Shifting baselines of happiness

I’ve just read a fascinating piece on happiness by the evolutionary ecologist Hanna Kokko, in the latest issue of the British Ecological Society’s Bulletin. Hanna was reporting her impressions of a multidisciplinary happiness conference, Is more always better?, at which she had been the only ecologist. Now, I’ve been sort of vaguely aware of this kind of research for a while, things like the pervasive role of income disparity, rather than income per se_, in determining how happy we are; the fact that happiness only correlates with wealth up to a (rather low) threshold (i.e., once you can afford food and shelter, additional wealth has little impact on (average) happiness levels); and that partly this is due to the fact that, as Hanna quotes neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach, money ‘never evokes satiety’ in the brain – no-one ever feels like they have enough (hence the prevalence of tax-dodging among the super rich, no doubt). (Most of my previous understanding, by the way, derives from Clive Hamilton’s excellent and thought-provoking Growth Fetishfetish, which questions the predominance of growth in GDP as the single underlying policy of most modern political parties.)

But what intrigued me particularly in Hanna’s article was the reference to the role of ecology, or perhaps more specifically ‘nature’ (with a small ‘n’, note!), in making us happy. Things like birdsong, green space, clean rivers, ancient trees all make us happy (most of us, anyway) in ways that probably don’t need to be quantified, but can be nonetheless. A big new initiative in the UK, the Valuing Nature Network, is trying to do just that, so that nature’s value can be properly entered into future planning and development discussions.

The corollary of us valuing nature is that losing nature generally reduces the sum of human happiness. The uncomfortable question that Hanna raises is, Yes, but for how long?

Some years ago in Beijing it struck me how many millions of its inhabitants go on about their daily lives without having much of the chance to hear birds sing… They did not seem to wake up utterly devastated by this every morning… Humans appear pretty resilient, thus when we’re trying to protect charismatic species for the delight of future generations, how should we react to the news that they will be relatively indifferent to our failures?… Of course we’d all prefer that the dodo still existed, but on a daily basis, none of us is actively outraged by its extinction.

In other words, the baseline of what we consider acceptable shifts, certainly over generations, but also perhaps even within a generation. I mentioned Daniel Pauly’s work on shifting baselines in an earlier post, in a fisheries context, and there are lots of interesting case studies. For example, when quizzed by researchers, older Mexican artisinal fishermen were far more pessimistic about the state of fishing grounds than were their sons and grandsons (and the questions were structured in such a way to avoid ‘grumpy old man’ artefacts!). And for a terrestrial example, think how different life would have been in those parts of North America overflown by 300-mile long flocks of passenger pigeons. But that folk memory has gone.

Closer to (my) home, how many visitors to the North Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough leave disappointed that they were not able to go sport fishing for bluefin tuna during their week’s holiday? And yet, less than a century ago, this used to happen.

So what’s to be done? Should we just append Joni Mitchell’s You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone with ‘(and then after a while, you forget about it anyway)’? Well, maybe. But I strongly believe that one of the things we should be doing as ecologists (in collaboration with historians, visual artists, virtual reality experts, whoever it takes) is to be recreating a view of nature that is gone, but attainable; to draw some lines in the sand, to fix at least some baselines; to create a collective imaginative vision of what nature could be, and so to inspire people to conserve and restore what we have left.