Documentary Review: Economics of Happiness

TriplePundit has covered the subject of how economic growth correlates (or doesn’t) with happiness and genuine progress before. A new documentary called the Economics of Happiness showcases the downfall of a rural community in India as globalization turned them from a happy, thriving, community-centric, fully employed, fully-fed and cohesive unit into people who describe themselves as destitute and who have become depressed and unhealthy.

The film, featuring interviews with Vandana Shiva, Michael Shuman, Bill McKibben, and many others, discusses the 8 inconvenient truths of globalization, including the absurd and dumbfounding truth that governments everywhere are subsidizing goliath corporations to turn their economy from self-reliance to cogs in a global machine. The repercussions for people are not limited to those experienced by the village in India.

The first 3/4 of the film are dark and gloomy, but ends with the documentarians’ advice for how to change the system which is more uplifting. The answer, they argue, is not to rebel and completely cut ourselves off from international trade, but simply to level the playing field in terms of subsidies and incentives for local development. Food is heavily emphasized, with community gardens and organic farms being profiled in a similar vein in terms of public benefit whether they are in Tibet or Detroit.

In addition to the gloom and doom approach, there are a few other issues I have with the otherwise well-documented and beautiful story. Three key takeaway messages for watchers of the film were off the mark and need to be presented correctly if movie-goers are going to become true ambassadors of a better way of doing business.

First, the film draws cities directly into its crosshairs as inherently unsustainable. It argues that as soon as someone moves into a city, their consumption of everything, by definition, rises. This is an oversimplification. The film glosses over the benefits of cities and says that only when compared to suburbs is city living considered sustainable. Then it spends a few minutes addressing all the challenges of city living in terms of sustainability….without ever addressing that suburbs and exurbs are a colossally worse existence in terms of sustainability…and happiness, the subject of the film.

Later in the film, ironically, San Francisco is showcased as an example of sustainable economic development, but the filmmakers chose not to discuss the benefits of progressive policies in place in San Francisco that aid sustainable economic development: public transit, housing, bike lane development, car-sharing services, just to name a few. Not to mention the fact that San Francisco is, very much, a city.

Like it or not, megacities have a huge role to play in housing the 10 to 15 billion people who will soon call our planet home. Cities are more efficient than rural areas when it comes to sharing of resources– public transit, urban farming, energy efficiency, and land use are much more efficient when people live in close quarters.

Despite the film’s assumption, not everyone wants to live in a rural setting. Even if we did, there’s not enough land for 15 billion people to each have an acre or two. It’s time we stop criticizing cities and embrace them as a quality, sustainable option for housing high numbers of people.

The second criticism I have is that the elephant in the room, population growth, was hardly addressed at all. CNN recently ran a story showing that estimates for population growth might peg us at 15.8 BILLION people by 2100. It doesn’t matter how many people decide to go live independently on a farm, or shop at a farmer’s market, if there end up being 15 billion of us. Instead of discussing how many women in Africa are desperately seeking birth control to help them control their family sizes in the face of the influence of religious leaders condemning the use of prophylactics, the film actually makes it worse!

At one particularly insightful moment, the narrator is leading two women from the village in India on a reality tour of the first world, showing them some of the good, and some of the bad, that comes with globalization. They first see conveniences like washing machines, then are taken to talk to a homeless war vet turned beggar. Then they go to a nursing home, where they see two very lonely elderly patients.

The documentarians are trying to showcase how our globalized society has led to isolation, but the approach comes off as a cheap trick. The footage includes a conversation with one of the patients,  asking him why he’s by himself in the nursing home, with the implication that his grandchildren had abandoned him.

Seriously? What a dire and hopeless situation! Guess I’ll go off and make sure to have a bunch of offspring now so that I won’t be alone in my nursing home in 40 years. Maybe I’ll try to have 6 or 7 kids, because you never know with kids these days…some of those no-goodniks might choose not to have kids and, hey…how does that deliver me from loneliness later in life? Having grandkids, and lots of them, is the only way, apparently.

The third thought is that the crosshairs of the film stay focused on corporations as the boogeyman, with images of giant Cargill factories, and several McDonald’s signs making their way into the background. Granted…there is precedent to point the finger, but at the same time, there are companies that are doing good things for local communities. Whole Foods, Safeway, and even Walmart have expanded their local procurement, which should really help drive economic development in a lot of communities as people start manufacturing goods and bringing them to market. Without those retail outlets, those small, local businesses are not likely to go very far just selling things at farmer’s markets. Not ideal, perhaps, but the relentless criticism of “the corporation” may be overdoing it a bit.

Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill), and covers green business strategy on

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Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

2 responses

  1. Excellent review. Your three points are right on the mark. I would add some emphasis to the need for public education. It is critical to population control, living sustainably (in cities or elsewhere), and creating a balance between people and corporations. I stress public education, because too often private education becomes focused on career development — an important goal, but not the sole objective of education. Education serves a very public purpose by creating an informed citizenry. That purpose should be supported by the public, and it should include learning how to live sustainable — and happy — lives.

    John Howley

  2. While I generally appreciate your article, I have a couple of counter arguments.

    First of all, the film argues that cities are inherently unsustainable compared to ‘land based relatives’, those who are living in truly decentralized living patterns, because cities are simply too dense to provide for themselves. They are too dense to provide enough renewable energy, enough food, enough water, and so on. Thus cities must extarct from others, and ship in and ship out fresh resources and waste. Centralization itself, of people, of power, of wealth, is of general suspicion these days, not just in this film. And because cities are unsustainable, we should expect to see new and innovative projects coming from cities. Suburbs are not hubs of innovation. But I agree that suburbs make people miserable, myself included. Maybe that’s why I’m kvetching at you!

    Secondly, who is contending with population control?? No one!! The film does make mention of the fact that the planet is crowding, and it sets the appropriate tone for contending with overpopulation by advocating for international cooperation, rather than the current system of international competition and debt, but you’re right, it does not venture into otherwise forbidden territory.

    Lastly, Wal-mart defines local as within 450 miles, and I have worked for a Whole Foods–it is by no stretch of the imagination sustainable. These companies make sustaianble choices when they are economically beneficial–as gas prices rise, local is cheaper; as energy costs increase, solar is cheaper (Wal-Mart Canada). Just because it’s Wal-Mart local doesn’t mean it’s good. However, if these corporations were turning to sustainability because it provides a more healthy, rich and diverse context for human society, then we would all celebrate wildly.

    Generally, the film takes a more holistic, a more integrated look at what’s contributing to environmental, economic and psychosocial decline. If you only look at progressions toward sustainability in corporations, you’ll find some progress. If you look at their labor practices, you’ll find a bucket of crap. If you look at their political influence, you’ll find that democracy is for sale. So, it is not fair to pick individual bones with a movie that argues for the health of the whole skeleton. And given economic, environmental and social crises, including overpopulation, a more comprehensive point of view is really needed right now. Green business does little to question the status quo.


    James Miller

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