Margareta Ivarsson

Can we be Happy within Ecological Limits?

November 2011

We know that we live in an unsustainable way. We know it probably will change, due to climate change, peak oil and a disintegrated world economy. Can we still be happy? Are we even particularly happy now?

Some time ago I got an invitation from CEMUS, Centre for Environment and Development Studies at The Uppsala Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) to lecture on this theme. CSD is an interdisciplinary center established at Uppsala University and based on collaboration between Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). This article is intended to supplement the lecture.

What is happiness?

What is happiness? Well, those scholars who have studied the subject say  ”science of happiness” is not a very good expression to use. It can lead to the misperception that we only have to focus on having positive emotions and then everything will work out fine. That is not the case. Martin Seligman, one of the researches behind the happiness-theories prefers talking about authentic happiness or well-being.
Meaningful life

Another way of putting it is to talk about meaningful life. That includes belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are.

The conclusions from the latest research on happiness therefore tell us that the important things in life are anything but money and consumption. It is about friends and family, health, working conditions and a sense of achieving.

Martin Seligman summarizes what positive psychology means: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

We can de facto see this in the answers people all around the world give in the World Values Survey. When GDP (Gross Domestic Product ) gets above the limit of basic needs, positive correlation between income and happiness levels out. If you are poor, you will of course be happier if you get more money. But when you have got enough money to cover your basic needs, you will not get happier if you get more money. Lottery winners for example get happier only for a year after their win, then they end up at the same happiness level as before.

The other side of welfare society

In Sweden we have more anxiety; we are more depressed and burnt out than before.  More people are suffering from personality disorders. Without antidepressants Sweden would have the highest suicide rate in the world. But we live longer, says statistics from the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.

Another recent phenomenon is, what in countries like Sweden and Denmark, is called psychological curling. The Danish psychologist Bent Hougaard, launched the concept in which parents are increasingly interfering in their children´s lives and development. The reason is that the parents want to protect their kids from all evil. ”Curling” comes from the winter sport, where the players sweep the ice free from everything that can possibly hinder – curling the ice.

Parents want their children to have a good and safe life and the parents spend a lot of time and effort to arrange everything for the children. Bent Hougaard says that curling parents are over involved. Adults who want to make life perfect for their offspring. They transport the children by car instead of letting them go by bicycle or bus and the kids don´t have to participate in housework.
The parents shop lots of toys, but are suffering from a guilty conscience for not buying enough. Psychologist´s criticism of these parents is that kids who are used to having an overprotected life, may have difficulties later in managing on their own. Too little resistance is not good.

TheSwedish psychiatrist David Eberhard puts it this way: –One of my patients was admitted for several months when her wealthy father lost his fortune. She could simply not stand not being able to buy everything she wanted.

Another side of welfare society is that materialistic oriented people tend to be those who feel unhappy. More than those who are not so materialistic. And then we have the addiction problem: 6 % in USA are shopaholics. Want to be happy? Don´t compare yourself with your neighbor!

Environmental or cultural problem?

But are we really having an ecological and environmental problem worldwide? Is it not rather a cultural problem? This is what the Norwegian philosophers Sigmund Kvalöy Setereng, Johan Galtung and Arne Naess asked themselves when they, together with the indigenous Sami people, took part in the occupations of the Alta River in Norway. The occupation lasted from 1979 to 1981 and concerned the construction of a hydroelectric power station and a dam.

During these years there was plenty of time for more in-depth discussions about why they were there. They agreed that environmental problems need to be examined on a deeper level, with a broader analysis. What is an environmental problem? How can environmental issues be understood from a philosophical perspective?

From these discussions emerging from environmental activism, the academic subject Ecophilosophy was born. Karlstad University, Sweden, has held many courses in Ecophilosopy, focusing on ”The future of earth and the dignity of humanity”and perspectives on the human-nature relationship.

Environmental psychology

The nature is a fantastic resource for healing. Spending time in natural environments is of great value for the human brain; for concentration and mental control. People with good access to green areas are healthier than others, leading to significant economic gains.

In Norway and Sweden, so called green prescriptions have become quite common. This means physical activity, preferably in the nature, in the prevention and treatment of disease. Structured counseling is often a part of the concept.

