Happiness (“Hygge”) in America

Statue of Liberty with a Smiley face
No. 203 (4-11-18)
Clifton Ware, Editor-Publisher

It seems that America is no longer to be counted among the top ten nations for high levels of happiness. Is anyone surprised to learn this? I read an editorial by William Falk in a recent issue of The Week magazine that addresses this topic succinctly and accurately. Here it is in its entirely:

For much of the year, Finland has but a few hours of light and temperatures well below 0 degrees F. Yet the Finns are the happiest people in the world, according to the U.N.’s annual World Happiness Report. Norway is second, followed by Denmark and Iceland (also cold and dark). The U.S. dropped four places to 18th. Now, happiness is no doubt hard to quantify, and this ranking should be taken as more suggestive than definitive. But why does our powerful and wealthy nation—whose founding promise is the individual pursuit of happiness—consistently fall into a second tier … and keep sinking?

Human beings, anthropologists and social psychologists tell us, are social creatures. Much of our happiness flows from our connections to other people, our sense of community and joint purpose. On these measures, America—despite its economic dynamism and vibrant culture—is in distinct decline. Trust in government, other institutions, and the media has plunged. Most people feel the system is “rigged” in favor of corporations, coastal elites, or some tribe other than their own. Work, and the ceaseless hunt for money, security, and consumer goods, dominates most people’s lives; time for family and friends, and the activities that build community and meaning, is often scarce. Loneliness is epidemic. So are consoling addictions to painkillers, unhealthy food, and technology. The most alienated among us load up on weapons and express their soul-sickness in blood.

Finland, Norway, and Denmark are not without problems, but researchers say what sets the happier nations apart is the premium their cultures place on time spent in nature, and in harmonious, intimate contact with friends and family. The Danes even have a word, “hygge,” that describes these cozy, high-quality social interactions. If there is a suggestion we can collectively and personally take from the happiness ranking, it’s this: Richness comes from human connection. GDP matters less than hygge.

SUSTAINABILITY VIEWS

Peak Prosperity: This Is The Turning Point (Charles Hugh Smith). The worms have finally turned against the privileged elites—who have benefited so greatly from globalization, corruption, central bank stimulus and the profiteering of state-enforced cartels, and the powerless have finally started challenging their privileged overlords. But this is only half the story: economic trends and cycles are turning as well, and even if the worms remain passively underground, reversals will disrupt the status quo. In the current era, eight interconnected trends/cycles are either reaching the end of their run or reversing: 1) central bank manipulations; 2) credit/debt expansion-contraction: 3) yield/interest rate cycle; 4) commodity cycle; 5) stock market cycle; 6) regulation; 7) globalization; and 8) demographics.

The Guardian: The Demise Of The Nation State (Rana Dasgupta). Worldwide convulsions in national politics include the political themes of exhaustion, hopelessness, and dwindling effectiveness of old ways. This is why energetic authoritarian “solutions” are currently so popular, including distraction by war ethno-religious “purification”, the magnification of presidential powers, and the corresponding abandonment of civil rights and the rule of law. The most momentous development of our era is the waning nation state’s inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. 20th-century political structures are drowning in an ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy, and great-power rivalry. What are needed are global financial regulation, flexible democracy, and new conceptions of citizenship.

Alt-Market: How To Recognize When Your Society Is Suffering A Dramatic Decline (Brandon Smith). When historians and analysts look at the factors surrounding the collapse of a society, they often focus on the larger events and indicators—the moments of infamy. However, I think it’s important to consider the reality that large scale societal decline is built upon a mixture of elements, prominent as well as small. Collapse is a process, not a singular event. Instead of focusing on the top down approach, which is rather common, let’s start from the foundations of our culture to better understand why there is clear and definable destabilization, including: a declining moral compass; disinterest in rewarding conscience: disinterest in independent effort; individual self-isolation, and disaster denial.

Common Dreams: Could The Cold War Return With A Vengeance? (Michael T. Klare). The renewed emphasis on China and Russia in U.S. military planning reflects the way top military officials are now reassessing the global strategic equation, a process that began long before the present regime entered the White House. Military leaders’ enthusiasm for the “long war against terror” approach to the world, with endless counterterror operations, began to wane in recent years, as China and Russia began modernizing their military forces and using them to intimidate neighbors. America faces well-armed adversaries with every intention of protecting their borders, so U.S. forces are now being arrayed along an updated version of an older, more familiar three-front line of confrontation. What appears particularly worrisome about this three-front strategy is its immense capacity for confrontation, miscalculation, escalation, and finally actual war rather than simply grandiose war planning.

