As part of their wonderful “Affluenza” series, UWMC brought environmental author and activist Bill McKibben to town. Starting with the title of his latest book, Deep Economy: the Weath of Communities and the Durable Future, he wove in something that is often forgotten when we speak of the economy and especially material wealth — happiness.
Now, it is true, as McKibben pointed out, that “happiness” is a tough thing to measure. But it is also true that although we may not be able to define happiness, to paraphrase a famous Supreme Court wag, “we know it when we see it.” According to McKibben, a fair amount of research has been done correlating the answers to a simple question (Are you happy?) to actual states of well-being that can reasonably be called happiness. That is to say, if someone asks you, “Are you happy now?” the answer you give will actually mean something.
And it turns out that people have been asking whether or not we are happy. McKibben stated that an annual poll has been asking exactly that question for well over 50 years, and the results over the years has not been encouraging. Turns out that the happiness that we as Americans report has been declining over the years. Alot of years. In fact, the peak year for happiness in this country, according to this polling, was 1956. Ouch.
Now, if happiness has been declining for 50 years, we know that material weath does not, in itself, bring happiness. The material weath of this country has skyrocketed since 1956, you don’t need an economist or pollster to tell you that. McKibben says that one big factor in the decline of happiness in Americans is what he called “hyperindividualism.” He cited two trends that illustrate what he means. The ubiquitous iPod being one, but also a trend in home building — dual master bedrooms. Apparently the solution to spousal snoring in modern America is not some ear plugs, but to add another 1000 square feet to your McMansion so you won’t be disturbed in anyway.
McKibben feels that it is community that is lacking, and one of the main reasons for the decline in happiness in America over the last 50 years. And his solution, though not unique, is not a Band-aid either. McKibben feels it is important to rebuild our trully local economies — which will then rebuild our local communities. He feels that this will both improve our happiness and save our ecology.
McKibben gave a number of examples of where local efforts could replace the huge, centralized economic structures, for example, rather than building huge power plants more people could generate their own power with solar or wind and both feed into and take from the existing power grid. But two of the examples that he mentioned struck home with me, and I hope with other readers of this here blog.
It turns out that one of the fastest growing areas in the food “industry” is farmers markets. It also turns out that while sales of recorded music is basically flat, ticket sales for live music — and music festivals — is the fastest growing part of the music industry. McKibben cites these trends as part of the “Deep Economy” not just because they are local, but also because they really are a different way of doing “business.”
I don’t think anyone has to tell you that going to a concert is a different world from listening to a CD at home. It is impossible to compare the two experiences. The CD may be sonically perfect, but the shared experience of the concert is so much richer. It seems that the farmers’ market experience has the same kind of richness built into it.
Researchers followed people around at the grocery store and at farmers’ markets. What they found was quite interesting. Turns out that people have 10 TIMES more conversations at the farmers’ market than they do at the grocery store. You may be able to load up on calories at both places, but the farmers’ market truly helps build community at the same time.
This is what McKibben means by “Deep Economy.” Truly working together not only to make a living, but also to build community in a real sense. I know we can do that here in Wausau, and I hope this blog will continue to be on the “cutting edge” of our new deep economy.
I will have more to say about McKibben’s thoughts on global warming and other environmental issues in a future post. That post may take a while as I will be out of town for the rest of the week. Play nice while I am gone.