In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness

Jonathan returns to Findhorn pondering how we can measure happiness

Good to be back in Findhorn. At the most elemental level, it is simply a relief to be able to sleep properly for the first time in a while. By the time I left Thailand, the daytime highs of 37 degrees were dropping to around 26 degrees at night. With no air-conditioning in the ashram, this made for long hours of nocturnal tossing and turning.

It is also good to come back at this moment in our educational cycle, with the fresh arrival of the new semester-long bunch of 18 undergraduates from an assortment of US universities and of participants on our month-long Ecovillage Training Programme. This is our ninth year of running the EVT and it always fills up at around 30 participants. This year’s group includes folk from Madagascar, Burma, Thailand, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil as well as a fair sprinkling of Europeans and North Americans. Craig and Zoe hold the focus for the entire month with great creativity and gusto.

Ultimately, however, it is just simply good to come back to Findhorn, irrespective of the time of the year. There are generally very high SPM (smiles per minute) and HPH (hugs per hour) readings at any given time and a general sense of well-being. There is an ease about the place that pulls the visitor and returning member into its easy embrace.

Given the strong emphasis on community and quality relationships here, it is unsurprising that this should be so. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a growing feeling that our society has taken a wrong turn somewhere along the path and that in important respects, quality of life is in decline. Many find it hard to believe that such feelings can be entirely attributed to nostalgia for lost youth.

As I travelled up from Glasgow by train on my journey home, I read a piece in The Guardian by Madeleine Bunting entitled: “Britain is at last waking up to the politics of wellbeing’. She quoted a UNICEF report that ranked the UK as the worst place to grow up in the industrialised world and suggested that there is a “pervasive sense that something has gone awry in this country in the quality of relationships – within families, between peers, in neighbourhoods’.

Scientists have been playing with this idea, trying to come up with ‘alternative indicators’ to the standard, largely unconsciously accepted measure of national wellbeing that is Gross Domestic Product. A range of formulas has been developed – the Human Development Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare to name but a few. Each of these provides a weighted average of a number of indicators, including GDP, subjective feelings of wellbeing, health of ecological resources, depth and quality of educational, health coverage and so on.

Pretty much all of these have found that quality of life has been dropping throughout the industrialised world since around the mid-1970s, even as (or perhaps because) income levels have continued to grow. No great surprise there. In this context, what we are about in Findhorn is a demonstration of the old-fashioned and rather quaint notion that beyond a certain level of consumption (that almost all of us have long since passed in the rich countries of the North), what makes us happy is not new ‘things’, but the quality of our relationships.

My own favourite alternative measure of wellbeing is the notion of Gross Domestic Happiness developed in the kingdom of Bhutan. Believe it or not, the mighty World Bank is currently working with the Government of Bhutan on the operationalisation of GDH. The Wongasnit ashram in Thailand, where I have just spent the last two weeks, is one of a number of organisations that will co-host a conference on the whole subject later this year in Thailand. It is good to see the ecovillage family increasingly leaving the safe margins of alternative society and coming out to share what it has learned with the mainstream.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.