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Rethinking Quality of Life in the Era of Climate Crisis

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Once again, the United States has failed to make it into the top 10 of the world’s happiest countries.

Since 2012, the United Nations has released annual survey results comparing how people in different countries rate their overall quality of life. The data are obtained through a World Gallup Poll and published every March in the World Happiness Report (WHR). This year, America ranked 15th.

The survey assesses quality of life on a 0-to-11-point scale where 0 equates with the worst possible life and 11 is the best possible. America’s best showing (11th place) was in 2012, and its worst (19th) was in 2019. “Happiness” and “quality of life” are used interchangeably in the WHR.

Finland has ranked #1 in happiness the last six years, with the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland claiming the top 3+ spots every year.

People may conceptualize aspects of quality of life in concrete terms, like health status, access to food, shelter, education, and medical care, personal safety, strength of ties to family and community, and personal freedoms. The World Health Organization more abstractly defines quality of life as “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.” As such, if a society undergoes shifts in its value system, a person’s perception of their position relative to those values will also be pressured to change.

So, what happens to perceived quality of life when a society’s value system shifts in the direction of undermining that which makes life on earth sustainable? A case can be made this began in mid-20th century in America. It helps explain both America’s lackluster happiness ratings and, more globally, the path that led humanity to a climate crisis.

This narrative starts with the end of WWII.

Americans were understandably in party mode after the self-sacrifices of the war. During the war, our lives were characterized by food rationing and scavenging scraps of metal for the war effort. After the war, we embraced the throw-away-society when the fossil fuel industry realized the profits to be had in making everything conceivable out of plastics. The public embraced industry’s marketed promise that time-saving conveniences like single-use plastics equated with better quality of life.

Given the crucial part manufacturing played in winning the war (by supplying fighter jets, gasoline, and the like), the public was unlikely to suspect industry’s motives in the war’s aftermath. Recognition of the externalities of manufacturing was not yet in the nation’s collective consciousness. We did not foresee how natural resources such as air, water and soil could be polluted to the point of becoming unfit for humans and other life forms. The federal Environmental Protection Agency did not exist until 1970.

At the same time, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays (1891-1995), coached industry and government on how to use wartime-style propaganda to further self-serving ends. His name became synonymous with the field of public relations wherein he advocated that, to sway public opinion, corporations and government should control what information is released to the public. He viewed the public as irrational and subject to herd mentality.

Bernays used Freud’s exposé of the power of the unconscious mind in driving human behaviors to inform corporations on how to create needs for new products in the masses where no such needs previously existed.

Bernays’s influence on American society was so vast that, in 1990, Life Magazine named him one of the most influential persons of the 20th century. Many court rulings were also shaping societal values in favor of corporations. For example, the Citizens United ruling bolstered power and free speech rights for corporations.

Historically, corporations have also enjoyed largely unbridled freedom to pollute the natural world as a byproduct of their activities, free of responsibility for the harm to the livability of the planet. The climate crisis is the direct result of dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. This crisis is an externality for which the fossil fuel industry has yet to be held accountable.

To this day, the fossil fuel industry in the United States still enjoys a yearly subsidy of roughly $20 billion.

America is the poster child of a consumer society. Though corporations might wish us to believe that consumption and convenience create happiness, America’s lagging in quality-of-life ratings suggests otherwise. It is insidious to promote that quality of life could ever be separate from the state of the natural world upon which all life on earth depends.

The climate crisis is of a magnitude and timescale never before encountered. If greenhouse gas emissions magically dropped to zero today, there would still be significant risk of overshooting the critical safety limit temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a recent analysis.

Moreover, a report just released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change details many ways climate change is already a direct threat to human survival. It states: “Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability.” Over 3 billion people “live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.”

Climate change knows no geographic boundaries. The solution requires a global embrace of a societal value shift away from seeking satisfaction in consumer goods and conveniences (like fossil fuels) and toward finding satisfaction in joining forces for the common good. The good news? This is the same fundamental human value that has always allowed our species to thrive and experience happiness within our families and in relation to our communities and our societal institutions.

The 2022 World Happiness Report spells out how serving the common good contributes to happiness via trust in our societal institutions this way: “….the extent to which the quality of the social context, especially the extent to which people trust their governments and have trust in the benevolence of others, supports their happiness….”

In the United States sadly, public trust in our government has declined dramatically since mid-20th century.

Relatedly, Americans suffer from deficiencies in the very tangible benefits which enhance quality of life for Scandinavians, such as: a rich social safety net providing universal healthcare, free education, and supported parental leave; promotion of work-life balance through shorter workweeks and more paid vacation time; and a recognition of the importance of social cohesion and equality in building strong communities. These all reflect a societal value emphasis on caring for one another in both the present and future.

It should not be surprising, then, that the happiest countries are also ones that view the climate crisis through this same lens of acting for the common good. As examples, each of the five Scandinavian countries and Switzerland enacted various forms of a national tax on carbon.

In the United States, by contrast, issues concerning climate change are so weaponized in the internal battles for political advantage that policies to address the crisis are subject to the whims of who wields political power at the moment. As a result, the possibility of committed collective action on the scale needed to solve the problem still seems remote.

The COVID pandemic is a clear reminder of our dependence on human connectedness for quality of life. The climate crisis is a red-flag reminder that quality of life also depends on a healthy, livable environment. Once America makes the needed societal value shift toward cooperation and serving the common good, the specifics of U.S. policies needed to tackle the climate crisis will naturally fall into place.

The big silver lining will be an improved quality of life and survival for us all.

Sarah Mosko, PH.D.

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