The big hope for Westerners in the past few centuries was the idea that things would just keep getting better and better for us. Unfortunately, unless I’m missing something, that curve of well-being has stopped bending and started sagging—badly. While a great mass of humanity has gotten out from under the thumbs of some kings, the only way for many to pay the rent now may be to work for the king whose first name is “Burger.”
What happened? We came so far. The stories I grew up with had us all on rockets to Venus by now. The heights we could achieve required only that we imagined them. We’ve done so much: liberty, laws, science and technology (though I admit, free renewable energy remains on my wish list) but the largest human problems—such as how we treat each other and the world around us, remain sticky and unsolved. And we mistake one kind of problem for another. For example, a million people die annually from malaria, or so we are told by various international health organizations, but it’s not really true. They die because they don’t have mosquito nets. They die for lack of resources. They die because those in wealthier nations only feel the need to contribute to solving problems, not to actually solving them. As it turns out, most in the developed world consider a million deaths a year in a far away country to be tolerable. But I digress.
Back to the subject at hand: whither the West. What if we’ve gone down the wrong path? What if here in the US (and elsewhere too) we’ve built a nation to do something that isn’t as valuable as we thought it would be? Generating big money for a small percentage of the population, though it appears as significant national wealth, isn’t a very good method of creating sustainable wellbeing for most people.
Oops. We thought it would be. Hell of a try though. Though studies have born this out and determined that the ability of wealth to increase happiness is far more questionable and minimal than we might have thought, particularly for wealth above a certain functional level, we haven’t seriously questioned the way in which our national policies make voracious wealth-building our national mission. It’s another episode of Those Darn Humans: just look at that wacky species ignore reliable information to their own detriment.
I had the opportunity to talk with Carol Graham, author of numerous books linking economics with well-being—happiness in particular. She’s involved in the global discussion about whether gross national happiness should be the measure of a nation’s success, as it is in Bhutan. There is an American movement to make GNA our nation’s measure of success. Guess where it’s based? You guessed it, Vermont. (Unless Hurricane Irene washed it away).