Earth Day 2007: Happiness Is a Smaller Eco-Footprint

BROOKLIN, Canada - Today's children will live in a new world of climate change and greatly diminished natural resources, which may give way to a nightmarish reality, or it could give birth to a happier and lighter way of living on the Earth, say environmentalists.The scientific evidence for environmental troubles -- from rising sea levels to species extinction to desertification -- sends a clear signal that we are running into the limits of spaceship Earth to support us as it has for millennia.

"This world is ending; we need to lay the foundations for a new world," says Alice Klein, a magazine editor and documentary filmmaker in Toronto. "We have a great opportunity to make a better world," she told IPS.

Klein's film "Call of the Hummingbird", to premiere on Earth Day -- Apr. 22 -- at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival, tracks the 13 days when some 1,000 teachers, eco-activists, farmers, Mayans, Rastafarians, holistic health-workers, non-governmental organisation executives, student leaders from all over Latin America and a few from Europe and North America camped out together in central Brazil in 2005.

Their purpose was to live on the land and co-create a temporary peace eco-village in harmony with nature and each other.

It wasn't easy or harmonious. There were problems with garbage, sanitation and, not surprisingly given the diversity of their backgrounds, simply getting along with each other.

"There is very little training or study in our formal education systems about conflict resolution and how to get along with each other," says Klein, noting that, instead, we are constantly exposed to violent and conflict-ridden programming in our media.

Another fundamental issue in modern culture is separation from nature," she says. "We don't see that we are connected to the natural world."

With more people living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in human history, the delusion of separation is likely to worsen.

A recent scientific study found that more children knew the characters of the video game Pokemon than could recognise an oak tree or an otter, according to the Ecological Society of America, a Washington DC-based organisation of 10,000 ecological scientists.

Visits to national and state parks in the United States have declined by as much as 25 percent in the last decade, while kids remain indoors watching TV and playing computer games. And yet there is ample evidence that children who connect with nature perform better in school, have higher academic testing scores, exhibit fewer behavioural challenges, and experience fewer attention-deficit disorders, the ESA said in a recent statement.

The organisation is promoting the "No Child Left Indoors" campaign to challenge all citizens -- young and old -- to take a child into the natural world for a shared educational experience on or around Earth Day.

There is also ample evidence that more material things -- toys, games, computers, TVs, designer clothes -- do not make children or adults happier, says Sam Thompson, researcher at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), an environmental think tank in London.

"People in many Latin American countries report that they have a very good quality of life but use only a fraction of the resources that Europeans or Americans do," Thompson said in an interview.

The foundation has compiled data about the ecological footprint, life-satisfaction and life expectancy for people in countries around the world to develop what it calls the "Happy Planet Index". This index reflects the average number of years of contented living produced by a nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed.

In other words, the Happy Planet Index reveals the efficiency with which countries convert the Earth's finite resources into well-being experienced by their citizens. The people of the United States and Germany are at the same level of happiness and life expectancy, but the U.S. population uses far more resources and is thus much less efficient at producing satisfaction.

"The evidence is unequivocal that a focus on materialistic lifestyle makes people less happy," Thompson said.

The most efficient, according to the index, is the economically poor Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu.

"The index clearly shows that you can have a better quality of life with less use of resources," he said.

However, despite these facts and decades of talk about sustainability, all economies are still based on the concept of endless growth. Advertising and media in most cultures continue to define personal success as having more and bigger stuff.

Economies have to change radically, but we have yet to figure out how, said Thompson.

In all of this, avoiding despair about the future is crucial, especially for young people, says Nic Marks, head of NEF's centre for well-being.

"The things that bring us joy or happiness and a good life don't have to cost the Earth," Marks told IPS.

Things that make us truly happy are our relationships, using our skills and strengths to meet challenges or participate in exciting activities and doing things in our own way. Meeting the challenge of de-materialising our economics and lifestyles can be done in a fun way, he says.

The future life of today's children will be different from their parents' generation but it isn't happiness or well-being or even comfort that is at stake. Life will just be different and possibly much better if the young and their parents become engaged with the exciting challenging changes, according to the NEF experts.

"Use your skills and strengths to be part of the solution," says Marks.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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