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February 2012: I’m with Aristotle

February 1, 2012

According to Stephen Harper, “Personal spiritual fulfillment is government policy.” Really? No, just kidding.

It was the prime minister of Bhutan who said this. Bhutan is currently the only country on earth more interested in measuring its Gross National Happiness than its gross domestic product.

Himalayan pie in the sky? Well, that’s probably what the Harper government (which, we are told, is what we must now call the Canadian government) would say, as would bankers and other chrematists.

Other what?

The word chrematistics, like so much of our language, comes from ancient Greek and is the study of acquiring riches. Aristotle was all for economics (which originally meant the well-being of the household), but thought the accumulation of money was unnatural and dehumanizing. (The word “wealth”, by the way, comes from 13th century English and actually means “conditions of well-being”.)

Somewhere during the two millennia since Aristotle’s death, economists lost their way. How can we get them back on track?

Mark Anielski (Alberta author of The Economics of Happiness) has created a roadmap for defining and measuring what he calls Genuine Wealth.

Anielski really does see money as the bottom line, arguing that government balance sheets must include the following five types of capital assets:

  1. Human capital (Are people better or worse off?)
  2. Social capital (Are our communities healthy and cohesive?)
  3. Natural capital (Is our environment healthy and able to sustain us?)
  4. Built capital (Is our infrastructure safe and adequate?)
  5. Financial capital.

In an article in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, Anielski points out that the percentage of happy citizens in countries such as Bhutan, Costa Rica and Cuba is as high or higher than Canada, despite their much lower GDP – and much smaller ecological footprint. In fact, the recently released Global Barometer for Happiness ranked Canada 23rd – behind the citizens of Malaysia, Peru, Uzbekistan and South Sudan (but well ahead of the United States).

He concludes: “Genuine wealth requires a desire to work together for both current and future generations, and for the living ecosystem that supports all our activity.”

The idea that a healthy environment is crucial to a healthy economy is hardly new.

For millennia, the energy which supported life on earth (and powered the acquisition of riches) was provided at no cost by nature: sun, water and wind. For the past two centuries production has been fossil fuelled.

Forty years ago, Howard T. Odum redefined economics using the fundamentals of energy transformation.

Put in simple terms: wild animals must collect food which provides them with more energy than the energy they spent acquiring the food – or they will die. (It has been estimated that every calorie in the food eaten by North Americans requires 17 calories to grow, collect, process, package, ship and repair. Obviously we wouldn’t last very long in the wild.)

As Odum pointed out in his body of work on ecological economics, it took more millennia than man has walked the earth and more natural energy (capital) than we can ever replace to create the coal and oil and gas we have squandered since the industrial revolution began.

So, the chrematists (and the rest of us) have borrowed more from nature than we can ever possibly repay. Bit like a subprime mortgage. Time, perhaps, to reflect on the original meaning of the French word mortgage: death pledge.

Anielski’s system for measuring Genuine Wealth is detailed in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, which also contains key excerpts from the work of Howard T. Odum.

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