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Martin Parkinson

Are you an Anarresti?

Will being greener make us happier? And are we truly free to choose? Is 'poor but happy' a piece of sentimental nonsense?

First published in: Clean Slate
Summer 2008

I'm not a pessimist but ...

There has been a great deal of interest in the last few years in what are sometimes called the "soft factors of sustainability" - what I would call "green psychology". To take transport for example, there are umpteen ways to lower the carbon emissions per mile of vehicles and no shortage of technofix ideas for the future. Engineers simply adore doing this kind of thing but what they cannot do is to persuade people to actually take up their good ideas, let alone actually drive less. Thatís a question for us social-science geeks: how on earth could we persuade people to drive less and buy a battery vehicle? I became interested in this type of problem because I knew that the answer to "why donít we all respond to the good science that is telling us to live our lives differently?" is most certainly not "because people are irrational / wicked / stupid / greedy / brainwashed". For the most part we are none of these things.

Over the last few years I have done a good deal of reading around these issues . There are no "hard" answers, no surefire ways to change behaviour (economic incentives are not a universal answer Ė sometimes things can be too cheap), no magic words, but it is possible to learn a thing or two about what makes us tick and use this knowledge to assist with campaigns, communications, legislation and so on. But Iíve come to think that what we can do in this way is limited and that green communications can ultimately do no more than lubricate changes that are being driven by other factors. (Mind you, if you extend the metaphor and think of a machine that is seized up, lubrication is not trivial).

I wouldn't say I'm pessimistic exactly but certain arguments have given me pause for thought. Here are three non-technical "good reads", each very different, but which I recommend to anyone interested in what might or might not be possible for the future.

Happiness. The science behind your smile. Daniel Nettle 2005

Will we ever have enough to make us happy? The answer is yes and no, because certain kinds of happiness fade, while others do not. We do something that makes us happier - yes, money and possessions can do this - but the boost they give does not last. We get used to our new wealth, sag, and start wanting another boost to put us back where we were before - an effect known as the hedonic treadmill. Luckily, this can also work in reverse: events can depress us but we can bounce back. Unluckily, this effect does not apply to all changes of fortune Ė there are some things to which we cannot adapt fully:

Basic threats to the safety of the individual - chronic cold, food shortage, or excessive environmental noise, are things that you would never get used to. Serious health problems can leave a lasting mark. The lack of autonomy in life is an enduring negative.

This distinction between adaptable and non-adaptable changes parallels the distinction between positional and non-positional goods. Income is positional: it isn't the absolute amount that matters, it is where that puts us in relation to others. Consumer goods are positional. So an increase in personal wealth (positional) will not give me lasting happiness but an improved environment (non-positional) will.

So why don't more of us go for the lasting pleasures? Nettle is coming from a position of evolutionary psychology on this:

Although we implicitly feel that the things we want in life will make us happy, this may be a particularly cruel trick played by our evolved mind to keep us competing

Or to put it another way:

The psychology of aspiration is not that of satisfaction. We do not always want what we like or like what we want

We think that keeping up with the Jones will make us happy but it doesn't. Whereas, in the long run, the real sources of happiness are "health, autonomy, social embeddedness, and the quality of the environment". I am fond of quoting this paragraph:

... the British Government is planning a major expansion of airports all over the country. However, hedonics predicts that people will soon adapt to the availability of cheap regional flights in Europe, and find them just as tiresome as the longer train journeys they replace. On the other hand, we will never adapt to the increased noise.

So there we have it, being green will make you happier, but making greener choices means defying or getting around our evolved psychologies - and you'd have be very wise to do that.

Can technology save us? John Adams 1996

We all know what the problems with our present transport system are: it munches up resources, it's noisy, it chucks out greenhouse gases, it kills people in several different ways. But surely we're smart enough to house-train our vehicles? Adams, a Geographer with a longstanding interest in sustainable transport, presents a convincing argument that even if technology could solve these problems (and talk of the 'hydrogen economy' often seems to be such a dream), there is a problem with what he calls hypermobility. Our mileage increases but we aren't taking more trips, we are taking longer ones and distance makes our lives geographically less dense. If most of your social interactions take place at a distance from your home, you will know fewer people in your neighbourhood. If we all travel too far to work, shop, socialise, we create a world of strangers. A world of strangers is not a world of safety.

