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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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