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Sustainability and the pursuit of happiness

Dan Farber, professor of law | September 7, 2011

There’s a common vision of environmentalism that mostly involves giving things up, the basic image being one of ascetic sacrifice for the benefit of the environment and future generations. Some people actually are ascetics, and most people are willing to make big sacrifices in emergencies. But by and large, people aren’t willing to give up the good life forever. So if saving the planet means living a crappy life, that’s a hard sell.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the relationship between sustainability and quality of life. If sustainability efforts are themselves going to be sustainable over the long haul, sustainability needs to connect with a vision of the good life. Interestingly, there’s been a lot of research by psychologists into what makes people happy. Money and that consumption that it buys turns out to be (at most) only modestly connected with happiness. What does really matter for happiness? Good health, recreational activities, and most important of all, social connections such as friends, family, and civic activities.

Some steps toward sustainability actually save money by conserving energy and water. Others promote health, such as shifting people to healthier diets that have smaller environmental footprints. Improved public transportation, in-fill urban development, and walkable communities can improve health, reduce time spent away from family in cars, and provide better opportunities for social connections. Getting people involved in sustainability efforts can help build social capital and give a sense of satisfaction from helping the community. At the same time, all of these are also good the planet. (Look here for much more detail about all this.)

When you read about environmentalists in the newspapers, it’s usually in connection with something that they’re against. We need to hear more about what a sustainable society would actually look like. I think many people would find it an attractive vision.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Sustainability and the pursuit of happiness

  1. That’s a good point that you need to meet peoples wants and needs while being sustainable. That way people can still have all the conveniences and have less of a negative impact on the environment. For example, ethanol fuels would still let people drive cars but would reduce the about of fossil fuels used.

  2. Well said Dan. I run the Action for Happiness movement which is all about a vision of a happier future where people prioritise the things that really matter. We now have stacks of scientific (and practical) evidence that connecting, giving, having a sense of purpose (and lots of other freely available actions) are much more consistent routes to a good life than endless accumulation of wealth or consumption of stuff. (Incidentally my previous role was in sustainability and I got fed up with the hair-shirt vision of the future which is normally communicated and you refer to). If you agree with our vision then join us and spread the word! We launched in April and already have over 16,000 members in 100+ countries.

  3. Well said. People like companies need to see the value. We have found when we work with clients in the area of sustainability it needs to be connected to their vision, their strategy and they need to see a clear business case in order to embrace sustainability.

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