The pursuit of happiness

Does economic growth improve our lives? Are there better ways to measure welfare? How do GDP and the environment interact? Opening chinadialogue’s week-long series on well-being economics, Sam Geall talks to Cormac Cullinan, an attorney, campaigner and author of a manifesto for earth justice.

“Are you happy, sir?” This is the question that filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin had passersby answer in Paris in 1960, documented in the cinéma vérité classic Chronicle of a Summer. It’s also a question that France’s president seems keen for social scientists to ask again: in the immediate wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned Nobel Prize-winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen and the economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi to explore indicators of social progress other than economic growth.

The UK prime minister David Cameron has also backed an inquiryinto the economics of well-being. British social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in their influential book The Spirit Level that in terms of quality of life, “We have got close to the end of what economic growth can do for us.” Even Simon Kuznets, another Nobel Prize-winner and the inventor of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), economic growth’s main indicator, believed that GDP was no measure of the “welfare of a nation”.

Not everyone in poor countries is happy with rising GDP, either. The erstwhile absolute monarchs of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan have promoted the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) since the 1970s. Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley – the country embraced democratic reforms in 2008 – recently told the Coca-Cola Institute of Happiness (yes, it  really exists): “Globally, the interest [in GNH] is growing, especially as a consequence of the economic downturn.”

But is the GDP-scepticism just about monitoring citizens’ recession-era gloom? Not for Chinese environmentalists, who have long called for a benchmark to supplant GDP in the political evaluation of local government officials, one that takes into account economic “externalities”, such as pollution and resource depletion. China’s National Bureau of Statistics shelved plans to calculate the country’s “green GDP” in 2007, but this year quietly revived a similar set of environmental indicators. (The new economics foundation, stalwart proponents of an alternative measure of national progress, found in 2008’s Happy Planet Index that happiness in China had dropped even as the country’s GDP grew at breakneck speed).

Looking at the history of such debates, the quest for an alternative to GDP is more about finding the incentives for leaders, be they county officials or heads of state at international climate summits, to transcend short-term local or national interests and govern more fairly and sustainably. But are new indicators enough to achieve this? And what are the implications – political, economic and philosophical – of such a change? Cormac Cullinan, an attorney and the author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, has tried to answer these questions and reached some radical conclusions.

Speaking at a climate-change conference in Hong Kong, Cullinan told chinadialogue that human development used to mean seeking a more fulfilled life, but at some point it was “hijacked to mean GDP growth”. He continued: “When we talk about development, we’re not really talking about development. We’re pushing an abstract economic indicator that doesn’t tell us whether society’s getting healthier or not.”

Cullinan, a former anti-apartheid activist, pointed out that, while the government in his native South Africa is committed to eradicating the inequalities of white minority rule, the steady GDP increase has obscured a widening gulf between rich and poor, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Another striking example: crime can stimulate GDP. Being treated in hospital after being stabbed, he explained, could be reflected as a positive increase in GDP.

Most of all, Cullinan is concerned about the health of the planet, or “Earth community”, as he likes to call it: largely off the books in terms of GDP accounting, but a very unhappy picture according to almost any scientific measure (the few exceptions being the ozone layer and some species like the southern right whale). For Cullinan, averting the ecological crisis requires a total change of course. He compares civilisation’s current trajectory to that of a bulldozer powered by fossil fuel. “It’s better that the fuel runs out and the bulldozer stops, rather than you find a new fuel,” said Cullinan. “If you look at climate change in isolation, you might come to the conclusion that the problem is the fuel, that you simply need to change the fuel for the bulldozer. But if you look at it holistically, you can see that this is not enough.”

To reverse the bulldozer of growth, Cullinan thinks countries need more than new development indicators; instead, the planet should be at the centre of global jurisprudence, an idea enshrined in the document he played a central role in drafting, the "Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth", modelled on the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". (Earlier this year the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Eartha response to 2009’s Copenhagen climate conference, attended by around 35,000 people, mainly civil society activists, and hosted by Bolivia, one of the countries that refused to sign the Copenhagen Accord – adopted the declaration).

Is it realistic to imagine that the complex, interactive natural systems that constitute our planet could one day become a legal entity? And who speaks for the Earth, anyway? It’s probably fair to say that the proposal raises as many questions as it answers. But this may be the point. “What is most important about a document like the declaration,” said Cullinan, “is that it starts a conversation, because you can’t interact with that document without challenging the fundamental beliefs on which the dominant system is based.” Moreover, there are existing mechanisms, said Cullinan, that allow lawyers to speak for “legal fictions”, such as states or companies. In other words: “If you can act as if something like a company is real, it’s certainly quite possible to act on behalf of a mountain or a river.”

Cullinan cites a tribal customary court in Kenya that had somebody speak on behalf of a hyena that had been killed, and ruled that the killer’s clan pay a number of goats to the hyena’s orphaned young in compensation. His point is not that such courts could work in every society, but that some human societies have found mechanisms to limit how much people take from the planet. “We need to come to the realisation that we share the planet,” said Cullinan. He makes a comparison with the main object of discussion in international climate-change talks: “It’s not only a question of equity between developed and developing countries, it’s also a question of equity between humans and other species.”

The declaration and its proponents raise myriad questions, but some of them are important. As the planet approaches dangerous tipping points, are new development indicators enough to ensure well-being in a carbon-constrained, resources-depleted world? Is “low-carbon growth” a desirable goal? And is it any more realistic than the declaration’s radical proposal?

I’ll leave the last words to Cullinan: “It sounds crazy from the perspective of the dominant worldview, but my argument is: it’s a more accurate description of how the world works from a scientific point-of-view – everything is interrelated and interconnected. And so it’s about abandoning illusions that we run the planet. It’s about coming back down to earth.”


Sam Geall is deputy editor at chinadialogue.

Homepage image by LalitShahane

Also in this series:

How to make China happy

Growth can’t go on

Towards sustainable capitalism

Tim Jackson on restoring social balance

The dangers of happiness indices

Famine to feast: health impacts of a rising China

“China must measure happiness”

Bhutan’s experiment with happiness