Green prescriptionIn Norway they have green prescriptions – Grønn resept – in form of trekking. The Norwegian Trekking Association is Norway´s biggest outdoor organization. For some 140 years they have been working to promote trekking and to improve conditions for all who enjoy the country´s broad range of outdoor attractions.

Now also in the form of green prescriptions: you get your prescription from your medical doctor and The Norwegian Trekking Association has a nationwide organization with local clubs to help you get out in the nature.

Ecological effects of the experience economy

The relation between man and ecology is a complicated one. It is not just over consuming and the use of fossil fuel that have huge impacts on the ecological systems. Since the rich people in the world nowadays want more things and ”added value”, more companies sell experiences. All packed in a nice and appealing package.

The Mount Everest region has for example developed into a major tourist destination. Since the first successful summit expedition in 1953 the stream of visitors to the Mount Everest region has grown rapidly. But how can trekkers and mountaineers affect the ecological system when they are only walking? The numbers of visitors have in fact entailed a considerable burden on the natural surroundings, including the emergence of a veritable mountain of rubbish.

In April I participated in the Saving Mount Everest expedition. It was a support trek, where Swedish trekkers gave support to the Nepalese Sherpas who were cleaning the mountain. During this amazing experience I learnt that it is not as simple as just cleaning a mountain, although it is difficult enough.

Waste management or resource management?

Is it actually waste management that is needed or is it water resource management?  Imagine the following situation: 30 000 tourists per year come by plane from Katmandu to the village Lukla, where they start trekking towards Mount Everest Base Camp. The only water supply on the way is melted glacier ice in the rivers flowing through the small villages.

Unfortunately this water is not drinkable for sensitive tourist stomachs, so they prefer bottled water. It comes either in plastic or glass bottles. There is no recycling. Plastic bottles are burned and glass bottles are buried in the ground. Even if there was a functional recycling system, that would require air borne transportation back to Katmandu, because there are no roads and all the bottles came that way to Lukla. There is no functional recycling system in Katmandu either.
Saving Mount Everest Clean Up expedition 2011
One solution to the bottle waste problem is to boil water at the guest houses and let the tourists bring their own bottles. Then you get another problem: what are you going to use as fuel for the fire? Cutting firewood has led to deforestation, which in turn lead to landslides, so that is not a sustainable solution. Gas burners need gas and gas comes in bottles…then you are back to square one!

A more sustainable (?) solution is a UV-pen, which is used to disinfect the water. But it is expensive and need batteries. How are you going to recycle them? Maybe charge the batteries using solar panels? This is not an easy problem to solve and what initially looked to be a waste management problem is in fact a water resource management problem.

Back to nature and turf-huts?

Back to nature, turf-huts and it will all work out? Of course not! Instead we should use all our knowledge to develop our modern lifestyles. But we have to think interdisciplinary. We can´t solve the problems with only one pair of glasses on. We have to put together the recent knowledge from different academic fields.

I will now give some examples. From Neuroscience we know that our thoughts today are mainly a repetition of what we were thinking yesterday. So what do you actually think? Can we be Happy within Ecological Limits? Where does the new thought fit in? If we never even think about positive scenarios concerning happiness within ecological limits, they will certainly not come true.

Neuroscience Turf hut

From Neuroscience we also know that those who practice meditation focusing on compassion, exhibit permanent changes in the brain´s neural network. Mindfulness has been used in Buddhism for thousands of years.

It has, since the 1970s, also been used in therapeutic applications in Western Psychology. Several definitions of mindfulness have been used in modern psychology.

Mindfulness refers to a psychological quality that involves paying complete attention to the present moment or experience, without any judgmental thoughts.

From this we can make the conclusion that if our basic needs are met, happiness and compassion is something we can learn to develop. It´s all about being aware of what and how we think. It is time to start using our creative minds and decide what kind of future we desire, within ecological limits. We can for example use our focus to develop the way we plan, use and build urban areas.

Ecosystems within the urban area

Humanity is increasingly urban, but continues to depend on nature for its survival. Urban ecosystems are street trees, lawns and parks, urban forests, cultivated land, wetlands, lakes, seas, and streams. Urban planning is a very important field for our future. It is possible to use energy as a springboard for a sustainable society by investments in long-term solutions which save both money and the environment.

