Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Economics of Happiness (International Society for Ecology and Culture, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a documentary called The Economics of Happiness, produced by an organization called the International Society for Ecology and Culture and officially co-directed by three top officials with that group, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Steven Gorelick and John Page — though it’s clear from the film itself that Norberg-Hodge, the only one of the three directors who also appears on screen and the person whose researches sparked the project in the first place, is the true auteur. She got the idea for the movie — and for the overall approach of her organization — when she studied and lived among the people in Ladakh, a small village in the Himalayas in the border region between Pakistan, India and Nepal. She said that the Ladakh people were subsistence farmers and lived a quite content existence until about 20 years ago, when the capitalist world discovered them and started selling them stuff and putting up the kinds of advertisements and other media images that we’re so used to in the West but which were totally foreign to them — and now they’re just as heavily involved mentally in the capitalist rat race as we are, even though they’ve got so much less earning power that they can hardly afford any of the goods the capitalist money and marketing machine is trying to sell them.

Norberg-Hodge uses the Ladakh to introduce a two-part film whose thesis in part one is that globalization as we’ve come to understand the term — driven by large corporations and financial institutions so powerful on a worldwide basis that, through entities like the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, they can literally tell supposedly sovereign governments what to do — is a rotten deal for everybody except the handful at the top who are profiting from it. Not only does it ignore real human happiness in pursuit of an ever-greater gross domestic product (much of The Economics of Happiness portrays growth — and in particular the obsession with growth that so drives capitalist economies that when they stop growing it’s called a “recession” and everybody freaks out — as an even greater force for evil than globalization), so that an oil spill or a cancer epidemic generates economic activity, therefore more “growth” and a higher GDP — it also points out the disastrous ecological and environmental consequences of capitalist globalization (global warming, the destruction of biodiversity and the impending end of cheap energy), its effects on small business (which is basically to price small business out of business and force would-be entrepreneurs to sell out to the large chains — this isn’t an argument we usually hear since opponents of capitalist globalization tend to be opponents of capitalism itself) and its overall effects on human culture and overall happiness, the efficiency of the capitalist media culture in making sure people are never happy because if people were truly happy they wouldn’t feel they needed to buy all the stuff they see advertised in the media and therefore the economy wouldn’t grow, the GDP would go down and there’d be a “recession.”

The second half pushes what Norberg-Hodge and her collaborators call “localization,” which is basically doing the exact opposite of globalization: living close to your food supply so it doesn’t have to be transported long distance (with the accompanying use of energy and loss of freshness), buying at farmers’ markets and local non-chain businesses in general, growing your own food if possible. It’s a fascinating film and even a moving one, though the filmmakers are more effective at dramatizing the sheer power and weight of the corporate world on the rest of us than at making us believe that their “localization” vision can do more than nibble around the edges of the corporate autocracy, giving a handful of people a marginally better way to live while the corporations continue to drive the world to hell in a warp-speed rocket. The message of The Economics of Happiness seems to be that if you can’t seriously challenge corporate power politically — and you can’t — the best thing to do is ignore it as much as possible, reach out to your neighbors and help each other live as totally “off the grid” as you can.

It’s a good strategy if you can pull it off (though it did occur to me more than once that a lot of the trips to farmers’ markets and community-supported farms and whatnot are still going to be done in fossil-fueled private cars and therefore, while Norberg-Hodge’s recommendations are positive in some ways, they are still contributing to the individuals’ carbon footprint) but it’s highly unlikely to challenge the corporate power, which inefficient as it is (Norberg-Hodge notes that small-scale organic farms are actually more efficient than giant factory farms in that they generate three to five times the yield per acre, which reminded me of the old “private plots” farmers in the Soviet Union were allowed to grow, or not, depending on the whims of the regime and how hard they were pushing collectivization that year; as a schoolboy I was taught that the “private plots” had several times the yields of the big collective farms and that that was a triumph of capitalism and individual initiative over the unlimited power of the Soviet state; what Norberg-Hodge and her interviewees are suggesting is that maybe it’s a function of efficiencies of scale actually working in reverse in the agricultural business — that the smaller the farm and the more of an emotional and cultural investment the farmer has in the land, the better the yields) also has the power to shape our very perception of reality through the ubiquity of corporate media. (I was surprised the film didn’t do more discussion of the role of the corporate media in maintaining corporate hegemony over the economy, politics and culture. Maybe another movie.)

At the same time, though this analysis goes a bit farther than the film does, I don’t think the world has a choice except to localize: we can either do it now while it still seems like we have options, or we can do it later after the environmental devastation unleashed by corporate globalization has trashed most of the earth’s surface and made it imperative for the handful of humans left over to work together and live locally if they and our species are to survive at all. It was fascinating to see at least two people in the film I’ve written about in Zenger’s Newsmagazine — Vandana Shiva and Richard Heinberg — and I wish the Institute all the luck in the world but I still think this kind of side-door nibbling away at corporate power, though good in itself and as a way to resist when resistance is otherwise almost unthinkable, isn’t going to challenge the corporotocracy or spare us from the imminent extinction or near-extinction of the human race that will inevitably occur if we continue as we are and keep trashing our home planet (the only one we’ve got or are ever likely to have). It’s also dispiriting that while the film alludes to mass movements in other parts of the world challenging the corporations, the biggest mass grass-roots political movement in the U.S. today is the Tea Party, which is going in precisely the other direction — trashing government and exalting corporate power under the guise of “unleashing the private sector” by freeing it from regulation, unionization or any consideration for the welfare of its workers — and the 2010 elections showed just how effective the corporate media’s long-term brainwashing campaign has been in getting the American people to see government as their enemy and “unleashed” lassiez-faire dog-eat-dog capitalism and damn-the-environment, full-speed-ahead development and “growth” as their friends.

In the U.S. media films like The Economics of Happiness are frequently damned as the work of crazed environmentalist zealots who want to destroy our standard of living and have us all in caves again — and frankly, the introduction of the movie, and particularly the frequent shots of villagers in less-developed countries with the argument on the soundtrack that they may have fewer material goods than we do but are also a lot happier because they live in harmony with the land and aren’t part of the capitalist rat race, just play into that radical-Right propaganda point; telling people who’ve bought into the capitalist media’s presentation of consumer-driven, stuff-driven existences as the “good life” are about as likely to see this film as a beacon to a more satisfying way of life as Charlie Sheen is to realize that he’d be far better off if he took rehab seriously and spent the rest of his life clean and sober.