December 15, 2010

How to make people happy via Ecological Economics

Monica Guillen-Royo arranged group discussions with a heterogeneous sample of people from a city in Spain and has just published a paper saying that these workshops illustrate how "a given society can unravel its own pathway towards sustainability and wellbeing" (Realising the ‘wellbeing dividend’: An exploratory study using the Human Scale Development approach, in the journal Ecological Economics).
[P]articipants felt they were ‘locked-in' to unsustainable consumption patterns and consumerism. As a 48 year-old retailer said:
Carme (48): We are in the consumer society and we have been told that spending is good and since it is good we have to spend. Many times you find yourself in the shop and you do not know why.
[...] The longing for simplicity and subsistence is reflected in the following conversation between young participants.
Laura (20): a subsistence society would allow us to understand better. Nowadays, many of the things we do are not related to subsistence, we do them because we go with the flow.
Marcel (22): In a subsistence society you kill the hen because you are hungry...
Laura (20): Exactly. It is for sure that people in the African tribes have fewer worries than us.
[...] The present study has revealed that through in-depth discussions about human need satisfiers, ordinary people associate wellbeing with simplicity and ecological balance. As participants in this exploratory work clearly remarked, lower consumption, non-materialist values and basic income schemes would constitute the core features of their desired society together with time sovereignty and relocalisation.
But, according to Guillen-Royo, people - and "particularly the rich" - instead choose complexity, ecological imbalance, high consumption, materialist values, extra income and globalization, apparently because they are told to do so. Guillen-Royo does not clearly identify who tells people - particularly the rich - how to behave, but she hints at employers, marketers, corporate and media decision-makers, and economic and political authorities.

So, according to Guillen-Royo, people think that a more modest lifestyle would improve their well-being, keep telling each other - particularly the rich - not to pursue such lifestyle, and keep doing what other people tell them to do instead of what they think they should do.

I have an alternative interpretation. Saying certain things is great and cheap entertainment - just another harmless act of consumption. Good places to engage in cheap talk are bars, religious gatherings and sustainability workshops.


  1. Any subject can be trivialized without supporting material. Since the subject in question is based on the environmental crisis, it can be helpful to refer to current studies on environmental problems, such as the report produced by scientists through UNEP in 2009, .
    Moreover, since lifestyle concerns and especially "who tells people-particularly the rich-how to behave," is also of interest, an informed observer can easily research the subject of "advertising influence on lifestyle choice" and find a relevant source such as Juliet Schor, an economist who has reoriented her scholarship in terms of sociology, Juliet Schor, .
    An additional dimension can be explored in referring to former consumers of fossil fuel energy who have invested in becoming renewable energy producers, by looking at examples such as these from Germany and the US: Blake, M., “In Germany, Ruddy-Cheeked Farmers Achieve (Green) Energy Independence,” The Christian Science Monitor, Boston, MA, USA, Aug. 21, 2008,

    Festa, E.D., “To Go Solar, Start Local,” Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2009
    Some talk isn´t so cheap, but makes for a good drink, worship service, and sustainability workshop that has no problem going green. Thanks.

  2. Monica Guillen2/15/2011 11:54:00 AM

    It is certainly easy to trivialise rigorous research but it neither helps society nor the environment.Participants in the workshops discussed needs and strategies to meet these needs following the methodology of Manfred Max-Neef, an ecological economist.They were not particularly rich, but there was variation in wealth among them. The research revealed that there are certain structures (institutions, attitudes, environments) that were hampering sustainability and wellbeing at the local level and that people, if consulted, are able to point to the ways to break with these structures. Finding a relationship between wellbeing and sustainability is not new. Research on happiness in economics has been arguing this for a long time now. What is new is showing that common people themselves, if allowed to participate, understand and identify the structures that make their life unsatisfactory and unsustainable and the structures that should be in place to reverse the situation. Trivialising serious research will not help to stop ecological degradation and illbeing.

  3. It is helpful to at least consider the possibility that what someone says need not be the truth. In certain contexts someone who says "things" does so at a negligible cost to himself but may get substantial emotional and social benefits. So he goes with it.

    Again, please consider what people say in religious gatherings. Such conversations are an interesting object of study. However, a study that took the content of those conversations at face value and accepted that God does speak to people or that people do love their neighbors more than they love themselves would not be very rigorous.

  4. Monica Guillen2/15/2011 12:44:00 PM

    There are different approaches to research, the most radically opposed paradigms are positivism and constructivism but pragmatics understand the benefits of the two and reconcile them. A good book is Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998): Mixed Methodology. Sage publications. Although some might argue that positivist approaches based on quantitative research are more rigurous than qualitative approaches, this is just a personal judgement, nothing to do with science.

  5. Your pragmatism tells us that God exists, vaccines make people autistic, telepathy happens and "many times you find yourself in the shop and you do not know why." Welcome to Ecological Economics.