My latest column, Dev 360, in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle
Why Is Costa Rica Smiling?
In Eat Pray and Love, the Hollywood blockbuster, Italy is where heroine Elizabeth Gilbert’s pursuit of happiness begins. Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts, goes on to “pray” in India and eventually finds “love” in the arms of a Brazilian in Bali, Indonesia. But despite what the promos say, blogosphere is full of acidic comments that the lovely Roberts has been upstaged this time by even lovelier visuals of spaghetti at a Roman restaurant, thin, crispy crust Neapolitan-style pizza, cinnamon-ginger gelato,
prosciutto with fresh cantaloupe and such like in the “eat” portion of the film. Roberts deserves our sympathies. Italy is the sort of place where it is not easy to be a star attraction, but where, happily, academic discussions about a country’s search for sustenance and serenity are often followed by the choicest of wine, cheese and prosciutto.
Last fortnight, I was at Cuneo in the Piedmont region in north-western Italy, listening to philosophers, politicians, ecologists, economists and activists wrestle with some of the most fascinating and complex issues of our times. The broad theme of the global conference, organised by Greenaccord, an Italian NGO, was boundaries and values for a sustainable lifestyle.
What interested me most was the big play given to the “happiness” question. The takeaway — to be green is not only to be smart, but also happy.
The toast of the Cuneo conference was Costa Rica — adjudged the greenest and happiest nation in the world by Happy Planet Index (HPI) set by the New Economics Foundation, a London-headquartered liberal think tank. The HPI, for those not in the loop, measures the well-being of people in the nations of the world while taking into account their environmental impact. The World Database of Happiness, compiled on the basis of Gallup polls and others, also lists Costa Rica at the top of the happiness charts.
So, what does this central American country have that others don’t? Well, for starters, they have some of the most magnificent beaches. At Cuneo, Ana Lorena Guevara, the ebullient vice-minister of environment, energy and telecommunications of Costa Rica, let us into some of the other ingredients of this happy country: Costa Rica did away with its Army in 1948 and invests huge energy and resources into education (literacy is about 95 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world) and welfare (Costa Rica has universal healthcare, one of the best health systems in Latin America). The average Costa Rican can expect to live up till 79 years. Costa Rica’s rising education level has also led to greater gender equality. For context — Costa Rica has a fraction of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States, a much lower ecological footprint and has done better in bridging the gender gap and providing healthcare to its people.
What is most interesting is that Costa Rica has achieved all this through a green development model. “We consider our biodiversity a fundamental factor for our progress. I think that our people’s happiness is linked to the fact that their everyday lives are interwined with nature,” said Ms Guevara.
Costa Rica is no doubt a somewhat special case: it has a population of only 4,640,000 and a relatively homogenous population, but the Costa Rican model offers environmentalists a compelling argument.
Happiness jumped onto the policy agenda in 1972 when Bhutan’s then king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, proclaimed that “gross national happiness” (GNH) was more important than “gross national product” (GNP) because “happiness takes precedence over economic prosperity in our national development process”.
In the decades that followed, the land of GNH has steadily opened up to the world, and consequently had to bear some of its stresses. Bhutan’s example, however, has helped catalyse broader discussions about well-being and the quality of life of a nation.
Conventionally, mainstream economists gauged the progress of a nation by its GDP growth. That notion has been challenged by the emergence of indicators such as the Human Development Index. In recent years, a growing number of economists, social scientists and bureaucrats have been trying to develop measurements that take into account not just economic growth but also access to healthcare, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other non-economic factors.
The recent global economic crisis has been a game-changer. It has given “happiness economics” and its variants a whole new buzz, shifting it from the margins to the main frame. As journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman pointed out in a column in the New York Times in March 2009, “What if the crisis of 2008 represents something more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said ‘No more’?”
Take just two recent developments that were cited in the Cuneo Forum. Maryland in the United States now has its own “Genuine Progress Indicator” — an innovative online tool that will allow policymakers and citizens to more accurately measure the state’s standard of living. This includes indicators of social and environmental health along with traditional economic calculations and are intended to produce more informed and sustainable policy choices in the years ahead. The second example is the new Constitution of Ecuador (2008) which grants rights to nature.
Critics of happiness economics dismiss it as too subjective. Perhaps it is. Certainly, it needs fine-tuning. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that something has got to change when there is more money for ice cream and pet food in the rich world than for clean water and elimination of hunger… “The bottomline is that growth in material consumption (GDP) is not sustainable and it does not necessarily bring happiness”, pointed out Robert Costanza, one of America’s best-known ecological economists and a speaker at the Cuneo Forum.
The answer to whether we need more growth or less growth depends on where the question is pitched. In a country like India, where millions still go to sleep on empty stomachs, talk of a total “degrowth” will have little appeal. But the message of environmental justice sounded by Spanish economist Joan Martinez Alier remains relevant.
How can India emerge a winner in the happy country stakes? Perhaps I am biased after all the good times in Cuneo. But, I think, we need to stir the cocktail — do not stop economic growth, but explore the idea of “bounded progress”, to borrow a term used by Worldwatch Institute’s Gary Gardner; lace it with the ingredients that make for Costa Rican contentment and Bhutanese bliss. It is a simple idea with ancient, eastern roots — Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism all advocate the middle path.