Guns, Germs and Happiness

The question of what is important in life is perhaps as unsolvable as any of the large philosophical issues. However, it remains of interest to try and decipher what humans want, need, and what society actually encourages them to do. Should we place work over pleasure? A job over a family? Of course, most people will say that we need to balance the two necessities, but where is that balance to be placed? Europeans take three times as much vacation as their American counterparts – yet their economies keep running and there is a general pleasantness to being and living on the Continent. Despite their smaller homes, smaller cars, and smaller roads – they outlive Americans, Canadians, and Australians. In fact, if we looked at the hours spent on the job, Europeans are more efficient than Americans. There was a recent rating of countries according to their “happiness factor”; unsurprisingly, developed economies were not at the top of the list – though Europe did top the developed world. The index can be found here:

Happiness Index

So should we value a new car every year or spending more time with our children? Of course the choice is never as clear as that. Increased industrialization means more jobs and technology. Technology generates comforts like heating, clean water, and medicine to help us live longer and more comfortably. Which, leads to the point that everything is connected. You cannot go to work without a mode of transportation – which likely pollutes; causing harm to the environment, you, your family and your neighbor. Without relying on the overused adage of the Butterfly Effect and Chaos theory, we need to start appreciating the connections between our actions and the planet’s reaction. So where to draw the line? I think it becomes important to identify what truly enhances our lives and what is simply consumption for the sake of consumption.

In my humble opinion, advertisement and marketing should be, by and large, banned. For the vast majority of people, it incites them to purchase, consume and dispose of items they would not have otherwise acquired – all of which leads to more work. This cycle is what drives capitalism and is one of the main reasons that communism failed – not that I am espousing Marx’s flawed theory. A well-known (but fake) story is of how NASA spent millions of dollars to create a pen that worked in the zero gravity environment of space. In the vast emptiness of space there is no gravity to push the ink downwards and onto the paper. These millions of dollars devoted to R&D produced an impressive engineering feat. More importantly, the money created prototypes, reports, testing facilities, and jobs; feeding the fire of capitalism. The communist Russians used a pencil.

I recently read “Lost Horizon”, written in the 1930s by James Hilton. In this novel, a Tibetan monk of European origin simply stated, “Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue”. This simple statement illustrates what is needed in society – a hesitance to work for the sake of work. On a similar note, it is said that the Army looks for a certain type of person to become officers: lazy, but very smart. The antithesis, hard working and stupid, is detrimental to the Army or private employer. Someone who continues to work without stopping to think whether what he is doing is worthwhile is a horrible thing. Though of use to the tyrant, he is of little use to himself or humanity. On the gates of the concentration camps in Fascist Germany, it stated quite simply, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, or “Hard Work will set you Free”. This statement is quite true – work will set you free. Free from family, free from philosophy, free from emotion, free from creativity and consequently, free from humanity. As a society we must start to realize what kinds of work are needed and what type of work can be avoided.

One will counter argue that unnecessary work is necessary to keep the economy growing and technology improving. Any meddling by social scientists (though I do not believe in that term) and politicians invariably leads to lower production and less “wealth”. To a certain extent this remains valid, but only when we look at wealth in the form of bricks of gold. You can have wealth of emotions, wealth of thought, and wealth of experience – none of which count towards your nations GDP. Waste and consumption of mindless junk – now largely produced in Asia – seems like the underlying cause of pollution (of both the mind and body) and the now-so-chique Global Warming.

Again, a common argument will be, “go tell a poor African or Chinese that they were better off without electricity and running water”. I would never claim that to be true, rather the thrust of my argument is that we must avoid waste so that we can provide for the truly needy. I do not know the numbers, but the quantity of food thrown out by North American restaurants, grocers and consumers on a daily basis is likely sufficient to feed the entire needy population of Africa, South America and Asia. In fact, during my time in Asia, I experienced the “new” wealth of China. In The People’s Republic of China, it is very typical for the nouveau riche to demonstrate their wealth by ordering three times more food than could possibly be consumed by the dinner party. In a country that was starved to death for 50 years, this ability to purchase and throw out is the ultimate demonstration of wealth.

More worrying than the simple tasteless gesture is the illustration of the have-not’s perception of wealth. The Chinese perceive wealth as an ability to waste – and sadly, in most cases throughout the world, this relationship holds true. How can we possibly change this engrained sociological trend? I do not know. Yet it certainly starts with education. All elementary schools should teach moderation and respect for the environment alongside English and Mathematics. We need to create a society of humility, emphasizing respect for the planet and our fellow man.

In the words of American Psycho character Patrick Bateman,

“Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.”

Indeed Mr. Bateman. Yet, the true moral of American Psycho is that the truly wealthy are so rich they can throw out human lives – not just food.

Published on July 13, 2006