Though it ain’t exactly catchy ( as noted above) SSE at least doesn’t succumb to easy connotations of negativism and survives the first round of sound bite tests. Steadiness, especially when compared to the booms and busts of recent history, has much to be said for itself.

Going Steady

But the goal of SSE is not so much to steady the rough ride of economic cycles as it is the creation of a path for continuing human growth within the constraints of an amazing yet finite planet. And it’s also more than (merely) achieving sustainability. It is the decoupling of economic growth from human flourishing. It is the enabling not just of a future, but of a positive future.

We already know that happiness (yes, I know that’s a mushy subjective quality, but there actually are ways to define and measure it) does not correlate with economic growth, at least not in the long run. In the richer nations (the “developed” world), where essential needs have largely been met, the acquisition of more material things does not lead to happier or more fulfilled lives. And acquiring things is, after all, an integral part of material growth and its measure, the appropriately named Gross Domestic Product. But even with this knowledge (which is not nearly widely enough known), how is the iconoclastic case against growth made? And accepted?

I have nearly the same image in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, but this is from Enough Is Enough












There’s been a plethora of books on this topic of late. I’ve written about some of them before: Prosperity Without Growth, The End of Growth, Plenitude, eearth, et. al. But in virtually every case, what’s been missing from the iron-clad arguments has been an accompanying roadmap. We have a general idea of where we want to go, but no idea – especially not a convincing one – how to get there.

Indeed, this shortcoming is a major part of the purpose behind EcoOptimism. Along with the lack of concrete steps, I’ve been positing that we need verbal descriptions and perhaps graphic illustrations (I must still be in a Thanksgiving state of mind because that made me think of the “twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one” from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant — but I digress) depicting what our un/re/de/post-growth future will look like.

Happily, Dietz and co-author Dan O’Neill have brought us much closer to answering the how-the-hell-do-we-get-there question. Each chapter in the section “Strategies of Enough” as well as most of the chapters in the third section “Advancing the Economy of Enough” begin by asking “What Are We Doing?” and proceed to “What Could We Do Instead?” Then they move to the part I devoured each time: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Dietz and O’Neill are, of course, thoroughly familiar with the concepts of a Steady State Economy. But, they write, “we had been asking ourselves for some time how a steady-state economy would work in practice.” What are “the policies and transition strategies that would turn [a SSE] vision into a reality?” Those questions, as it happens, are the same ones I’ve been asking since I started focusing on the “New Economy.”

They’ve done a terrific job on the second question. First they demolish the conventional argument that growth is the solution to poverty, poor education and unrepresentative rule as well as pollution (the argument proffered by groups like the WTO and mainstreamed by Bjorn Lomberg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist). Toss out the convenient and misleading metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Our economic history strongly declares otherwise.

Responding to the Econ 101 tenet “Market prices give no reason to believe that natural resources are a limit to economic growth,” they almost literally scream “This statement may be true, but it reveals more about the failure of markets than the absence of limits!” This is the core of an argument many of us have been making in various forms for years: a “free” market can work only if everything is priced accurately. And our current markets, which consider almost every resource and service provided by nature to be free, are far from that point. “Prices often fail to capture the effect of resource depletion, waste generation, and loss of ecosystem services. As a result, the market sends improper signals—if it sends any signal at all—regarding the sustainability of throughput levels. We need to eliminate this market failure….”

What’s Enough?

Making economic growth the measure and the goal does humanity a huge disservice. Growth, in the gross unqualified version that we currently reflexively strive for, is a false god asking us to sacrifice everything (our lives, our planet) in search of a future nirvana that cannot possibly be the result. The problem, putting aside such relevant constraints as physics and, yes, economics, is that we’ve set our goal on the wrong sight. “More” is not only unachievable; it is undesirable. And the opposite of more is not less; it’s enough – provided that what we achieve enough of is what we in fact need to grow qualitatively. This becomes a two-part question: first, what is “enough,” meaning what sates us and leaves us better off than we started and, second, how do we get to that state?

