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.

"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.