[Perspectives on RIO+20 > Alan AtKisson ]


Linking the Green Economy to National Happiness

Can we create “happiness for all” while preserving the planet? Will humanity manage to create “green economies”, and convert our current economic systems from destructive forces to sustainable and indeed restorative processes, in time? The new report Life Beyond Growth — issued on March 1, 2012, by the Tokyo-based Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society — maps the past and future of this emerging vision, and the growing revolution in economic thinking that is behind it.

The report, however, takes a nuanced view. Notice the word “economies” in the paragraph above: while we often refer to a single “global economy,” the truth of the matter is that human civilization is comprised of a complex network of many different economic systems, powered by many different kinds of energy and information, guided by many different hands, both visible and invisible. Many of the world’s economies are still free-standing, subsistence communities, where people farm or hunt and live off what is around them, with relatively little interaction with global-scale processes.

Of course, even indigenous tribes living deep in the Amazon are increasingly tied into the world’s larger network of economic transactions, clustered (at least for reporting purposes) into nation states, and woven tightly together by trade, technology, and currency exchange. But the “the global economy” is not a monolith. The process of using resources, creating value, and meeting human needs and aspirations looks very different from one place to another.
And so does happiness.

The rise of the Green Economy has been accompanied by the rise of happiness and well-being as new paradigms for national progress, complete with new indicators. Countries around the world are studying, preparing, or already using these measures as policy tools. The measurement of happiness may differ in methodology depending on whether one is British or Bhutanese, but within that diversity lies a clear commonality: the desire for a good life, and the growing realization that it is good lives, and not GDP growth per se, that our citizens actually want, and that our economies are truly meant to provide.

Life Beyond Growth, after surveying the dizzying diversity of concepts and measurements now being experimented with across the globe, makes a simplifying proposal:  let’s link these two concepts, Green Economy and National Happiness, explicitly.

There is ample justification for this linkage in existing international agreements; indeed, happiness — or at least, the possibility for achieving it — may already be a human right. None of the thirty articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, specifically mentions happiness. But Article 25 states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family....” It also specifies many of factors identified by researchers as the precursors to subjective happiness. These basic needs include food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and other social services, including support to those who are unemployed. Many other rights guaranteed by the Declaration are also related to what researchers say make us happy, including work, recreation, and the possibility to participate in the decisions that affect our lives.

If a phrase like “National Happiness” is at least a close cognate to the concept of universal well-being sketched out in the Declaration — and despite debates over nuances of definition, few would deny that it is — then the adoption of National Happiness measures, in conjunction with Green Economy policies, could be seen as an overdue implementation of the ideals embraced by the world more than sixty years ago. More importantly, embracing happiness as a human right could create the possibility for compromise and common vision regarding a fair distribution of global resources. Happiness, research now confirms, does depend on having achieved a certain minimum standard of material prosperity. But growth beyond that minimum appears to return less and less happiness, until it finally reaches a point where growth itself, green or otherwise, turns into nothing more than waste.

Marrying the concept of Green Economy to the concept of National Happiness can help us see the differences between growth that enriches, and growth that actually impoverishes. It has the potential to describe — perhaps for the first time — a clear and actionable vision for sustainability at the global scale. Where do we truly need growth, to ensure that happiness is at least within reach? And where do we need de-growth, for example in our carbon emissions or impact on biodiversity, if we are to insure that all have a chance to exercise their right to happiness, now and in the future?

For the first time, research techniques can even provide us with measurable, quantitative targets that link economic progress to wellbeing. New indicators can give us feedback on our progress toward this integrated vision vision, using measures that compete favorably with traditional economic signals in terms of robustness. We really do have all the tools we need to aim effectively toward transformation.

The world is in serious need of a new vision, one that can make the concept of sustainable development more real for people, and that can provide the nations of the world with a new sense of common ground. I believe that vision is already emerging all around us, in places large and small — as noted earlier, from Britain to Bhutan.

It’s a simple equation, easy to remember:  Green Economy + National Happiness = Sustainable World.


The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP



University of Finland and UNEP - 12th Course on Multilateral Environmental Agreements
2-12 November 2015, Shanghai, China

The Special theme of the Twelfth Course is Climate Change.

2nd UNEP-INTERPOL Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee Conference
16-17 November 2015, INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation, Singapore

At the 2nd ECEC in Singapore, INTERPOL and UNEP brought together Chief Executives from Environmental Security and Enforcement agencies from INTERPOL member countries, as well as Chief Executive Officers from international and non-governmental organizations, to design and debate strategies to tackle environmental crime and achieve sustainable development goals.

Annual Meeting UNEP- EUROCLIMA (EC Programme to support Policy Dialogue on Climate Change issues in Latin American countries)

Special session of the Commission on Environment of the PARLATINO(Latin American Parliament) on Climate Change law.

27-28 October 2015, Panama

Global Training Programme on Environmental Law and Policy for Mid-career Government Officials

05-13 October 2015, Nairobi, Kenya

Meeting of the Senior Government Officials Expert in Environmental Law on Mid-term review of the Montevideo Programme IV

7-11 September 2015, Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo Programme Environmental Law Seminar: Laws to Promote environmental sustainability of oceans and seas
9-10 July, Panama City, Panama

Montevideo Programme Environmental Law Seminar: Legal Foundation for Environmental Sustainability

13-14 July 2015, United Nations Headquarters, New York

Meeting of Eminent Legal Experts on the Midterm review of the Montevideo Programme IV

15-16 July 2015, United Nations Headquarters, New York

Regional Training on Negotiations for Multilateral Environmental Agreements Focusing on UNFCCC and CBD as they relate to Regional Seas Convention
11-13 May 2015, Jeddah Kingdom, Saudi Arabia

Meeting of Climate Change Negotiators of Latin America and the Caribbean
14-15 May 2015, Santiago de Chile 

Regional Meeting of negotiators in preparation for Climate Change multilateral negotiators (exchange of views and discussion of key topics for the region towards COP21)

International Day for Biological Diversity 2015
22 May 2015

Biodiversity for Sustainable Development

This year’s theme reflects the importance of efforts made at all levels to establish a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda for the period of 2015-2030 and the relevance of biodiversity for the achievement of sustainable development.

Launch of The UNEP Sourcebook 

officially launched at a side event in the margins of Ramsar COP 12 - 8 June 2015, Punta del Este, Uruguay

The aim of the Sourcebook is to provide National Focal Points of the major Biodiversity-related Conventions as well as other stakeholders working on these conventions, with options to achieve enhanced implementation of the conventions through enhanced cooperation.

Preparatory Workshops for Paris UNFCCC COP for 2015 for Least Developed countries

June 2015, Bonn, Germany

Second Congress on Environmental Policy, Law and Justice Seminar on Environmental Crimes

6-10 July 2015, La Habana, Cuba

Inter-American Congress on the Environmental Rule of Law(OAS website)
30-31 March 2015, Montego Bay, Jamaica 

The Organization of American States (OAS) co-organized the First Inter-American Congress on the Environmental Rule of Law in Montego Bay, Jamaica, an event that concluded with a call to strengthen the rule of law on to address environmental challenges in the Americas.

Environmental Justice and Sustainable Development

4 May 2015, UN Headquarters, New York, Conference Room 11

Further Resources




Alan AtKisson is lead author of the report, Life Beyond Growth (on which this article is based), and a consultant on sustainable development who works with companies, governments, and international agencies. To download the 73-page Life Beyond Growth report, which traces the emergence of Green Economy, National Happiness and other concepts, please visit this website:  www.lifebeyondgrowth.org


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