Tag Archives: Books

The World after GDP

Guano mining at the Chincha island off the Peruvian coast. Source: Wikipedia.

Guano mining at the Chincha island off the Peruvian coast. Source: Wikipedia.

Guano – basically bird dung with an exceptionally high quality as fertiliser – was a highly demanded product. Mainly found on Pacific islands off the coast of Peru it was a popular agricultural fertiliser since the 1840s. From the 1850s, demand sky-rocketed, and competition for guano deposits was fierce. It was guano that was at the basis of the United States imperialist tendencies. The Guano Island act of 1856 allowed US citizens to take control of unclaimed islands.

Why is this relevant, and what does it have to do with GDP?

Guano soon made the people mining it rich. But the environment suffered: it took few decades to exhaust all reservers and leave the islands containing deposits bare. Favouring short-term economic gain over long-term environmental sustainability destroyed the islands.

Guano is just one example, but fits a long human tradition of discovering, using, and then exhausting precious resources, without batting an eye about the environmental consequences – very often driven by the desire to achieve economic growth and increase GDP. But compared to the 1850s, we have a lot better understanding of how these patterns go, and a larger awareness that alternative strategies are possible.

The World Before and During GDP

The World After GDP by Lorenzo Fioramonti. Editor: Polity books

The World After GDP by Lorenzo Fioramonti. Editor: Polity books

The World After GDP, a new book by Lorenzo Fioramonti, offers some of thoughts to escape this trap. It starts by the notion that today, with the exceptions of few isolated and traditional populations, human beings above all are consumers. Private consumption is what is at the basis of GDP and keeps economies going.

GDP however has a bit different origin: it started as a tool to help the English king and French sovereigns in the 17th and 18th century determine how much tax their populations could sustain. The modern institution of GDP developed as of the 1930s, when economic Simon Kuznets helped the US administration understand the national income. Over time, GDP evolved from a metric to see the size of the economy to a goal per se.

Revise GDP, but don’t dethrone in favour of another flawed indicator

The beyond GDP argument that Fioramonti also makes has already been widely discussed on this blog. Fioramonti discusses, and welcomes, the many contenders of GDP. He dedicates some attention to the Human Development Index, the OECD’s Better Life Index, Gross National Happiness, the Social Progress Index, and more. He also notes that the criticism has resulted to some top-down changes to GDP, such as statistical revisions to add up the black market to national economy. The change to consider investment in research as a benefit rather than a cost is another example.

The Nordic leaders (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) poking fun at US President Trump and Saudi king Salman

The Nordic leaders (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland) poking fun at US President Trump and Saudi king Salman. What if they would lead the G7?

Ultimately, Fioramonti very sensibly states that all those alternative indicators, like GDP itself, only display one approach to wellbeing. Therefore he speaks out against replacing GDP by another, again inherently subjective and likely flawed, indicator. At the same time, these sections are full of careful reflection on the beyond GDP revolution, and contain interesting ideas. For instance, his mapping of alternative G7 is provided an interesting narrative. The strongest 7 countries of sustainable development does not contain any of the largest economies, but brings Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Ireland, South Korea, Chile and New Zealand together. The G7 of happiest countries includes Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. A G7 lead by these countries would be, well, a lot of different.

A bottom-down revolution?

Apart from the top-down changes, Fioramonti also sees a bottom-up pressure on GDP. This is where his book stretches beyond the usual beyond GDP literature. While he has a point that there is an increasing community of ‘de-growth’, authentic consumption, local produce and peer-to-peer services, the question is how much we really should read into this. Does someone who drinks a regional craft beer really has his lower contribution to GDP in mind when he sips away, or does he simply value the idea of getting something from close by?

And, isn’t there a lot in the ‘sharing economy’ that has little to do with sharing? AirBnB and Uber, referred to at multiple occasions by Fioramonti, do not only have positive effects. For instance, in reducing the cost of a car ride in New York, Uber drives people out of the metro and into congested traffic. AirBnB makes it easier for people to travel, but creates it own ‘buy to rent on AirBnB’ market, pushing residents out of inner cities and seeing them replaced by one-time consumers. Modern technologies thus simply are used to generate returns in a more modern way. While the book is well thought through and a worthy read, it may stretch the argument a bit to call this a post-GDP world.

Looking back at my experiences and achievements in 2015

In the beginning of this year, I formulated no less than ten New Year’s Resolutions. For me, the end of the year is the natural moment to look back and review what I experienced and achieved throughout the year.

This is how I did:

  • Live together with the girl I feel in love with last year

Yes! And it is a very special experience. Moving in together comes with some challenges. But these challenges are insignificant in comparison to the wonderful pleasure of being together every day.

  • Track and improve my sleep

Fairly well. Especially in the beginning of the year, I used sleep-tracking apps. They helped me somewhat improve my discipline in going to sleep and getting out to bed on time. But I haven’t systematically used them all year round. And my sleeping habits still can improve.

