Film Review | The Economics of Happiness

June 20, 2011


Reviewed by John Murdock

Flourish magazine, Spring 2011


The Economics of Happiness
The International Society for Ecology & Culture, 2011, 67 minutes

“Why does Hugo Chavez want me to see this movie?” That was the question on my mind as I joined an overflow crowd at the Venezuelan embassy where The Economics of Happiness was being presented as part of the Washington, D.C. Environmental Film Festival. The film itself and the complex surroundings of this particular screening highlight the promise and peril inherent in the risky but so very needed task of Christian engagement with the broader green movement.

Setting aside the South American backdrop of the screening for now, the film itself is a well-crafted cinematic sermon against the evils of globalization. Helena Norberg-Hodge serves as the primary on-screen preacher (as well as the project’s producer, director, and co-writer), and she winsomely uses her own decades of experience among the isolated Ladakh people of the Himalayas to illustrate the negative impacts that occur when a stable traditional culture encounters the modern world. A variety of talking heads from six continents (ranging from American author Bill McKibben to the Indian scientist Vandana Shiva to Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament, to Rodrigo Lopes of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement) lend their voices to form an able Amen corner. We also hear from common folk around the planet who feel they have received the short end of the globalization stick while multinational corporations use the rest of it as a club.

The Economics of Happiness presents globalization as being propped up by inaccurate accounting that ignores much of what is important in life while elevating GDP growth to idol status. Eight simply worded critiques, such as “Globalization makes us unhappy,” serve as the film’s chapter headings and are fleshed out by images and commentary highlighting, say, the indirect relationship between material affluence and personal happiness. Personal happiness (according to an annual survey) peaked in the U.S. in 1956 and has declined, despite massive income gains, since then.

While much of what is said rings true, and the filmmaking is emotionally effective without being over the top, hard data to back up the assertions is often lacking. Thus the film is likely to encourage the already converted and influence the emotive, but leave pie-chart-craving geeks wanting more. That said, this data-lover found that the limited statistics presented were often effective, especially a montage showing that many countries import and export almost identical amounts of the same thing. (While Adam Smith might have argued that trade maximizes the comparative advantage and wealth of both nations involved in a transaction, exporting 100,000 tons of wheat abroad while importing the same seems only effective in maximizing fuel consumption.) Most of the film’s argumentation, however, is conclusory and anecdotal.

Of course, a lack of data does not necessarily indicate a lack of truth. Indeed, such an intuition is what lies at the heart of the argument against idolizing GDP growth. Just because something like soil health or community stability can’t be easily quantified in dollars doesn’t mean that it does not exist or is not important. And, as any good filmmaker knows, personal stories are often more powerful than a barrage of statistics.

I was, in fact, deeply moved as we followed women from the pre-modern world seeing first-hand the other side of the American Dream: the landfills that will house our leftover things for eons and the nursing homes that store our leftover people, staring aimlessly at the television as they wait, alone, for death to come. Such tours are arranged by Norberg-Hodge to counter the waves of idealized beauty and pleasure that mark the opening shock and awe phase of consumerism’s invasion. Ultimately, she hopes that a fuller picture of modernity convinces these women that they have valuable assets in their own culture―like leisure time, familial bonds, and respect for the elderly―that are worth preserving.

The Economics of Happiness, like many activist films of this type, closes with upbeat stories designed to inspire the audience. Localization is presented as the solution to the plague of globalization, and we meet gardeners in inner-city Detroit, people building thatch houses in Europe, and happy farmers in South America who again have land they can farm. A beautiful vision of a sustainable, joyous life was cast, and the film closed to sustained applause from virtually all in attendance, including myself.