What about the internet: distance disappears entirely and we can create online communities of interest. Surely there is our solution? But online relationships and communities are pale things, insubstantial substitutes for the true satisfaction of meeting our friends in the flesh. Greater cyber mobility leads to the desire for more physical travel.

If someone were to offer you (asks Adams), " ... a car, unlimited air-miles and all the computers and communications facilities enjoyed by Bill Gates" why should you refuse? But "in answering, most people probably imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having access to the enlarged range of opportunities."

Yet a world that attempted to grant these wishes to everyone would become a world no sane person would vote for (and, argues Adams, amongst the other hellish features of such a world, democracy would be impossible).

I was, and am, disturbed by this argument, because I do not see any cap on our desire for mobility. Obviously it is good to be able to travel to some extent yet there is no logical point at which we can say 'well people are mobile enough now, I think we'll call a halt'. If the technology is there we will use it. If we can travel, we will. Daniel Nettle's speculations about our evolved psychologies which push us to compete and acquire regardless of diminishing returns, do not imply any hope that humanity as a whole can call a halt, even if a few individuals can understand where we are heading.

The dispossessed. Ursula Le Guin (1974)

In this science fiction novel the small planet Anarres has been settled by a group of dissidents from its twin planet Urras, a world much like our own. Urras has a rich and luxuriant biosphere and Urrasti culture has property, shopping, class, gross inequalities, violence, sexism. Anarres is a harsh world by comparison: its biosphere has evolved little beyond the Devonian and it takes the settlers discipline and courage to be able to call it home. The Anarresti are anarchists: their society has no ownership, no hierarchy, very little violence, complete equality and no shopping. Le Guin pulls off the impressive trick of making us believe in their society because Anarres is not Utopia and the Anarresti have believable human psychologies. They have the normal faults of jealousy, rivalry, egotism, lack of imagination, fearfulness. The desire for ownership still exists, but it is not pandered to and cultivated. Self-awareness and the harsh demands of the planet give space for the desires for equality and freedom (needs which are just as instinctual as the urge to dominate) to be satisfied.

Le Guin is a true storyteller and does not spell things out or preach, but I cannot help concluding that if Annaresti culture is believable it is because they do not have abundance, because their world is demanding, because there are no easy surpluses. It may be fiction but it might be telling the truth.

It is interesting that Le Guin's anarchists also have advanced, but realistic, technology: this is not an eco-fantasy about humans reverting to the hunter-gatherer stage. I liked that very much about this story, because our technology is us - it's what human beings do. It's our tao: from spectacles to space probes it springs directly from our natures.

I read The dispossessed for the first time about a year ago and it seemed to echo Daniel Nettle and John Adams. What we think will make us happy will not in fact do so, and abundance will always be abused (perhaps). Autonomy, social embeddedness, meaningful work are sources of satisfaction, which the Anarresti have in abundance, but that is because of the physical constraints placed on them by their world (perhaps). You never can 'have it all' (more-than-perhaps). Our inner toddler cannot accept this, some choices - the ones that reject superfluous comfort and mobility - are simply too hard to make, and limits have to be forced upon us by circumstance. (I'm aware that this argument is easily parodied and I must stress that I'm certainly not suggesting that absolute poverty can co-exist with happiness).

I'm not an optimist but ...

I'm really not a pessimist! The future is uncertain, though I'd lay money we are in for 'interesting times' of some sort. We don't know what the interaction between peak oil and climate change will be but one possible future involves a prolonged worldwide recession. Now I'm certainly not wishing for it but there are far worse possibilities. It might not be all bad to be a bit constrained, to not be able to use the car, to have to mend things, make things, grow things, be aware of how the physical world works. We'd moan and feel hard done by of course, but perhaps it might not be so bad. I don't know.


Adams, J (1996) Can technology save us? Journal of World transport Policy and Practice 2/3 [1996] pp 24-27 available from

Le Guin, Ursula (2002; 1974) The dispossessed Gollancz, London

Nettle, Daniel (2005). Happiness. The science behind your smile. Oxford University Press. Oxford

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