can’t see the forest

Why Having More No Longer Makes Us Happy

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This piece by economist/writer Bill McKibben first appeared in Mother Jones. You can view it here at

It’s quite a commitment to read in terms of its length, but the analysis is simply written and far-reaching. I think most of my regular readers would find the concepts self-suggestive, but still get a lot of insight and enjoyment from McKibben’s words. On the other hand, I know I few good die-hard capitalists that might actually learn something about their own ideologies.

Here are some excerpts. I’ve butchered it to death, so, if it’s at all interesting to you, please take a few to check out the whole thing.

This article is an excerpt from Bill McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. It first appeared in Mother Jones.

For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both. That’s why the centuries since Adam Smith launched modern economics with his book The Wealth of Nations have been so single-mindedly devoted to the dogged pursuit of maximum economic production.

Smith’s core ideas — that individuals pursuing their own interests in a market society end up making each other richer; and that increasing efficiency, usually by increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth –have indisputably worked. They’ve produced more More than he could ever have imagined. They’ve built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that distinguish the lives of most of the people reading these words. It is no wonder and no accident that Smith’s ideas still dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.

But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. And that changes everything. Now, with the stone of your life or your society gripped in your hand, you have to choose. It’s More or Better…

It was the great economist John Maynard Keynes who pointed out that until very recently, “there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth.” At the utmost, Keynes calculated, the standard of living roughly doubled between 2000 B.C. and the dawn of the 18th century — four millennia during which we basically didn’t learn to do much of anything new. Before history began, we had already figured out fire, language, cattle, the wheel, the plow, the sail, the pot. We had banks and governments and mathematics and religion.

And then, something new finally did happen. In 1712, a British inventor named Thomas Newcomen created the first practical steam engine. Over the centuries that followed, fossil fuels helped create everything we consider normal and obvious about the modern world, from electricity to steel to fertilizer; now, a 100 percent jump in the standard of living could suddenly be accomplished in a few decades, not a few millennia.

In some ways, the invention of the idea of economic growth was almost as significant as the invention of fossil-fuel power. But it took a little longer to take hold. During the Depression, even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated. Then came World War II and the postwar boom — by the time Lyndon Johnson moved into the White House in 1963, he said things like: “I’m sick of all the people who talk about the things we can’t do. Hell, we’re the richest country in the world, the most powerful. We can do it all…. We can do it if we believe it.” …

…Even though the economy continues to grow, most of us are no longer getting wealthier. The average wage in the United States is less now, in real dollars, than it was 30 years ago. Even for those with college degrees, and though productivity was growing faster than it had for decades, between 2000 and 2004 earnings fell 5.2 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the most recent data from White House economists. Much the same thing has happened across most of the globe. More than 60 countries around the world, in fact, have seen incomes per capita fall in the past decade.

For the second point, it’s useful to remember what Thomas Newcomen was up to when he helped launch the Industrial Revolution — burning coal to pump water out of a coal mine. This revolution both depended on, and revolved around, fossil fuels. “Before coal,” writes the economist Jeffrey Sachs, “economic production was limited by energy inputs, almost all of which depended on the production of biomass: food for humans and farm animals, and fuel wood for heating and certain industrial processes.”

That is, energy depended on how much you could grow. But fossil energy depended on how much had grown eons before — all those billions of tons of ancient biology squashed by the weight of time till they’d turned into strata and pools and seams of hydrocarbons, waiting for us to discover them.

To understand how valuable, and irreplaceable, that lake of fuel was, consider a few other forms of creating usable energy. Ethanol can perfectly well replace gasoline in a tank; like petroleum, it’s a way of using biology to create energy, and right now it’s a hot commodity, backed with billions of dollars of government subsidies.

But ethanol relies on plants that grow anew each year, most often corn; by the time you’ve driven your tractor to tend the fields, and your truck to carry the crop to the refinery, and powered your refinery, the best-case “energy output-to-input ratio” is something like 1.34-to-1. You’ve spent 100 Btu of fossil energy to get 134 Btu. Perhaps that’s worth doing, but as Kamyar Enshayan of the University of Northern Iowa points out, “it’s not impressive” compared to the ratio for oil, which ranges from 30-to-1 to 200-to-1, depending on where you drill it. To go from our fossil-fuel world to a biomass world would be a little like leaving the Garden of Eden for the land where bread must be earned by “the sweat of your brow.” …

How is it, then, that we became so totally, and apparently wrongly, fixated on the idea that our main goal, as individuals and as nations, should be the accumulation of more wealth?

