This past Friday, I found myself in the midst of a close-to-capacity crowd at the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland, Oregon for a screening of The Economics of Happiness. The documentary was made by Helena Norberg-Hodge, along with Steven Gorelick and John Page, via their foundation, the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). It features such notable figures as Bill McKibben and Vandana Shiva among its impressive array of talking heads. The filmmakers are screening the film in various cities around the world as part of a cross-country build-up to the DVD release.
Founded by Norberg-Hodge, ISEC’s self-stated mission is “promoting locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture.” The documentary acts as an extension of this mission, and as such, it functions not as a clear-eyed assessment of globalization but as a socially-concerned film with an agenda. The filmmakers’ message is clear: Creating a brighter future means returning to localized economies and small, supportive communities of economically and socially interdependent citizens—which is, of course, much more complicated than it sounds.
The film opens in Ladakh, highlighting one of the organization’s main projects. It portrays a community whose strong traditional way of life has been steamrolled over by globalizing forces that have left a litany of social ills in their wake. Ladakh is presented as a case study of how certain notions of economic progress can have unintended and undesirable side effects.
The transformations this tightly-knit community have undergone are heartbreaking. Yet, solely focusing on the negative aspects of globalization and charging that it is the primary cause of a wide range of global problems comes across as one-dimensional. As one person pointed out during the Q and A after the screening, it has been argued that globalization and international trade (in other words, economic interdependence at the international level) helps prevent global conflicts and functions as a de facto peacekeeping measure. While this perspective is overstated and oversimplified as well, it offers a valid counterpoint—and one that went unaddressed in the film.
Before the screening, Norberg-Hodge told the audience that environmental sustainability begins with economic literacy. The strongest sequence in the film helps illustrate this point. It explains how, as a result of government subsidies and certain regulatory measures meant to increase GDP, imported (or in some cases re-imported) food items cost consumers less than locally produced food. Shockingly, many countries import and export almost the exact same amounts of the exact same food items—and sometimes literally the exact same food items. “We have English apples flown to South Africa to be waxed, flown back again to be sold to consumers,” says British Parliament member Zac Goldsmith. “The whole process involved incredible quantities of waste.”
In the long run, the filmmakers argue, this is an ecologically unsustainable way of doing business that drains local economies. Locally produced food is much less expensive in actuality, has a much smaller carbon footprint, and reduces dependency on export markets.
The true wealth of a country cannot be measured solely in economic terms, the filmmakers argue. It includes the social and environmental quality of life. It’s this concept—what former king of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck termed “Gross National Happiness”—that gives the documentary both its title and its focus.
The good news, according to the filmmakers, is that around the world there is a growing movement heralding a return to smaller scale, localized economies, and a drive to build genuine community. Climate change and fossil fuel shortages are key drivers of this emerging trend, as is the simple need to “only connect,” as British author E.M. Forster once phrased it.
The Economics of Happiness was five years in the making, and it feels like it at times. Which is to say, much has changed economically over the past five years, and sometimes it seems as if the opinions onscreen were expressed prior to the 2008 financial meltdown, as if the speakers are addressing a different set of economic circumstances.
Yet, much of what Norberg-Hodge had to say on this recent rainy night in the heart of the Pacific Northwest, one of the regions hit hardest by the recession, spoke to the current downturn-and-recovery cycle. When it comes to global economics, “it’s not a question of good guys versus bad guys,” she told the audience during the post-screening Q and A. “It’s a question of structures and [the fact that] the scale is so big, we can’t see what we’re doing.”