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Rethinking Quality of Life in the Era of Climate Crisis

Once again, the United States has failed to reach 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 the quality of life on a 0-to-11-point scale where 0 equals 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 ranked #1 in happiness in the last six years, with the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland claiming the top 3+ spots yearly.

People may conceptualize aspects of quality of life in concrete terms, like health status, access to food, shelter, education, medical care, personal safety, the strength of ties to family and community, and personal freedoms. However, the World Health Organization more abstractly defines the 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 concerning 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 the perceived quality of life when a society’s value system shifts toward undermining that which makes life on Earth sustainable? A case can be made; this began in the mid-20th century in America. It helps explain 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. For example, it’s easy to imagine how people easily transitioned from food rationing and scavenging scraps of metal for the war effort to embracing the throw-away-society that emerged post-war when the fossil fuel industry – which steeply ramped up production in wartime – realized the profits to be had in making everything conceivable out of plastics. The public embraced the 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 the industry’s motives in the war’s aftermath. Recognition of the externalities of manufacturing, wherein natural resources such as air, water, and soil could be polluted to the point of becoming unfit for humans and other life forms, was not yet in the nation’s collective consciousness. The federal Environmental Protection Agency didn’t 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 corporations and government should control what information is released to the public to sway public opinion. 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 need 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, including the 2010 Citizens United, were also reshaping societal values in favor of 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 harm to the planet’s livability. The climate crisis directly results from dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Yet, 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. Corporations might wish us to believe that consumption and convenience create happiness. Still, America’s lagging in quality-of-life ratings suggests otherwise. Moreover, it is insidious to promote that quality of life could ever be separate from the state of the natural world upon which all life depends.

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

Moreover, a report just released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change details how climate change is already a direct threat to human survival. “Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms were 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability,” the report states. 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 from seeking satisfaction in consumer goods and conveniences (like fossil fuels) to finding fulfillment in joining forces for the common good. The good news is 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 societal institutions.

The 2022 WHR 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….”

Sadly, public trust in our government has declined dramatically in the United States since the mid-20th century. Relatedly, Americans suffer from deficiencies in the very tangible benefits which enhance the 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 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 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. For example, each of the five Scandinavian countries and Switzerland enacted various forms of a national carbon tax.

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 those who wield political power. As a result, the possibility of committed collective action on the scale needed to solve the problem still seems remote.

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

A silver lining will be increased quality of life and survival for us all.

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  1. I don’t think it has to do with climate threats and the dubiousness of the future; it has to do with a lack of gratitude. If this country doesn’t reach the Top Ten in the happiness sphere, then those responding to the surveys have little sense of perspective and proportion. This country offers the greatest opportunities under the best conditions in the history of civilization. The fact that so many would dwell on the negative, while worrying about some unsubstantiated, refuted scientific mumbo-jumbo just proves how spoiled we have been.