When a municipality is planning a new part of town, renovating properties and so on, a long-term and systematic handling of energy issues is an important element for sustainable development.

Another perspective is energy conscious households. Achieving lifestyle change is one of the greatest challenges to overcome for individuals, households and Local Authorities in order to promote and develop sustainability at a community level.

The ECHO Action (Energy Conscious Households in Action) project set out to create a model of active and voluntary involvement of families, local authorities, technology suppliers and financial institutes, co-coordinated by local energy agencies in support of sustainable development and local energy plans.” About two thousand households in seven European countries took part.

Green roof
111 families in Karlstad, Sweden, took part in the project and made 1000 environmental improvement measures which led to reduced CO2 emissions by more than 1,5 tons, reduce of unsorted household waste by 60% and reduce of car fuel consumption by 10% per family. ECHO Action was primarily funded by the European Union under the Intelligent Energy Europe Programme.

Energy efficiency and buildings

How can we build energy efficient? There are many existing measures to be taken, especially in the construction industry. We just have to learn to implement them, instead of thinking old thoughts. Examples of measures are; variable air systems, light emitting diodes (LED), green roofs, recharging generators for elevators, energy efficient windows, geothermal  & solar energy, etc.

And then we have the whole concept of so called passive houses. A passive house is a building with minimal heat loss, which means that there will be no downdraughts at the window or walls. Minimal heat losses means minimal energy needs.

Havana – world leader in urban agriculture

Another way of planning and using urban land is urban agriculture. More than 50 % of Havana´s fresh produce is grown within the city limits, using organic compost and simple irrigation systems.

When the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its food  and petrol imports. This marked the beginning of serious food shortages that shook the entire country, but most of all Havana. When the sources where cut off and food shortages began, Havana residents began planting food crops on porches, balconies, backyards and empty city lots. The authorities secured land use rights for urban gardeners and provided land – free of charge – to all residents who wanted to grow food in the city.

Even if urban agriculture in Havana was forced on the people by external events, Havana has become a success story for other countries to learn from.

Ecuador and Costa Rica

There are other good examples in the world: Ecuador conserves about 20 % of its land surface in state and private reserves and national parks, many on service to ecotourism, which also leads to good income to balance the ecological side. The US for instance protects less than 1% of their land to put things in perspective.

Instead of using chemical pesticides, pests are fought with lemon water and chili spray on environmental and fair trade rose fields. In Costa Rica even more land is protected; 25% in reserves. Costa Rica uses 78% renewable energy and is planning to get climate neutral by 2030.

Organically produced food in balance with the ecosystemsMarketplace, Ecuador

Our food is another heavy load on the ecosystems, harming the balance between man and nature. Organically produced food, is food produced in balance with the ecosystems.

It is sustainable agriculture, which leads to more minerals and nutrients in the food, increased biodiversity, less eutrophication and an increase of the soil´s resistance against the effects of climate change.

Today about 20 000 persons per year die from pesticide poisoning while working in industrial agriculture.

Sustainable business & Green Consumerism

There are many good examples of sustainable businesses and green consumerism. We just have to learn to think other thoughts today, than we thought yesterday.  But will the world´s political leaders come to agreements at the Climate Conference in Durban 28 November – 8 December 2011?

Change is absolutely possible. The pioneering Climate Neutral companies in Sweden for instance have reduced their COemissions by more than 30% in their first year.

My own company is climate neutral since 2008 and reduced the CO2 emissions by 90% (!) the first year. There are four reasons for this: 1) no domestic flights 2) no company cars 3) all travelling is  carried out by public transport or ”green” rental cars, that is; labeled environmental friendly by Swedish Association of Green Motorists 4) using eco-labeled electricity, that is electricity produced by renewable energy sources such as water, wind, biomass, solar and geothermal.

Yes we can be happy within ecological limits!

So if my company and the other climate neutral companies can do this, a lot more companies worldwide can. And if inhabitants in Karlstad can reduce CO2 emissions by more than 1,5 tons, reduce unsorted household waste by 60% and reduce car fuel consumption by 10% per family a lot more families in the world can.

Yes, we can be happy within ecological limits. Start thinking new thoughts today, it is possible!

Good luck!

Margareta Ivarsson

13th of November 2011

Jag sparar inga kakor

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