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Decoupling success and happiness

Future happiness will depend on making and consuming less, but who will be the first politician to propose less growth to the people? Kaarin Taipale reports.
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"What kind of scissors are we going to need for decoupling? Maybe they’ll have to be silver scissors, or golden!” A colleague was joking about a serious issue: How can we fulfill the basic needs of people, while decoupling economic growth from environmental and social destruction? How can we secure human well-being without wasting natural and human resources? How can we break the assumed link between success and happiness?

Water and energy create the physical foundations of sustainable development. For billions of people worldwide there are still daily questions of availability. Thousands of cities face the same question: how to secure their citizens access to safe drinking water and energy? Once there is water, it has to be kept clean, and sanitation and waste water treatment are needed. Once there is energy, it must also be clean so that it does not pollute the air and become a health or fire hazard. The production of energy must be safe, or it makes jobs dangerous and creates new environmental problems. A vicious circle!

The step from poverty, from no freshwater and no energy, to having basic human needs fulfilled is huge, but millions of people take it every year. Waves of industrialization and economic growth bring people from rural areas to cities and to urban lifestyles that focus on consumption: cars, fashion, entertainment, industrial food and drink – and more economic growth. 

 “Sustainable Consumption and Production”

In two years, China will host the 4th International Expert Meeting on the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production – a United Nations–led process called the Marrakech Process for short. (The 3rd meeting was recently held in Sweden.). Its origins are in Johannesburg 2002, in the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, where governments agreed that consumption and production patterns are inextricably interlinked. If we want cleaner products, someone will have to ask and pay for them.

One of the conclusions is that public procurement is an important mechanism to promote sustainability. Local and national governments can become model clients and create markets for better products. This is also true for services and buildings: private companies and citizen will hardly construct better buildings if they don’t see the public sector doing it, first.

It is easy to agree that we need more sustainable products and services – but what does it mean in real life? There is, as yet, no globally agreed list of criteria to tell us which products are sustainable.   Some characteristics are obvious: efficient use of resources, no pollution, no health risks, decent work, social and gender equity, transparent governance. It’s not just the final product or service that matters but the whole life cycle, including the production process and use of the product. Did people become happier and healthier by making, using and recycling the product – or did they get ill and abused?

“Environmentally friendly” – or just a little less dangerous?

Some clever advertisers and urban developers have noticed that the “brand” and sales of a product can be improved by promoting it as “environmentally friendly” or as “eco-city” without showing hard facts. To oppose this trend Norwegian consumer authorities have forbidden the advertising of any car as “environmentally friendly”, because no car is ever going to be environmentally friendly. Cars and their manufacture will always burn energy, pollute, injure and kill thousands of people, force cities to invest in highways that destroy urban fabric, and so on.

Imagine this: A company informs its shareholders and stockbrokers that it is going to make only products that don’t have to be thrown away, because they will not become unfashionable or technologically obsolete in a couple of months or years. Instead, they’ll be beautiful and easy to use for hundred years - just like your grandmother’s scissors, a bicycle or a kitchen knife. Their manufacture will cause no harmful waste, require no non-renewable resources, the employees will get a decent salary, and instead of bribes, the company will pay taxes to local and national government.

Earthland and global equity

Developing countries pose a justified question to industrialized nations: Are you trying to tell our millions of people that they should not reach the same standard of living as your citizens? You have been polluting the planet for centuries, and now you are teaching us that we should learn from your mistakes! How dare you suggest, for example, that we should not buy cars but need to create more innovative mobility systems!

Many people say that countries have to develop first, and worry about the environment only when they can afford it. Unfortunately the world does not work that way: Contemporary, industrial urban poverty means dirty water, poor sanitation, polluting energy, no public transport, no decent work, no housing, no sense of community, no education, no equal opportunities, more global competition – which brings me back to decoupling: How can we secure access to basic services for all, without an economic growth that is based on the exploitation of human and natural resources, and that only brings success to a few?

In a relatively short period of time we’ve been through both industrial and information technology revolutions. What is the quantum leap that we have to take today? Eco-efficiency will not be enough. Can there be a “business case” for multinational industries to produce less for more people with fewer resources? Who will be the first politician to win an election without promising growth, only more happiness?

In a recent speech, Tariq Banuri, also a World Future Councillor, said: “Think of the world as one country, Earthland, where people will have to think and act collectively. Stop talking about the earth as a forgiving mother. The Earth does not forgive.”

Homepage photo by idealterna

Kaarin Taipale is a Finnish architect and urban researcher, Chair of the Marrakech Task Force on Sustainable Buildings and Construction and a Councillor of the World Future Council.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Integrate your mind and behavior

It seems that the concerns for environment has been argued for quite a while, including by those who are highly capable of consumption, because it's a fashion!