We can continue the overly obvious Thanksgiving analogy here. For most of us, the quantity of the food leaves us with that content but overstuffed lagginess and perhaps the feeling that we overdid it. We certainly could live without it, though most of us would choose not to. Why? Because we enjoy the ritual, the company … and the food. What, more precisely, is it that makes the holiday so valued to so many? It’s not the amounts of food that we often wish we had exercised a bit more willpower to resist. It’s the circumstance, the associations and the experience (both social and sensorial), not the amount of food. In a crude way, this sums up the difference between the economy of growth and the economy of enough. Economic growth, after a point, does not translate to improved well-being. And after that point – the point at which basic life needs have been met — our economic and social goals should change course.

This does not by any means signify stagnation, which is perhaps the main problem with the term steady state – it’s vulnerable to being misinterpreted as a call to sacrifice. In reality, it’s the opposite of sacrifice; it’s finding the true value and measure of progress. As Dietz and O’Neil more succinctly put it: “the economy can develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively.”

It’s People!

Environmentalists all know that our problems stem from the combination of too much consumption (or rather, unnecessary and inefficient consumption primarily by people in the rich nations) and too many people (who, increasingly, are in the poorer nations). And therefore any real solution has to address both problems.  While the first part is certainly key, the second part – population growth – is the elephant in the room. It’s an incredibly delicate and laden topic. To its credit, Enough Is Enough doesn’t skip over it, as most such discussions do. “We need smaller footprints but,” they emphasize, “we also need fewer feet.”

The authors underscore the point that the number of unintentional pregnancies in the world each year (80 million) is equivalent to the annual growth of the human population. This means we don’t need to dive into heavy-handed intrusive programs like the Chinese one-child-per-family rule. We can achieve steady population through education and voluntary birth control.

The Role of Wall Street

When I discuss ecodesign in my classes, I emphasize that there are two ways to approach changing the environmental impact of a product. One is the “tweak,” which involves one or more relatively small and incremental changes to the design. The other is the “innovation,” which demands rethinking the problem (often by rephrasing the question) to find alternative ways of achieving the result the product provides. Often this leads to what has come to be called disruptive technology, a fancy phrase for a new way to do something that reduces the old to history. Think Internet versus encyclopedias. Or 3D printing replacing mass production.

I found myself categorizing the suggestions within Enough Is Enough the same way. Many of their proposals required minor alterations to our current ways of doing things. Others, though, are more like the “square one” approach. For instance, in the chapter “Enough Debt,” they propose some fundamental changes to how the financial world operates, ranging from the technical (requiring reserves on loans to be 100%) to the structural (decreasing the size and power of financial institution below the “too big to fail” level and – here comes the part that will elicit protests of socialism – democratizing the means of production).

Instead of hailing and idolizing the financial arena as the source of investment and growth as we currently do, the authors say we should be viewing it as a cost. “The fewer resources needed to accomplish this service [helping money to flow where it’s needed in the economy], the better off society is. So we should aim to minimize the cost represented by the financial sector—it should account for as small a percentage of total economic activity as possible.” We’ve come to see the financial world as an end in itself (how’s the market doing today?), forgetting in the process that its purpose is to be a means to the improvement of our lives. “Instead of focusing on using money to make more money, financiers should be focusing on serving a stable economy, an equitable society, and a healthy biosphere.”

Enough is (Almost) Enough

Enough Is Enough does an admirable job of making the off-putting topic of SSE much more approachable and enticing, but (ironically) leaves me still wanting more. The authors fully understand that “for people to embrace the concept of a steady-state economy, they need to understand how it would work and why it would be preferable to what they’ve become accustomed to.” They’ve brought us much closer to this point, but I came away still wanting to know what it will feel like and look like and how we will experience it.

This shortcoming – and I’m nitpicking through an exceptional book – strengthens the underlying need for what I see as a primary mission of the EcoOptimism blog: providing that visceral taste of a positive future. Enough Is Enough lays the policy groundwork. Now we need to make it concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).

Dietz and O’Neill write “An enlightened transformation to a steady-state economy is a profoundly hopeful prospect.” Not one of doom and gloom or involving sacrificing the “American way of life.” The overriding need is to develop and successfully present this thoroughly desirable future so that we will pursue it, not because we have to but because we want to. Enough Is Enough is a major step on that path.

Enough Is Enough will be released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers on January 7, 2013


The Growth Schism: Could a Sound Bite Save the World?