Red Pepper: Where’s The “Eco” In Ecomodernism? Aaron Vansintjan).  Ecomodernism is the idea that we can harness technology to decouple society from the natural world. For these techno-optimists, to reject the promise of GMOs, nuclear, and geo-engineering is to be hopelessly romantic, anti-modern, and even misanthropic. An ecological future, for them, is about cranking up the gears of modernity and rejecting a politics of limits. For an ecologist, any technology cannot be understood as separate from the context that created it. In contrast, eco-modernists see technology as simply a tool, which anyone could pick up and use. [See also: The Magical Thinking Of Ecomodernism (Jason Hikcel).

SRSRocco: The Absurd Myth That Solar & Wind Power Will Solve Our Energy Predicament (Steve St. Angelo). While there are many good reasons solar and wind can’t provide us with the necessary energy needs in the future, the most import one is that it takes the burning of a massive amount of coal, natural gas, and oil to manufacture renewable energy sources. According to the EIA’s U.S. Energy Information Agency’s Annual Electric Generator Report, new proposed electric generating plants for 2018 are two-thirds natural gas and one-third wind and solar. We can’t count on wind and solar to solve our energy predicament. There is no Plan B. The only real option is one of managed De-Growth.

Resource Insights: Migrant Caravan: Foreshadowing The Future And Reflecting The Present (Kurt Cobb). Mass migrations have happened historically because of epidemics, wars, political oppression, and even changes in climate and resource exhaustion (think mining ghost towns). What’s new is that they are happening because humans are changing the climate in ways that affect resources, namely food, and habitability, for example, flooding due to sea level rise or increased rains. Climate-change enhanced epidemics including the spread of tropical diseases are forecast as well. The migrations to come are unlikely to be so small or so organized. And, we are doing very little to change the trajectory of climate change or resource depletion that will be at the root of many such migrations.

Open Democracy: Whatever Happened To Civil Society? (Vern Hughes). Many NGOs have become corporatized beyond recognition and detached from their founding purpose and culture. Traditional bodies such as the Red Cross, the YMCA, church missions and voluntary health societies fell like dominos to ‘management capture’ and quickly became unrecognizable to those who knew them a generation before. This vast array of social relationships and associations is made up of the things we do as ‘civilians’, freely and voluntarily, in association with others, outside of the state and the market. By contrast, state-citizen relationships are vertical and coercive, while business-customer interactions are (usually unequal) monetary exchanges. It is now clear that the regeneration of civil society can come only from civil society itself—from citizen volunteers.

SUSTAINABILITY NEWS

The New York Times: Federal Budget Deficit Projected To Soar To Over $1 Trillion In 2020  (Thomas Kaplan). The federal government’s annual budget deficit is set to widen significantly in the next few years, and is expected to top $1 trillion in 2020 despite healthy economic growth. The national debt, which has exceeded $21 trillion, will soar to more than $33 trillion in 2028, according to the budget office. By then, debt held by the public will almost match the size of the nation’s economy, reaching 96 percent of gross domestic product, a higher level than any point since just after World War II and well past the level that economists say could court a crisis. The fear among some economists is that rising deficits will drive up interest rates, raise borrowing costs for the private sector, tank stock prices and slow the economy, which would only drive the deficit higher.

Resource Insights; Silent Spring Revisited: New Worries And The Human Future (Kurt Cobb). A precipitous decline in bird populations in France suggests that the silent spring foretold by Rachel Carson more than 50 years ago may yet arrive. The proximate cause of the 33 percent decline in avian populations noted by French researchers over the last 15 years is lack of food: insects. The ultimate cause is overuse of pesticides related mostly to agriculture that work all too well in keeping insect populations in check. The decline in bird populations has reached 66 and 70 percent for some species, and in Germany the decline in bird populations has reached 66 and 70 percent for some species. The danger is not only to wildlife, but also to our very survival.

E&E News: Climate Skeptics Feel Empowered To ‘Keep Pushing’ Under Trump (Zack Colman). Climate skeptics are gaining ground. There’s always been a vocal subset of conservatives who cast doubt on climate science, but what were once fringe views among broader Republicans— like warming’s a hoax—are enjoying a growing acceptance in the GOP, worrying academics, scientists and sociologists. The groups sowing climate doubt are more emboldened than ever before, sociologists and historians said. Their effectiveness in the era of President Trump is a reflection of a deepening polarization in U.S. politics and a normalization of climate skepticism on the right. Democrats and Republicans have never been further apart on climate change, according to public opinion polling.

The Washington Post: Scientists Say The Mississippi Is Flooding More Than It Has In 500 Years — And We Caused It. (Chris Mooney). A new scientific study stoked a long-standing controversy recently with the claim that human interventions, in the form of levees and other engineered structures, have made the Lower Mississippi River more likely to flood, as it has to damaging effect several times in the past decade. The research centers on the Mississippi below the Ohio River confluence, in Cairo, Ill. It uses river sediment records and tree rings from once-drowned oaks to infer past flow patterns and floods, and finds that the past 150 years stand out from the past 500 in terms of the volume and frequency of recent flooding events.