The answer is interesting for what it says about human nature. Up to a certain point, more really does equal better. Imagine briefly your life as a poor person in a poor society — say, a peasant farmer in China. (China has one-fourth of the world’s farmers, but one-fourteenth of its arable land; the average farm in the southern part of the country is about half an acre, or barely more than the standard lot for a new American home.) You likely have the benefits of a close and connected family, and a village environment where your place is clear. But you lack any modicum of security for when you get sick or old or your back simply gives out. Your diet is unvaried and nutritionally lacking; you’re almost always cold in winter.

In a world like that, a boost in income delivers tangible benefits. In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 income per capita. That’s a useful number to keep in the back of your head — it’s like the freezing point of water, one of those random figures that just happens to define a crucial phenomenon on our planet. “As poor countries like India, Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, and South Korea have experienced economic growth, there is some evidence that their average happiness has risen,” the economist Layard reports. Past $10,000 (per capita, mind you — that is, the average for each man, woman, and child), there’s a complete scattering: When the Irish were making two-thirds as much as Americans they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction, as were the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch. Mexicans score higher than the Japanese; the French are about as satisfied with their lives as the Venezuelans.

In fact, once basic needs are met, the “satisfaction” data scrambles in mindlnding ways. A sampling of Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai. The “life satisfaction” of pavement dwellers — homeless people — in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded, but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations. And so on.

On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up. Our single-minded focus on increasing wealth has succeeded in driving the planet’s ecological systems to the brink of failure, even as it’s failed to make us happier. How did we screw up? …

Because traditional economists think of human beings primarily as individuals and not as members of a community, they miss out on a major part of the satisfaction index. Economists lay it out almost as a mathematical equation: Overall, “evidence shows that companionship … contributes more to well-being than does income,” writes Robert E. Lane, a Yale political science professor who is the author ofThe Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies.

But there is a notable difference between poor and wealthy countries: When people have lots of companionship but not much money, income “makes more of a contribution to subjective well-being.” By contrast, “where money is relatively plentiful and companionship relatively scarce, companionship will add more to subjective well-being.”

If you are a poor person in China, you have plenty of friends and family around all the time — perhaps there are four other people living in your room. Adding a sixth doesn’t make you happier. But adding enough money so that all five of you can eat some meat from time to time pleases you greatly.

By contrast, if you live in a suburban American home, buying another coffeemaker adds very little to your quantity of happiness — trying to figure out where to store it, or wondering if you picked the perfect model, may in fact decrease your total pleasure. But a new friend, a new connection, is a big deal. We have a surplus of individualism and a deficit of companionship, and so the second becomes more valuable.

Indeed, we seem to be genetically wired for community. As biologist Edward O. Wilson found, most primates live in groups and get sad when they’re separated — “an isolated individual will repeatedly pull a lever with no reward other than the glimpse of another monkey.” Why do people so often look back on their college days as the best years of their lives? Because their classes were so fascinating? Or because in college, we live more closely and intensely with a community than most of us ever do before or after?…

In the 20th century, two completely different models of how to run an economy battled for supremacy. Ours won, and not only because it produced more goods than socialized state economies. It also produced far more freedom, far less horror. But now that victory is starting to look Pyrrhic; in our overheated and underhappy state, we need some new ideas.

We’ve gone too far down the road we’re traveling. The time has come to search the map, to strike off in new directions. Inertia is a powerful force; marriages and corporations and nations continue in motion until something big diverts them. But in our new world we have much to fear, and also much to desire, and together they can set us on a new, more promising course.


3 Responses

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  1. peoplesgeography said, on 3/22/07 at 7:14 am

    Looks good. In keeping with the spirit of the article, I’ll see if its in the library first before ordering the book (only thing I’m really acquisitive about!)

    “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

  2. Roger said, on 3/22/07 at 9:26 am

    This is so right on the money, if you’ll pardon the expression :)

    More is not always More. I am learning a lot about the Power of Intention – and at its root, it seems to be about figuring out what you Want – and going for it. It is a sad commentary on our society that this Power is so often sold as a way to gain more wealth.

  3. Curtis said, on 3/22/07 at 11:48 am

    Oh, that’s easy, PPGG—you put it in the foreign exchange market! :-D Actually, that’s a pretty apt way to sum it. Please let me know if you find the book and like it, I’d like to give it a try.

    Thanks, Roger, I agree. I think the allure of “more” can sweep us along only so far, and I’d say a ‘martian anthropologist’ might be surprised by just how far along we’ve been swept. But at some point ecological and sociological realities form a wall that’s run up against, and the ideology begins to consume itself and everything around it from the inside out. I think that’s where we are here in the West, and in other economies that emulate.

    Thing is, it was clearly never a healthy way to go about living. Viable, lucrative, maybe. But healthy? No. And I think that the past several centuries—at least—of human history can be viewed (in one of many lights) as a repeated denial of that understanding. But we’re running out of ways to deny it, I think. People all over the world have been bearing the brunt of that strain for too long. The Earth groans. I am no apocophile, but it’s not a pretty picture.

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