This being election season (good thing it’s also the season for apples – I’m partial to Macouns — and pumpkin pie or I’d have to call it my least favorite season), let’s pose this topic with a relevant question. Suppose you’re a political candidate with both an economic and an environmental agenda – and want to not just make a statement but have a real chance at election. Your environmental background tells you that growth, as in economic growth, is a huge issue. You understand that continuous growth on a finite planet is a physical impossibility that will inevitably lead to a human disaster. (So much for EcoOptimism, or so it would seem.)

But you also know that growth, because it ostensibly leads to much needed jobs, is a political given. That’s why you’ll never hear a candidate come out against growth.

Is this dilemma resolvable?

If that candidate has studied growth as taught in conventional economic circles, she’s been told that growth is the solution to virtually all economic problems and that, because of the way the “free market” works, resources are in practice not finite, that pricing factors will always lead to substitutes and alternatives.

On the other hand, if she has studied environmental economics, she’ll be aware that not only does the market not have the ability to break the laws of physics, but perhaps more relevantly, growth does not solve all economic problems and, in fact, does not even improve lives.

We’ve known this for a while. Yes, growth is indeed necessary and a positive force – up to a point. When the members of a society don’t have adequate shelter and sustenance, growth is critical to achieving those essential needs. But there’s a diminishing returns curve here and, after a point, growth no longer makes us happier. I thought this observation was so important that I found a way to include it in my book on sustainable design despite it not being – directly at least – about design.






You wouldn’t know it from political discussions (see dilemma above), but there has been a slew of research and books on this topic of late. I mentioned a few of them in an earlier post.  Most of them are discussing growth in the context of developed countries, where fundamental human needs, for the most part, have been met. Assuming one accepts the premise that growth is necessary until that point has been reached, a question that follows is: what is that point?

We may have a partial answer in the form of research by a team of economists from UCLA and USC. Summarized in a recent New York Times op-ed by Richard Easterlin, a member of that team, they found that a quadrupling of per capita consumption in China over the past 20 years was accompanied by a decrease in life satisfaction.

Image source: icis.com










Of course, there are several possible reasons for this and it’s not correct to automatically assume that the unhappiness is due to growth and increased consumption. Easterlin sees it in terms of socio-economic causes. “In China,” he writes, “life satisfaction declined as output and consumption rapidly expanded. The difference shows that economic growth is not enough; job security and a social safety net are also critical to people’s happiness.”

However, a mountain of evidence shows that, at least in developed regions and countries like the U.S. and Europe, growth is not the panacea that most politicians believe it is. Or perhaps they do realize this, but know that it is just too complicated an idea to explain in sound bites. Coming out against economic growth would leave any candidate vulnerable to easy pickins.

Image source: Adbusters

Which brings us back to the superficial tactic of finding a way to pose the idea in a positive light. If “no growth” or “antigrowth” are non-starters for a political platform, well we need to find a way to recast the idea in a way that illustrates the reasons we should, in fact, desire the end of growth. As with several previous EcoOptimism posts, we’re drawn back to the issue of communication. In this case, the problem is how to communicate that growth – such a positive sounding goal – is not actually good. Or smart. Or even possible, at least not in any version of our finite planet.

I hate that it comes down to spin, to PR essentially. But we know we can’t promote “no growth” as a goal. The snappy retorts are just too easy. This one took me less time to come up with than it takes for a conservative to spot voter fraud: “No growth, no way.”

“Post-growth” has been suggested by a number of people and it has potential. I fear, though, that it begins to evoke post-apocalyptic associations. I’ve pondered “regrowth,” but I think it still requires too much explaining. It may be that we need a term that sidesteps the problem by not evoking growth at all. Juliet Schor’s Plenitude is one attempt; however it doesn’t make the cut in terms of being popularly self-explanatory either.

So we do indeed have a dilemma. It’s a critical one for EcoOptimism: how to make a counterintuitive idea appealing? Facts and figures we have aplenty. It’s the sound bite we’re missing.

News we like

Focusing on the optimism aspect of our blog here, my usual late night tour of the interwebs caught a slew of headlines that left me in a better mood than I started – indications that the business as usual status quo is being questioned, sometimes in high places, and principles of EcoOptimism are getting more attention. Here, for your end of the week boost, are a few of them.

