Jun 2, 2015

Climate Justice and the Good Life, for Everyone


In our Climate Justice Project, our research has stressed structural changes and collective action to lower carbon footprints rather than individual behavioural change. The ability of many actors to respond to incentives like a carbon tax is constrained by their circumstances. Suburban households often have no realistic option but to keep driving. Renters have little agency over energy efficiency investments where they live. Even for concerned homeowners, the area of energy efficiency is plagued by market failures in information, such that profitable investments often go unrealized in favour of the status quo.

We also make the case that effective and fair climate action is also good industrial and employment policy. There is lots of work that needs to be done, and this should be embraced as part of a national project. We advocate divestment from fossil fuels and re-investment in green infrastructure and services. Done well, the shift off of fossil fuels can provide additional benefits in terms of health and well-being, economic security and much lower inequality.

A growing body of research into well-being and happiness tells us to look beyond money and consumption. While income matters a great deal at lower levels – when one is poor, a little money makes a big difference – but once basic needs are met, higher income does not necessarily translate into gains in happiness. Research points to substantial benefits to be had from a more equitable distribution of wealth – inequality manifests in weaker performance on a range of social and health indicators. Social fairness in terms of income and employment distribution may, in fact, be vital for achieving the changes required for a transition to a sustainable economy.

Some key insights into well-being relevant to a new conception of “the good life” include (key references at end):

Full employment and decent work – Unemployment has been shown to have huge negative consequences for our well-being, and is one of the biggest sources of unhappiness. Even the employed in a society are unhappier in an economy with high unemployment, particularly those with weak job security. The quality of the work we do also affects our well-being because it gives us purpose, a challenge and opportunities to develop relationships with others. Work not only provides income, but it helps to sustain social relationships. Thus, full employment policies offer gains that span across having work, decent income, and reduced social inequality, and a green jobs program that promotes work that has meaning and purpose is precisely the type of work that contributes to higher levels of well-being.

Time use and work-life balance – Finding a suitable balance between work and life is a real challenge for Canadians, and especially so for working parents. The amount and quality of leisure time is important for well-being, due to physical and mental health benefits, whereas long work hours may harm our health and increase stress. Time pressures from work can also reduce time available to families, for caring work and volunteering. Increased sharing of work and reduced work hours could both reduce unemployment and increase leisure time. Saving time from reducing long commutes can also liberate time and increase well-being.

Community and social cohesion – The most important sources of happiness seem to include having close relationships with family and friends, helping others, and being active in community, charitable, and political activities. In large urban areas, participation in community and thus the ability to psychologically flourish can be constrained by social isolation and loneliness. Countries with a high degree of social equality, trust, and good governance show to be the happiest in the world. In fact, the quality of governance and the rule of law matter more for life satisfaction than a household’s income. Investment in public goods and infrastructure (broadly defined to include access to nature/parks, arts and sports facilities, and other public spaces) can encourage more social cohesion, suggesting that we must renew our sense of public space and invest time and money in shared goals for healthy social participation.

These findings have led to a growing understanding that too narrow a focus on GDP is a flawed approach to well-being. One major report to the French government from two Nobel laureates in economics argues that progress should be understood by assessing a diverse array of well-being indicators to capture a more comprehensive understanding of people’s lives, spanning key areas of: health, education, environment, employment, material comfort, interpersonal connectedness and political engagement.

The Canadian Index for Wellbeing (CIW) was launched only recently in 2010 as a counterweight to the gross domestic product numbers. It aims to measure and track the quality of life of Canadians and is comprised of 64 indicators. The CIW has demonstrated that Canadians’ quality of life has not kept pace with the country’s economic growth from 1994 to 2008, where although GDP grew 31%, CIW rose only 11% in the same period. A key reason is that Canadians are spending less and less time on healthy social and leisure activities, and the state of the environment has declined.

This growing body of research is broadly consistent with the notion of climate action and climate justice. As the 2012 World Happiness Report comments:

The environmental debate could be importantly recast by changing the fundamental objectives from economic growth to building and sustaining the quality of lives, as assessed by those whose lives they are. This will depend crucially on the human capacity for cooperation … people gain in happiness by working together for a higher purpose. There can be no higher purpose than promoting the Earth’s environmental balance, the well-being of future generations, and the survival and thriving of other species as well. Sustainability is an instrumental goal, because without it, our health and prosperity are bound to collapse. But environmental sustainability is also an end goal: we care about nature, we care about other species, and we care about future generations.

*Hat tip to Noelani Dubeta for research assistance.

Additional references:

R Wilkinson and K Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Jackson, T., 2009. Prosperity Without Growth. London: Earthscan.

Layard, R., 2005. Happiness: lessons from a new science. London: Penguin Books.

Marks, N., and Shah, H., 2004. A well-being manifesto for a flourishing society. The power of well-being. London: New Economics Foundation.

Johnson, E., Sharpe, A., Ghanghro, A., and Kidwai, A., 2011. Does Money Matter? Determining the Happiness of Canadians. Centre for the Study of Living Standards.

OECD, 2012. Better Life Index: Canada.

Bok, D., 2010. p.209. The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.



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