Climate Progress: Stunning Drops In Solar, Wind Costs Mean Economic Case For Coal, Gas Is ‘Crumbling’ (Joe Romm). The cost of new solar plants dropped 20 percent over the past 12 months, while onshore wind prices dropped 12 percent, according to the latest Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report. Since 2010, the prices for lithium-ion batteries—crucial to energy storage—have plummeted a stunning 79 percent. And things are only going to get tougher for gas and coal compared to renewables. BNEF’s projection of current and future prices for this country shows that onshore wind (left chart) is already cheaper than coal, and is becoming cheaper than gas. Solar photovoltaic is rapidly becoming cheaper than coal and will beat gas within several years. The future could not be sunnier for renewables.

Daily Beast: This Eradicated Disease Could Come Back As A Terrifying Biological Weapon (Tanya Basu). A Discovery series released recently produced by Steve Rivo, Invisible Killers, explores in one episode how smallpox—eradicated in 1980—could make a surprising, deadly comeback. The disease isn’t dead, however. There are at least two labs—one in Moscow, the other with the CDC—that hold vials of smallpox in the event of an emergency, stockpiles that were supposed to be destroyed by 2002 but weren’t after 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks made bioterror a real, looming threat. One thing some experts do agree on is the relative ease by which a state-sponsored actor could replicate smallpox.

Common Dreams: More Than One-Third Of College Students Struggle With Food And Housing Insecurity, Study Finds (Julia Conley). While higher education has historically been promoted as a “great equalizer,” new research into many students’ limited access to housing and food offers the latest evidence that this is no longer so in the U.S.

Carbon Brief: Limiting Warming To 1.5C Could ‘Substantially’ Cut Risk Of Ice-Free Arctic (Daisy Dunne). Two new studies find that, under 1.5C of warming, Arctic waters could experience ice-free summers around 2.5% of the time, or one in every 40 years. Under 2C, ice-free conditions could occur 19-34% of the time—or once every three to five years. However, limiting warming to 1.5C will likely be not enough to prevent ice-free summers from occurring altogether, the researchers note. Such dramatic loss of sea ice could drive further increases in warming and result in habitat loss for a wide range of species, including polar bears, seals and walruses.

Truthdig: Melting Permafrost Raises New Fears Among Scientists (Alex Kirby). Methane is reckoned to be at least 30 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the Earth, with some estimates putting its potency much higher still. The good news, research has suggested, is that there is far less methane than CO2 in the atmosphere to worry about. The bad news, announced by an international research team, is that previous calculations may have been seriously wrong, and that thawing permafrost is likely to be producing appreciably more methane than anyone had thought.

Grist: Climate Science’s Official Text Is Outdated. Here’s What It’s Missing (Eric Holthaus). A lot has changed in our understanding of the Earth’s climate system since the 2013 IPCC report. Here are some of the highlights: 1) Sea-level rise is going to be much worse than we thought; 2) Antarctica’s massive ice sheets could collapse much more quickly than we thought; 3) Extreme weather is here and can now be linked to climate change in real time; 4) Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius is pretty much locked in; and 5) We’ve already lost entire ecosystems, most notably coral reefs. The climate system is moving much more quickly than we thought, and human action to curb climate change is moving much too slowly.

The Guardian: The Plastics Crisis Is More Urgent Than You Know. (John Vidal). Plastic may have profound societal benefits, but this most successful of all manmade materials sticks around for centuries. When exposed to sunlight, oxygen or the action of waves, it doesn’t biodegrade but simply fragments into smaller and smaller bits, until microscopic or nano-sized particles enter the food chain, the air, the soil and the water we drink. In the 1950s the world made about 2m tons of plastic a year. Now that figure is 330m tons a year—and it is set to treble again by 2050. It’s not enough to return a few plastic bottles.

Fortune: More Women Than Ever Are Running For Congress In 2018 (Jennifer Calfas). This growing number of women running for office, detailed on a broader scale outside of just the House earlier this year in a TIME cover story, comes as the filing deadline for candidates running in states around the country draws near. As of Thursday, 309 women have filed papers to run for seats in the House, which, along with the rest of Congress, is predominately filled with men.

Common Dreams: Study Details How IEA’s Rosy Outlook For Fossil Fuels Is Driving World Towards Climate Disaster (Jon Queally). A new groundbreaking report details how the International Energy Agency (IEA), one of the most influential organizations in the world when it comes to the global energy system, is holding back governments from making the necessary transition away from fossil fuels, and towards the kind of rapid transition to renewables that scientists say is necessary to ward off the worst-case scenarios of global warming and the climate crisis.