From The Economist, a realization that growth unfettered is not necessarily good:

“A new form of radical centrist politics is needed to tackle inequality without hurting economic growth”

Some quotes (taken out of order):

In America the share of national income going to the top 0.01% (some 16,000 families) has risen from just over 1% in 1980 to almost 5% now—an even bigger slice than the top 0.01% got in the Gilded Age.

[I]nequality has reached a stage where it can be inefficient and bad for growth.               

Even the sort of inequality produced by meritocracy can hurt growth. If income gaps get wide enough, they can lead to less equality of opportunity, especially in education.

Here’s the positive take-away:

The priority should be a Rooseveltian attack on monopolies and vested interests, be they state-owned enterprises in China or big banks on Wall Street.


From Grist.com:

“The greener the industry, the higher the job-growth rate”








According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, “Industries that support a higher number of “green” workers who are making goods and services more environmentally friendly have experienced a higher rate of growth over the last decade than industries with fewer green jobs.”

The 2010 result: “3.1 million green jobs nationwide in renewable energy, water management, recycling, and various positions that help improve the efficiency and environmental footprint of a company or institution.”

From Greenbiz.com:

“Natural capital accounting gets a push at Global Green Growth Forum”

image source: ForumForTheFuture.org









One of the positive outcomes achieved on the sidelines of the Rio+20 conference, as highlighted by Jo Mackness at GreenBiz on June 26, was progress made on natural capital accounting. Fifty-seven countries and 86 companies, for instance, signed a World Bank-organized communiqué committing signatories to account for the value of clean air, clean water and forests in their decision-making.


From ThinkProgress.org:

“Federal Reserve Official Calls For Placing Limits On The Size Of Big Banks” 

image source: Huffington Post










[Federal Reserve Board Governor Daniel ]Tarullo said that, in order to keep big banks from growing so large that they threaten the entire financial system, they should be limited in size to a certain percentage of the overall economy.

“[T]he Fed should block any merger or acquisition this group of big banks attempts to make,” which it is allowed to do under Dodd-Frank.


The string of positivism actually began a bit earlier in the week with a post from The Atlantic’s new site Quartz:

“Does Ben Bernanke want to replace GDP with a happiness index?”

image source: Redefining Progress








In a prerecorded talk for a conference this past summer, Bernanke said, ”…we should seek better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being, the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”

Rather, Bernanke suggests that survey measures of happiness and life satisfaction should take their place alongside GDP as measures of how a nation is doing. In doing so, he joined current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said ”it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB—general wellbeing” and former French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he would ”fight to make all international organisations change their statistical systems by following the recommendations” of the Stiglitz report. He refers to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s committee’s work proclaiming “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.  The emphasis is in the original.

It’s good to end the week on an up note. Would be great if I could make a habit of this….

The Story of Change/Changing the Story

In the realm of happy coincidences, “The Story of Change,” the newest project from the folks who first brought us “The Story of Stuff,” was released the day after we launched the EcoOptimism blog.

For those who haven’t watched “The Story of Stuff,” I heartily recommend the twenty minute explanation of how our consumerist world works. You may find it a bit simplistic or a bit overbearing, but you won’t find it overly complicated. Or wrong. And you may come out a different type of person, what the narrator Annie Leonard calls a citizen rather than a consumer.

The “hedonic treadmill” illustrated in The Story of Stuff.

Upcoming posts will focus more on issues of consumerism and materialism. But “The Story of Change,” the newer video by Leonard, provides an excuse for me to explain a bit more what some of the goals of EcoOptimism are about.

Actually, let’s start with what it’s not about. Though I’m sure there will be exceptions, in general we’re not concentrating here on the bad news and the guilt. You can find that in plenty of places elsewhere. Rather, EcoOptimism looks more, well, optimistically and positively at the great win-win-win possibilities. Win #1 here is the economy. Win #2 is the environment and win #3 (never mind the order) is us, in the form of bettered, happier lives. And most significantly, these are not in opposition to each other, they are complementary. Down with the false dichotomy! (OK, so it’s not the catchiest of slogans.)

The main point of “The Story of Change” is in how change occurs, and the fact is it doesn’t just occur; it is made to occur. By people. In groups and individually. Leonard’s goal is to rally us and to show the various ways we can help make it occur by being investigators, communicators, builders, resisters, nurturers, and networkers.