Yet this is a very one-sided view of globalization. Those seeking to balance their intake on this topic would do well to view the PBS series Commanding Heights, which takes a decidedly more sanguine look at the late-twentieth-century resurgence of free market capitalism and globalization. Norberg-Hodge and her International Society for Ecology and Culture would likely see as yet another sad sign of the times the fact that the Public Broadcasting Service’s website for the program is sponsored by the likes of BP, FedEx, and mega-bank Goldman Sachs proclaiming “Progress is everyone’s business.”

So, why exactly did Hugo Chavez want me to see this film? Well, despite the fact that his influence is largely dependent upon Venezuela’s vast oil reserves that allow him to fund communist Cuba and Leftist regimes throughout Latin America, he fancies himself to be a champion of the peasant farmer. After the film, a representative from the National Family Farm Coalition seemed to agree and heaped praise on Venezuela’s “food sovereignty” programs.

After stating that I saw a difference between voluntary local community action and authoritarian socialism, I asked the NFFC rep if she saw any contradiction in the group’s mission statement built on communities “working together democratically” and the Venezuelan regime’s controversial approach to democratic pillars like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. (Those interested in this might want to make another visit to and watch Frontline’s report entitled “The Hugo Chavez Show.”) I didn’t get much of an answer from her, but I touched a nerve with the defensive embassy staffers.

The evening’s master of ceremonies, a young, true believer in Chavez’s revolution, questioned how anyone could object to her country’s “focus on humanism” and later nodded in agreement when a Venezuelan national in the audience said, “Socialism is the only way.” Materials for a pro-Castro movie called Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up were also available. While most of the audience left right after the movie ended, among the diehards who stayed I was beginning to feel rather out of place, as no one else seemed to share my concerns about the autocratic Venezuelan regime.

That feeling of isolation only intensified as another post-screening presenter touted a local “spiritual food” garden program with roots in yoga and Eastern mysticism. Earlier one of that group’s followers (an unforgettable glassy-eyed and grinning man dressed in all white and sporting a foot-long, wispy beard) had handed me a brochure. Prominently highlighted on the front page were these words from E.F. Schumacher: “I believe as an ecologist that we will not get any of our economics straight unless we recover a sound metaphysical basis.” Those words were from Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, a classic book from the 1970s that undoubtedly influenced many associated with The Economics of Happiness, and it is a text that would make a worthwhile follow-up to the film.

Based upon the shaky political and spiritual milieu present in the Bolivarian Hall, I felt a long way from that needed, sound metaphysical basis. And while The Economics of Happiness highlights some worthwhile values like community interdependence, love of family, rest, and generosity, any philosophical or religious foundations for those values goes largely undiscussed. To be sure, these values are not exclusive to Christianity and, in the case of the Ladakh, they certainly have roots elsewhere.  Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that E.F. Schumacher, who more than anyone else in recent memory propelled the localization movement, quoted the Bible multiple times and self-identified as a Christian in Small is Beautiful. The fact that more fellow believers have not engaged the topic may explain why the publisher of the current paperback edition now describes it as “the classic book on New Age economics.”

The Economics of Happiness and those who came to see it in D.C. exuded a spiritual yearning for something higher than what Schumacher called “the religion of economics” that dominates in our day even more than it did in his. The Economics of Happiness are not yet the economics of the planet, but the questions raised by the film are valid ones to ponder, and expanded localization may indeed be a needed step on the path away from overconsumption-by-design and towards planetary sanity and sustainability. The risk, of course, is that the well-meaning filmmakers here are only laboring to craft a better idol than “the religion of economics,” that of localization. “Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is,” as C.S. Lewis noted. Christians know that there is a better way, truth, and life than that offered by Chavez’s socialist humanism, yogis gardening for world peace, or even a rich and rewarding localized community life. Schumacher summarized the problem well when he said, “The great majority of economists are still pursuing the absurd idea of making their ‘science’ as scientific and precise as physics, as if there were no qualitative difference between mindless atoms and men made in the image of God.” And so, while The Economics of Happiness is a meaningful contribution to the dialogue, let’s hope it is not the final word.

John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C. and is a member of The Falls Church.


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