The New York Times: 5 Plants And Animals Utterly Confused By Climate Change (Livia Albeck-Ripka, Brad Plumer).  Global warming is causing spring to arrive early and autumn to come late in many places, and not all species are adapting at the same rate. Scientists who study the changes in plants and animals triggered by seasons have a term for this: phenological mismatch. In some cases, species might simply adapt by shifting their ranges, or eating different foods. But if species can’t adapt quickly enough, these mismatches could have “significant negative impacts,” Five examples of mismatch are discussed, just one of the many threats that species face from global warming, that scientists have discovered so far.

SUSTAINABILITY SOLUTIONS

Yes! Magazine: Today’s Young Adults Want To Redesign Capitalism. But Into What? (Joseph Blasi & Douglas L. Kruse). There’s growing evidence that today’s young adults, ranging in age from 18 to 29 or so, are strongly dissatisfied with other fundamental aspects of our political and economic system, and growing numbers are rejecting capitalism. A 2016 Harvard survey a found that 51 percent of American youth aged 18 to 29 no longer support capitalism, and just 19 percent were willing to call themselves “capitalists.” The desire for a more inclusive form of capitalism is becoming more widely held. As it happens, companies in the U.S. are increasingly embracing employee ownership in one form or another.

Food Tank: Soil Microbes “Key To The Function Of Agricultural Systems” (Brian Frederick, Kristine Nichols). In facing the challenges of climate change, innovation in agriculture means increasing the resilience and sustainability of our food systems that offer healthy, nutritious and accessible food for all, ecosystem services, and climate resilience. The emerging field of agroecology—a tailored combination of both science and cultural wisdom—can offer several contributions, with core elements that comprise a strong emphasis on diversity, synergies, recycling, efficient use of resources, ecological and socio-economic resilience, the co-creation and sharing of knowledge, and the link between human values and sustainable livelihoods.

Ecologist: How To Navigate The Disorientation Of A Seismic World (Staff). For many, the defining political sensation of our day is disorientation. We often feel torn apart in every direction. Even if we grasp the profound depth of the problems we face, navigating this seismic landscape towards something better always seems beyond us. Our situation may seem hopeless, but we have a rich inheritance of ideas and practices from which we can draw. Monarchies have been overthrown, dictators pulled down. We can take inspiration from past revolutions to build a new framework for the future. The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up.

Resilience: In Praise Of Stupid: For A Self-Systemic Farming (Chris Smaje). This global food system is increasingly beset by crises that it will probably be unable to resolve through its existing structures. I also think that the small farm is the most likely savior from these crises. A definition of the small farm that prefer is that of a ‘self-systemic’ entity. Generally, technological “solutionism” in the face of the world’s problems doesn’t work, because I think it usually bequeaths at least as many problems as it solves, and it exemplifies the kind of super-scaled terraforming that got us into the mess we’re in. The small farm is ‘self-systemic’, a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.

TED Talks: To Eliminate Waste, We Need To Rediscover Thrift (Andrew Dent; video-script). There’s no such thing as throwing something away. When you toss a used food container, broken toy or old pair of socks into the trash, those things inevitably end up in ever-growing landfills. But we can get smarter about the way we make, and remake, our products. Dent shares exciting examples of thrift—the idea of using and reusing what you need so you don’t have to purchase anything new—as well as advances in material science, like electronics made of nanocellulose and enzymes that can help make plastic infinitely recyclable.

MPR News: Go Vegan, Save The World? Study Highlights Benefits Of Eating More Plants (Cody Nelson). The United States could feed 350 million more people—twice the current population—if animal-based foods were swapped for plant-based foods, according to a new study. In effect, the research suggests that major shifts toward plant-based—read: vegan—diets could be crucial to address increasing food demand for the growing population, while also working to cut other forms of food waste.

About Clifton Ware

Sustainability Education Forum Editor-Publisher Dr. Clifton Ware is an international figure in the world of voice pedagogy. During the the past fifty years of teaching students how to sing -- both nationally and internationally -- Clif developed his signature "Efficient and Authentic Voice Technique". What distinguishes his method is its holistic approach, simplicity, and effectiveness. Siingers find that they are able to ensure their vocal health while cultivating their own unique, expressive sound. This approach stands in sharp contrast to faddish techniques that encourage mimicking the vocalism, style, and qualities of other singers, possibly limiting their own vocal imprint and even harming their vocal instrument. The "Efficient and Authentic Voice Technique" produces singers that enjoy vocal power, range, ease, individuality, and a liberating learning process.

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