From The Story of Change

EcoOptimism is a little of all those things, but mostly a communicator. Leonard observes that the path to change may not be clear, and she concludes “The Story of Change” with a quote from Martin Luther King: “Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.” But we architects want to design things and I keep asking what that staircase looks like. What does that combined ecological-economic future look and feel like?

A growing number of folks are talking about what’s needed. They use terms like carbon-pricing, steady state economy, degrowth and externalities (and part of what we’re doing here is taking the jargon out of the picture, especially where the jargon works against the objective). EcoOptimism discusses a lot of these topics, but where I hope it will be different is in helping to visualize – to virtually experience in advance – what life in this win-win-win world can be.

Because that, I think, is where the case can be made and the argument won. An economist can go on and on about why we need carbon or congestion pricing, but unless that scenario viscerally grabs us, it’s so much verbiage. A planner can lament suburban sprawl, but so long as suburbia and cars are still seen as the idyllic American lifestyle, fighting it is going to be an uphill, probably unwinnable, battle.

The irony of the vaunted “American way of life” of commuting from detached houses in suburbia is that it was created by exactly the kind of government intervention and social policy that conservatives now decry. Without tax deductions for mortgages and without the massive investment in highways and bridges (accompanied by disinvestment in mass transit), the great suburban exodus would not have occurred. Top image from GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

It’s hard to comprehend that the Interstate Highway System was begun just 56 years ago. Before then, commuting was unheard of unless there happened to be a passenger rail line nearby. Note that per the map title, this massive program, which literally paved the way for suburban expansion, was promoted on national defense grounds. Image source: Wikipedia Commons

As great and important as “The Story of Change” is, for me it still falls short in the same way that so many of the current books on growth do. Prosperity Without Growth, The End of Growth, Plenitude, eearth, et. al. all make great cases for the “new economy,” but leave me wondering how we get from here to there. And what life “there” looks like. Even if we all became advocates as Annie Leonard suggests – and don’t get me wrong, I think we should – most people will need something they can positively relate to. The concept of the new economy is still too abstract and, for many, frightening in the changes it engenders. It will take images and stories that are far more palpable (as well as appealing) to shake generations of cultivated, and therefore arguably false, ideals. We need to find those images and stories, or create them where they don’t yet exist.

I’ve no doubt “the truth is out there.” What we need to do is bring it here.

What is EcoOptimism?

A prime rule of blogging, I hear, is to keep your posts short. I’m about to start my blog by breaking that rule. I won’t do it again. I promise. Maybe. But please bear with me this once (or twice).

Who you calling an optimist?

I don’t want to go all Jimmy Carter on you, but we appear to face a malaise. And not only because I have a thing about cardigan sweaters. We seem, it’s tempting to say, to have fallen into a rut from which we can neither push nor pull ourselves forward, nor can we escape the muddy side walls by reversing out. We have a twin breakdown. Both our economic engine and our ecological source of sustenance have encountered roadblocks. And the problem, according to some, is that the detour signs point in opposite directions.

Ruts, breakdowns, roadblocks, detours. (Let’s not dwell on the observation that that entire opening paragraph is built on metaphors rooted in the automobile, which is arguably a proximate source of both our economic and environmental issues.) Pretty pessimistic terms.

No wonder. When you look at the statistics – whether you’re talking about growth, unemployment, climate change, income disparity, water scarcity, happiness, famine, or a valium-demanding number of other bars and graphs – the situation looks pretty dire, beyond the ability of any political leadership, let alone any individual, to solve. It leads, on the one hand, to the headline of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Going Green But Getting Nowhere

On the other hand, maybe it’s all in our minds. Fed Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, said recently that it’s not really so bad and consumers are irrationally depressed. (Yeah, like the market is more rational?) It’s part of his job, though, to soothe the financial beasts and be the economic cheerleader-in-chief.

But that’s not how I meant to begin this blog
Let me start again, because a discussion on a topic called EcoOptimism really shouldn’t begin on a pessimistic note. I’ve no interest in adding to the end-of-the-world-is-nigh literature (though I do have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic B-movies). That admonishing approach – the one that also tells us that it’s all our fault for having no self-control or foresight or sense of something greater than our individual selves — strikes me as, at best, unhelpful. At worst, it’s counterproductive, alienating (if not angering) those who we need to enlist.

