THE DOCUMENTARY film The Economics of Happiness, produced by the International Society for Ecology and Culture, begins starkly, with full-screen titles that tell us we are facing an environmental crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of the human spirit. As the film goes along, it strongly suggests that those three crises are interrelated.
In the end, the filmmakers and their multicultural array of talking heads ask that we stop measuring human progress simply by economic growth and give priority to the quality of life, the health of communities and their cultures, and the sustainability of our economic practices. In short, they suggest replacing our mad rush toward globalization with a back-to-the-future move to “localization.”
Early in the film, writer-director-narrator Helena Norberg-Hodge tells us about the people of the remote Ladakh region of the Himalayas, one of the highest spots on earth to be inhabited by a settled human community. When Norberg-Hodge first visited the Ladakhis in the 1970s, she says, they were self-sufficient, healthy, and mostly at peace, with themselves and each other. Then came the great Western world with its bells and whistles and manufactured needs. Soon the people became dissatisfied with their traditional way of life and were driven to compete in a cash economy. Before long, there was open hostility between Muslims and Buddhists, who had co-existed peacefully for centuries, a fraying of the social fabric, and an atmosphere of gloom and depression.
Norberg-Hodge reports that when she first came to Ladakh, she asked a young man to show her a “poor” house. The guide stopped, thought for a moment, and said, “There are no poor houses in Ladakh.” Ten years later, she heard the same guide plead for aid from a group of Western visitors because, he said, the Ladakhis were so terribly poor.
The film’s analysis will be familiar to readers of this magazine. Deregulated global trade has led to a system in which small farmers around the world, for instance, are forced to compete with the agro-industrial behemoths of the American Midwest, and traditional cultures and religions become passé before the allure of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The result is destitution, division, and mass alienation. Meanwhile, according to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, the supposed winners of the global rat race, the average Americans, are overwhelmed, overworked, overstressed, and still falling behind economically.
The answer, according to The Economics of Happiness, is to replace globalization with localization. Stop, for instance, flying apples from Britain to South Africa to be waxed, and then back to Britain to be sold. Stop developing the less-developed countries along our 19th and 20th century fossil fuel-based model and turn instead to wind and solar energy that can be captured and used locally, without huge centralized infrastructures. Stop subsidizing environmentally irresponsible factory farming and help poor countries move back toward local agriculture and food self-sufficiency.
Of course, this is the kind of stuff that corporate mouthpieces and government policy wonks alike dismiss with a roll of the eyes. But it isn’t pie in the sky; cooperating with nature actually works better than declaring war on it. According to the Indian scholar Vandana Shiva, biodiverse small farms in India produce three- to-five-times more food per acre than U.S.-style oil- and petrochemical-intensive industrial farms.
Toward the end, the film makes a quick world tour of signs of hope—grassroots efforts and initiatives that are rising up to challenge capitalist globalization—from the international peasants network La Via Campesina to the urban farmers of Detroit.
While this film will never win any Academy Awards, it does effectively raise the most important questions that human beings face today, and it could serve as a great starting point for education and discussion about the three-headed crisis that has us all by the throat.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. His latest book is the novel White Boy.