However, when they actually make a movement, "environment friendly" is usually replaced by the more desirable "convenient", "stylish" and "graceful". "Environment friendly" is not only an idea, it needs your ACTION!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A weak voice

The current definition for success if to obtain more and more money and power. Think about the jealous tone that people show when talking about money and power, housing and cars.. All the signs just tell us that the development of economy is inevitable, and even needs to be faster.

The conversation on environmental conservation then becomes a dessert after dinner, which labels us as the consciously responsible citizens. And after the dessert, we go back to our normal consumption and shopping for cars.

The people that have just been saved from hunger care more about their comfortable life, instead of worrying about resources depletion. The sound made by politicians who try to ensure a good future instead of economic growth can only be a weak voice.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


既然我们都居住在一个小而有限的世界里,我们的国家经济究竟在多大程度上得依靠不断增长的消费?中国人是怎么想的?对于我所居住的英国城市利物浦来说这是个非常重大的问题.为什么?因为利物浦刚赢得"2008年欧洲文化之都"的称号,并期望能吸引众多来自全球各地,包括中国的游客.届时将有一大批的艺术展览,音乐会和各种论坛. 但是,就在利物浦因是披头式乐队的发源地而富有盛名的同时,它同其邻近城市曼切斯特一同也因在250多年前成为工业化文明的摇篮而闻名于世.随后发展出来的市场意识形态,经济增长狂热和消费主义从此让整个世界跟着打转.所以当我读到中国官方正在以宗教或哲学的形式来推广道教的时候我非常地感兴趣,因为我听说中国政府越来越难满足那些嗜爱消费的中国新生代.如果真是这样,我希望这也能让利物浦,整个欧洲和美洲,还有那些落后的发展中国家蹦出些想法来,这很明显,不是吗? 让我们的国家经济依赖于不断增长的个人消费对我们这个小而有限的星球来说简直就是个致命的想法.当然,我知道金钱只是传统的马克思主义的一个媒介物.但是强迫性的转移似乎能并且真地在一代人身上发生. 消费主义和货币主义带来的一些危险正在挑战着中国人的社会主义价值观.最近,利物浦的Tate画廊刚举办了一次壮丽辉煌的“中国当代艺术展”。它的确是一出诙谐幽默,才华漫溢,有趣的展览,但也表现出当代中国一些混乱无序的事实。我们一定要倾听艺术家的心声,千万不能放松这种接触。所以这也同样地激发了我去探究中国推广道教和佛教的兴趣。我的一个好朋友是个已退休的欧洲官员,他早年曾经因公去过中国,并在那住过。他曾经跟我说中国的官员喜欢从几百年的角度去思考。所以,我们对于下一轮补缺选举的结果产生的政治迷惑或许也不是什么好事。或许我们应该看回250年前,问一问消费主义是否正是威胁到我们未来的祸根? Des McConaghy, 利物浦,英国

Is consumerism a curse that threatens our future?


Since we all inhabit one small and finite world, how sensible is it for our national economies to rely on ever increasing consumption? What do the Chinese think?
This is a significant question to ask in Liverpool, England, where I live. Why? Because Liverpool won the title “European Capital of Culture” for 2008 - and it is hoped that Liverpool will attract many visitors from all around the world, including from China. There will be a major programme of art, concerts and discussions. But while Liverpool is also known worldwide as
the birthplace of the Beatles it is equally well known, worldwide, (along with neighbouring Manchester) as the cradle of industrialisation some 250 years ago. It therefore also gave birth to the subsequent market ideology, economic growth religion and consumerism which the whole world has lived
under ever since.
So I was especially interested to read that China is now officially
encouraging Daoism as a religious or as a philosophical practice -because I am told the State now has a growing problem of trying to satisfy the demands of vast new super-acquisitive generations of Chinese consumers! If so I hope this may also throw up ideas for Liverpool and for the whole of Europe and America as well as for the poorer developing countries. Because it stands to reason - does it not? - that for our
national economies to rely on ever increasing personal consumption is a fatal policy on our small and finite planet.
Of course I know money was only an “intermediary” for traditional Marxists! But it seems that obsessive shifts can and do occur in a generation and there is now some danger of consumerism and one dimensional monetarism challenging Chinese socialist values. Recently the Tate gallery
in Liverpool mounted a splendid, large exhibition of “Contemporary Art from China”. It was a good humoured, talented and entertaining exhibition but it also showed some of the chaotic contemporary reality of modern China.
And we must listen to artists; we must not loose touch.
So my interest in exploring the Chinese promotion of Daoism and Buddhism is similarly motivated. I had a good friend, a senior Eurocrat, now retired (whose early life was in China and who had visited the country on official missions). He once told me that Chinese “mandarins” used to think in terms of hundreds of years! So perhaps our political obsession with the
next by-election results is not an unmitigated boon. Perhaps we should look back over those 250 years and now ask is consumerism a curse that now threatens all our futures?
Des McConaghy, Liverpool, UK

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




I don’t have any special solution to suggest, but practicing thrift is my only effective way.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Macro-angle of view

Many big questions need big solutions.