Perhaps more significantly, it points us away from solutions that, far from entailing economic collapse and far from endangering the “American way of life,” will bring us closer to goals and lifestyles that we (and countless philosophers, religious leaders, even politicians) have long sought.

And with those solutions we’ll create at least two things to hand down to our descendants: a better sense of who we are along with what it means to live a human life (sorry, those constitute one thing) and, well, a future. That’s because — at the risk of returning to the negativism I just spurned — if we screw up the environment, the main victim will be humanity. The Earth, in the long run, will be just fine. It just won’t include us, at least not in anything resembling our current forms of civilization or comfort.

There I go again. Pessimism. Hyperbole. (Actually, I’d dispute the latter accusation.) Stick to the topic, man.

Preface (the part that should have been above)

The amount of time, ink and electrons devoted to environmental topics has grown faster than a fertilizer-fed algae bloom. Aside from the daunting task of wading through the mountains of studies and opinions (and counter-opinions), an almost equal problem has been the chicken-little doom-and-gloom tone that seems to prevail, especially within the mass media. The result of this emphasis too often has meant that pursuing the solutions – when solutions are proposed — requires believing in a future, as-yet-intangible threat (sea levels will rise, oil will run out, but not today) and being willing to make undesirable changes to avoid it.

So, what is EcoOptimism?
The premise of EcoOptimism is that this is neither a viable nor productive approach, that most people do not respond well to being told they must change or have to make sacrifices. Sitting atop that is “green fatigue.” In my talks and teaching as well as general conversations, the topic of oversaturation, along with that fear that the problems are too big and therefore unsolvable, keeps dogging the potential for real solutions.

EcoOptimism takes a different approach, seeking to show how we can come out the other side of our concurrent ecological and economic crises (ECOoptimism, get it?) in a better place than we started; that not only will the planet be healthier, but we, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a species, can feel fulfilled and be more prosperous. It breaks the presumption, the false dichotomy, that environmentalism is at odds with our well-being and our happiness. It posits instead that we can eat our cake and have it, too.

OK, maybe that’s not the best way to put it, especially since we’re probably going to be talking about topics like the benefits of consuming less and of eating better.

It’s not enough to say there are solutions (though it’s a good start). We need solutions that are desirable; not solutions that are adopted only because they are necessary. I firmly believe there are futures that simultaneously save the environment that nurtures us while allowing, indeed helping, us to flourish as individuals and as the species homo sapiens.

EcoOptimism will attempt to cut through the negativism implied in so much of the environmental movement and explore the flip side – the opportunities that are presented by what appear to be constraints. The hope is that we’ll help enable a movement forward rather than backward, to a win-win solution in which both the environment and humanity are not only sustained, but can thrive.

And just how are we going to go about this save-the-world blog? (Yeah, yet another blog…)
The first answer is a hedge: I’m not totally sure yet. But I’m not supposed to say that.

A more useful answer is that I foresee this endeavor having two parts. One will be a vehicle (I just can’t get away from car-related terminology) to point out what others are doing and saying, along with a bit of soapbox-mounting. Not rabble-rousing so much as encouraging. (I guess I can’t really call it cheerleading since I accused Bernanke of doing just that.)

The other will be a conversation. We’re looking at questioning some of our fundamental assumptions (like ‘growth is good’) and, in some cases, creating new visions of our lives. No one person could have the breadth of knowledge to figure out the interwoven paths to and the implications for re-imagining the ways we work, live, eat, consume, travel and recreate. There are both too many subject areas involved and too many variations on the theme homo sapiens. (There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.) For that reason, EcoOptimism is looking to crowd-source our future(s). The optimist-in-chief (that’s me) will occasionally launch topics and then look to YOU for responses. We’re looking for input that is open-minded and constructive, future-oriented yet enticing in the present.

We seek a Future By Design, rather than a Future By Default.

About the optimist-in-chief:

David Bergman runs an architectural practice that emphasizes the transparent inclusion of sustainable/eco design principles. David is also the founder of Fire & Water, a designer/manufacturer of eco lighting. He is a LEED Accredited Professional and an adjunct assistant professor at Parsons the New School for Design. He is a frequent contributor to GreenHomeGuide.com. His book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, was published in 2012 by Princeton Architectural Press.