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Why having more no longer makes us happy

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The formula of human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on us?

By Bill McKibben Posted Apr 2, 2009

Consumer This article is an excerpt from Bill McKibben’s 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.

Which means, according to new research emerging from many quarters, that our continued devotion to growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no longer makes most people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity. Growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound — like climate change and peak oil — that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous. And perhaps most surprisingly, growth no longer makes us happier. Given our current dogma, that’s as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity pushes apples skyward. But then, even Newtonian physics eventually shifted to acknowledge Einstein’s more complicated universe.

1. “We can do it if we believe it”: FDR, LBJ, and the invention of growth

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.”

He wasn’t alone in thinking this way. From Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev thundered, “Growth of industrial and agricultural production is the battering ram with which we shall smash the capitalist system.”

Yet the bad news was already apparent, if you cared to look. Burning rivers and smoggy cities demonstrated the dark side of industrial expansion. In 1972, a trio of MIT researchers released a series of computer forecasts they called “limits to growth,” which showed that unbridled expansion would eventually deplete our resource base.

A year later the British economist E.F. Schumacher wrote the best-selling Small Is Beautiful. (Soon after, when Schumacher came to the United States on a speaking tour, Jimmy Carter actually received him at the White House — imagine the current president making time for any economist.) By 1979, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni reported to President Carter that only 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth,” 31 percent were “anti-growth,” and 39 percent were “highly uncertain.”

Such ambivalence, Etzioni predicted, “is too stressful for societies to endure,” and Ronald Reagan proved his point. He convinced us it was “Morning in America” — out with limits, in with Trump. Today, mainstream liberals and conservatives compete mainly on the question of who can flog the economy harder. Larry Summers, who served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, at one point declared that the Clinton administration “cannot and will not accept any ‘speed limit’ on American economic growth. It is the task of economic policy to grow the economy as rapidly, sustainably, and inclusively as possible.” It’s the economy, stupid.

2. Oil binging, Chinese cars, and the end of the easy fix

Except there are three small things. The first I’ll mention mostly in passing: 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.”

And east of Eden is precisely where we may be headed. As everyone knows, the past three years have seen a spate of reports and books and documentaries suggesting that humanity may have neared or passed its oil peak — that is, the point at which those pools of primeval plankton are half used up, where each new year brings us closer to the bottom of the barrel. The major oil companies report that they can’t find enough new wells most years to offset the depletion in the old ones; rumors circulate that the giant Saudi fields are dwindling faster than expected; and, of course, all this is reflected in the cost of oil.

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  • Kary

    Maybe you are focusing too much on the material "things" and not enough on other factors such as both parents working, children moving far from home for jobs, the loss of the nuclear family. One of your highest happiness ratings was in 74, at the end of the Vietnam crises. Fewer people were worried about husbands and sons and the draft taking their family members. You mention the most wealthy Americans are on the same happiness level with the Amish. I would argue they have both attained a satisfaction in their life by living up to their personal desire or self actualization. This article seems biased to produce a result against materialism. I think happiness comes from freedom to make choices in your own life. When outside forces inflict their will on your choices, life becomes less rewarding.

  • I don't necessarily agree that the Little House on the Prairie years were an ideal for Americans (loving that pastoral myth will bite us in the keester), but I hear you on the general point of this post. I certainly see the unhappiness of people escalating as they retreat into isolation. Can't help but see the increasing attachment and obsession with animal pets as a symptom of this social decay. And I've got to take umbarrage with Kary – I think too many choices makes people especially miserable. There is a link between multiplicity of choice and depression, and our society is showing that depression every day. Choice is great, but too much choice…disaster!

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