  • Expand my blog

Not bad. Especially after summer, I’ve opted for a somewhat slower frequency. I’ve taken the chance to take on some speaking occasions presenting my work in this field. But maybe most importantly, I’ve visited two ‘happy countries’ this year: Denmark and Bhutan.

  • Work on my health by running or by yoga

Could be better. I regularly do yoga, but not every week. And while I ran a personal best at the 5k (22 min 20 seconds!), I have only ran in training for that race, not all year round.

  • Celebrate my 30th birthday

Yes! And I celebrated it well, spending a weekend in the Belgian Ardennes with a group of friends.

  • Continue to do well at work

I think so. My role within our team has grown this year. And in the last week before the holidays, I won a new promotion (yeah!)

  • Travel to two new countries: Portugal and Bhutan (finally!)

Yes! I spent two weeks in both of them, discovering different towns and landscapes and learning a lot about their culture. And apart from these two, I also visited Denmark for the first time and made stopovers in Nepal and Qatar en route to Bhutan.

  • Watch at least one new TED talk per week

Almost. I’ve had a good amount of inspiration in watching TED talks this year, with topics ranging from basic income to indoor plants to improve air quality in house and from the strength of Muslim women in peace processes to cold-water surfing. While I saw many, I don’t think I got to one per week. And unfortunately I did’t attend any TEDx events this year.

  • Read novels and books about happiness

A little bit! A quick glance at my current happiness bookshelf suggests there aren’t too many additions: books on the November GNH conference in Bhutan and The Power of Negative Emotions being the exceptions. Still, (un)happiness was also a theme in other books that I read, such as Haruki Murakami’s title Norwegian Wood. And reading A History of the World in Twelve Maps also made me happy!

  • Become a better public speaker

Yes! Two and half years after joining, I finished Toastmasters International‘s Competent Communication programme. And I undertook some public speaking opportunities to talk about my discoveries on happiness.

 

Especially in the beginning of the year, I occasionally took a glance at the list to remind me what I wanted to achieve. But as the year progress, I took more and more distance. And now, I don’t even understand why I needed ten goals.

Goals are helpful to meet objectives and develop yourself. But if there is one goal I have for 2016, it is to have less goals…

La Grande Bellezza & the ability to enjoy our lives

I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories” – Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science, London School of Economics

In my posts about happiness I don’t only write about reality, sharing experiences from travels and other activities or knowledge from scientific research on how our happiness works. For me, writing about happiness also means writing about the imagined worlds of literature, arts, and movies.

Happiness in made-up stories

When I have the time, I like to read and let the stories bring me to new places and join the characters on their journey through life. I agree with Paul Dolan, quoted above, when he recommends an active life. It’s true that being active is one of the ways to well-being. But I also have a vivid imagination. Contrary to Dolan, I think that made-up stories can result in real experiences, such as a feel of calm, excitement, or even  happiness.

Anybody who has ever enjoyed a novel or a movie would agree. There are a few movies that require us to use all our senses to grasp its meaning. For me, La Grande Bellezza, is one movie that is just like that.

I recently re-watched the story about Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), at 65 years the king of the jet-set of Rome. He deserves his fame to a novel he wrote over 40 years ago. Currently, he passes his days at big parties, artistic gatherings, his rooftop terrace with hammock in front of the Colosseum, and altogether living a life of mundanity.

Jep in La Grande Bellezza.

Jep in La Grande Bellezza.

Hedonism

La Grande Bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and Oscar winner in 2014, is a story about Rome, about art, and ultimately about (un)happiness. Since the beginning of philosophy, we have been looking for the answer to the question: ‘what is happiness’?. Traditionally, two answers have been dominant to that question: hedonism and meaning.

Let’s take hedonism, also known as utility or pleasure, first. This form is very much present in La Grande Bellezza. Objectively, Jep’s life is great: he attends the big parties and shows in town, he eats when he wants, sleeps with women when he wants. Jep describes the aim of his life in Rome as follows:

When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly into what might be defined as the whirl of the high life, but I didn’t just want to live the high life, i wanted to be the king of the high life. I didn’t just want to attend parties, I wanted the power to make them fail.

Meaning

The second answer to the question ‘what is happiness?’ is meaning. At the same time as being the king of the high life, Jep is an artistic soul, observing the silence, his sentiments, emotions, and his fears… As a journalist and writer, but also as an individual, he is interested in the misery of human beings.

I was destined to be sensitive. I was destined to write. I was destined to be Jep.

La Grande Bellezza is a movie from which you can extract different messages or meanings. For me, the story of Jep is one of a failure to find happiness in meaning. His artistic career kicked off with a bang over forty years ago, when the girl he loved inspired him to write a revolutionary piece of literature. But with the girl, also his ability to write these kind of novels is gone. With the meaning lost, he tries – and fails – to find happiness in hedonism.

The wisdom to enjoy our live

In a sense, Jep is the most tragic of characters in a tragic movie. At the same time, La Grande Bellezza is a story that beautifully grasps many concepts about the beauty of life. If beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our life, as I read as a comment to a YouTube video with part of the soundtrack, there is not so much beauty in La Grande Bellezza as it may seem at first.

Beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our live

“Privacy is theft”, a warning about invasive technology

Technology is anything invented after you are born - Alan Kay, computer scientist

If Alan Kay is right, I live in a time with a lot of technology. I am part of the last generation of high school students who wrote their own book reports, instead of copy pasting them from the internet. I am also part of the first generation that  communicate with close ones in other countries any moment of the day and anywhere. If needed, with a couple of swipes I can access all knowledge of the world from my toilet.

Am I living in a dystopia or a utopia? The jury is still out on that. But Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle provides some compelling evidence that we are on the wrong way. Over the Christmas holidays, I read his smart novel about a top-notch internet company in which the attentive reader may recognise a type of Google. The Circle has become the leading firm thanks to the creation of a single, and verified online identity – with the Orwellian name TruYou – that allows you to sign in everywhere. This single online identity is the end of password remainder emails and internet trolling.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The hero of the novel, Mae Holland, is extremely excited when landing a job on the Circle’s campus. She quickly spends her time filling out surveys, her mandatory social media activity, attending all the social gatherings, and occasionally do a bit of work. Responding surveys, whether it is from her own clients as part of the customer relations team, or on the question whether more or less vegan options should be served at lunch, becomes a key part of her daily tasks: her opinion counts. As a result, she almost has too little time to enjoy all the amazing services on campus, ranging from free and high quality healthcare to organic local meals and concerts from famous musicians. Positive and optimistic slogans entice the employees to be active and creative.

It turns a bit nastier when Mae is told to pay more attention to her social media presence. At the Circle, all performance is assessed. All experiences must be shared, and status updates, comments and likes all count towards her Participation Rank (PartiRank). Participation becomes a daily task: it takes multiple hours to rise in the rankings.

The novel is smartly constructed, and it would be a pity to reveal all the details. I’d rather encourage you to read the story itself. But the message is clear: starting with benevolent intentions – ending internet trolling and protecting children, for instance – technology companies get to a position where they gather more and more information about all of us.

It’s all for a good cause: to share wonderful moments with our loved ones. If I want to make a hike in the mountains, aren’t I selfish if I don’t publish the pictures online, so my mother can see them from home?  Everything must be known, claims the lead evangelist at the Circle. And that quickly turns into an Orwellian situation. If everything must be known, are people allowed to have any secrets? Is any degree of privacy still allowed? ‘Secrets are lies’, says the Circle’s leader. And one more: ‘privacy is theft’.

Eggers’ book is a timely warning. We already live in an age where large companies have a large influence on our lives, and where individual technologies control more of our behaviour than we should like. Smartphone users, it seems, check their device up to 150 times a day. The only way to prevent a Circle-like dystopia is to protect ourselves. To turn off our smartphones. To disconnect from time to time, and to spend time in nature or with friends. Technology only takes over as much of our life as we allow it.

My happiness bookshelf, work in progress

My happiness bookshelf is work in progress!

Some of the valuable additions from the last year:

  • Matthieu Ricard, Happiness. A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Great read! He argues that happiness is largely about perceptions and positive habits that one can practice. He also wrote another book about altruism, which I discussed shortly here.
  • Thomas More, Utopia. I still have to read it, but I was reminded to it very actively when in the beginning of the year there was a Dutch TV show with the same name (see blog post here). I haven’t heard anything about the show anymore, I presume it has failed…
  • Diener et al., Well-Being and Public Policy: a scientific ‘guide’ to the state of play of well-being policies. I’ll tell you more about that soon!

 

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A happiness bookshelf

I’ve spent most of last weekend moving houses: carrying boxes with all my material needs up to the second floor, assembling my new friendly Swedish couch/bed/chaise longue combination, and wondering what to pick amongst the antique gems of Les Petits Riens.

When most of the work was done and my helper had left, I had an important decision to make. With so many boxes and bags spread over my apartment, and so many things to sort out, where would I start? I chose that my first priority would be to organise about a dozen of boxes with books.

Books can be organised in many ways. I started separating fiction from non-fiction, and after that by language and by author. For the novels, this was fine, but how do you this for non-fiction? Can a language course or travel guide be next to my scientific books from university? Can I mix the category history with popular scientific books?

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Anyway, at some point during the categorising process, a great idea sprung into my mind. Why wouldn’t I dedicate one shelf to books that are in one way or another related to happiness? So far there are seven (from Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Flow, and from the Lonely Planet for Bhutan to Dan Ariely’s books on irrationality; also see our page For a read of happiness, grouping all reading material). Despite a general surplus of books, this is the one part in my collection I should be allowed to expand. Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a new science and the biography of Robert F. Kennedy  are next on my list.

This is just a story of how I spent my Saturday evening, but there is also a broader meaning. The way you structure your life, affects the way you looks around and behave in the world. We shape our own lives through the shape we give through our environment. Ever since I started working on finance, I start seeing banks everywhere (occasionally, I wonder about their balance sheets, too).

In the same way, my hope is that having this happiness bookshelf helps to make my apartment a happy place.