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King: Grow economy or happiness?

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.
When backed into a corner, global warming skeptics admit that yes, it is getting hotter, and yes, human activity has something to do with it, but they still insist that taking steps to halt climate change would cost too much.

Regulating automotive emissions or mandating pollution controls at coal-fired power plants would jeopardize the economy.

They've got it backward. Times readers can see for themselves the damage drought is doing to business. Without water, no economy can function for very long. Drought is a consequence of shifting rain patterns, which in turn are a consequence of climate change.

In other words, the economy depends upon natural resources.
It is not restrictions on business that jeopardize the economy; it is the unrestricted activity of individuals in Congress and the business world who focus on short-term goals rather than the long-term good of the people they are supposed to serve.

For thousands of years, mankind lived in an open environment. When resources in one location were depleted, human activity could move to another. Trade routes changed.
Populations migrated. To a certain extent this is still going, but climate conditions are no longer local. The climate is changing around the globe, and our thinking will have to change with it.

Resources have always been finite, but we have never had to face that fact before. The world was too big. There was always some place else to go, a different environment to exploit. Now, if we want to survive, we have to change the way we look at the natural world.

How many times have you heard a politician speak of "growing the economy?" Economic growth is always spoken of in positive terms, but any growth can become a cancer, and economic growth is no exception. We are finally realizing that every new business, subdivision or highway generates greater demands on essentials like electricity, waste disposal, and of course, water.

Perhaps there are other things we could grow. There's a small country in the Himalayas that counts happiness as its most important asset. Instead of a Gross National Product, Bhutan promotes Gross National Happiness.

The people of Bhutan are Mahayana Buddhists who put compassion and respect for life above economic gain. They see their wealth in terms of their traditional culture and their national identity, and they protect these assets by tightly regulating commercial tourism and foreign investment.

Idealistic? Sure. Wouldn't work in Western society? Maybe not, but what if we went on a campaign to grow something other than the economy?

What if we really practiced our Judeo-Christian beliefs and put love and compassion above political and economic gain?
What if we tried to grow the nation's spiritual capacity?

What would a Gross National Spiritual Index look like? It would not limit love to family and friends, but extend empathy and compassion to all humanity. It would encompass the Earth itself. The Creation, whatever one believes about its origin, would be seen as a living entity to be cherished and protected.

I'm sure you have heard "Money doesn't bring happiness," but today economic psychologists (I never knew there was such a thing until I began researching Bhutan) apparently have the research to prove it. While poverty is never good, they say there's a limit to how much happiness people get from an ever-growing economy.

People derive their strength from the land, from their families, and from their faith, not from the Gross National Product. We need jobs, but we need jobs that are compatible with the environment, jobs that sustain, not exploit the Earth.

Political pollsters tell politicians that Americans do care about the environment, but that the economy and health care are even higher on their list of concerns. What neither the politicians nor the public seem to understand is that the economy and public health depend on things like clean water, healthy air and uncontaminated land on which to grow our food; in short, on the environment.

Furthermore, caring for the environment is a spiritual concern. Global warming is a product of our misplaced priorities, and to say we can't afford to take the necessary steps to stop it is shorted sighted at best. At worst, it is an affront to God's Creation.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.




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