Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"
Christopher Barrington-Leigh’s essay seems to me to offer a well-rehearsed set of ideas in the domain of sustainable consumption, which is rarely subject to critique, and I thank both him and GTI for raising it for debate here. My response is born of a combination of instinctive and intellectual reactions to the assumptions I see in much of the writing on well-being/happiness and sustainability. It boils down to two things: a reluctance to subscribe to universal ideas of human nature and needs, and a discomfort with the politics that would try to replace GDP with well-being/happiness.
I am uncomfortable with the idea of either measuring happiness, or aiming towards it, because I am convinced that people experience happiness in different ways, and as a result of different values. When we try to generalize this, we end up with rather bland statements about what makes us happy. For instance, we may be “social beings” (as Christopher Barrington-Leigh puts it), but we have very different interpretations of what being “social” means. It could be anything from greeting your neighbor on the street, to using fashion to express your sense of identity and belonging, to being a community activist. How then are we to meaningfully talk about “what makes people happy”? Needs will have radically different satisfiers, and as a result, there is limited value in categorizing them so precisely in the first place. For me, if happiness or well-being is a “thing,” it is a very slippery one, and the idea that it complements ecological sustainability is doubtful if not dangerous.
In talking about happiness in such a universalist way, we quickly slip into making distinctions between needs and wants. Again, this makes me uncomfortable. Who decides what counts as a need and what counts as a want? Who decides if a need is subsidiary or basic? To me, this conversation is a moralistic and deeply political assessment of how people choose to live their lives. It is not objectively obvious that one set of needs—or, indeed, need-satisfiers—should be prioritized over another, and the big risk with a group of (predominantly) middle-class, educated researchers thinking about this is that we end up with a list of needs which relate to what we think is important, and a list of wants which we value less. A more productive line of thinking is to look at which needs are served by the most environmentally destructive forms of consumption, and to think about ways in which this consumption could be catered for differently. In other words, how might you substitute one needs-satisfier for another in order to achieve a similar social outcome, with less environmental damage?
The claim that measuring progress using well-being is less individualistic than GDP is also problematic. Much of the data commonly cited in support of well-being as an indicator is based on aggregates of individual measures (“How happy are you?”) rather than on assessments of collective well-being (although eudaimonic approaches go some way towards addressing this). In hedonic approaches, the “selling point” of a happiness or well-being approach is the logic of capitalism turned on its head: instead of “consume more and you will be happy,” we have “consume less and you will be happy.” We imagine a consumer in this instance taking a rational, individual decision to maximize benefits—this is a highly individualized vision of how people operate.
I very much admire Sara Ahmed’s writing on the politics of happiness. She points out that happiness has been used to promote a range of unsavory agendas in the past, including the subjugation of women (“Women are happy being in caring roles”) and the subjugation of colonized populations (“We came to civilize the natives and make them happy”). She points out that if happiness becomes an aim, it also becomes a duty, and then to be unhappy is to be “causing trouble.” In the context of feminism, this means the unhappy woman, the feminist, is a “killjoy,” when another framing might cast her as the freedom fighter. How do we deal with unhappy people in a world where needs and wants are determined by a central indicator? Do we subjugate them because they are “killing joy”? Many of us working on environmental issues are also “killjoys,” I think—would we like to be subjugated under a happiness discourse? The idea of “educating for well-being” also becomes rather sinister in this context: Should we not be educating for resistance or for critical thinking, to ensure that people are able to fight for environmental and human rights?
Ahmed’s insights raise a key question for me: if we are going to move away from GDP, why turn to another ambiguous indicator like happiness, which can be manipulated just as easily? Why not use direct indicators to measure the things that we think might be a byproduct of aiming at happiness (inequality, education, health, environmental sustainability etc.)? Otherwise, we are risking the unintended consequence that happiness becomes an end in itself and that these other (to me more important) goals get forgotten.