In Happiness and sustainability, the US slips another four places down to 18th position in the United Nations 2018 World Happiness Report.
The US used to be at the top of the index. Despite having one of the highest incomes per capita, the well-being of its citizens is dragging it down.
The influence of the West was already in decline before the US turned its attention away from international matters to focus on making ‘America great again’. The void leaves it to other powers to take over from the US that threatens to undermine the world order. Europe too has its challenges. Has the West runs its course? What is to be done?
University of Connecticut anthropologist Peter Turchin believes that the West is reaching its end game. He studied the rise and fall of ages and civilisations including those of ancient Egypt, China and Russia. He found two recurring cycles of inequality and resource use that link political unrest, war and final collapse. He describes a secular cycle that lasts two or three centuries which begins with a fairly equal society. Over time as population grows so does the wealthy elite. This elite group of the population grows at the expense of lowering the living standards for have-not workers. As society becomes more unequal, misery of the lower strata and fighting between the elite contribute to a destructive phase. This then leads to eventual collapse and periods of unrest. Sustainability for human societies means a timeframe of just a few hundred years.
Turchin also describes a second shorter cycle lasting 50 years that is made up of two generations, one peaceful and the next turbulent. With the widening the gap between rich and poor, society grows more and more unsettled with unrest rising in the have-nots. Western societies are becoming dangerously unequal. Turchin points out the current levels of inequality and political divisions in the US are clear signs that it is in a downward phase of the cycle.
Will the ‘well off over consumer’ West reduce its dependency on fossil fuels, tackle inequality and find a way to stop the elite from squabbling among themselves before the cycle ends? History tells us that the stability of our current society relies on it. Unfortunately, history is also against this happening. What is to be done?
We must stop using economic measures like gross domestic product GDP as our main measure of national progress and pay more attention to measures that matter to people like health, happiness, meaningful employment, and equality. What use is having a high GDP per capita if, as in the US, citizens become increasingly unhappy?
Some of the strongest determinants of life satisfaction that matter to people are good health, strong family and community relationships, economic security in the form of employment or higher incomes, and relative rather an absolute wealth with respect to the rest of society. Perhaps we can prove history and Turchin’s recurring cycles of the rise and fall of civilisations wrong.
There is much we can learn from Finland, the world’s happiest people and the most efficient converter of wealth into well-being.
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