Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Economics of Happiness (movie review)

This documentary with a message recaps the movie-maker's experience in Ladakh and then proceeds to deduce lessons. An interesting aspect of this film is some of its leading activists are Buddhist monks, other Buddhist authorities.

Helena Norberg-Hodge knows a lot about language and this movie is structured as a kind of language training. We need partially overlapping namespaces going forward. How shall we spin these words "globalization" and "localization"?

The former (globalization) is associated with loss of local control to corporate behemoths and banking leviathans, which also seem to have lost control of themselves and turned into giant machines people no longer comprehend. It's not that the people in them are bad, just locked in, straitjacketed.

The latter (localization) is associated with more transparent and open relationships, wherein its easier to see the difference one makes to a shared ecosystem / economy. More feedback loops are closed nearby so steering actually seems possible. People have ways of judging their own performance and making adjustments.

The giant black box machines, on the other hand, can't be steered and come across more like trains that either go faster or slower along a fixed track. The black boxes externalize costs in order to appear profitable on paper (governments give their imprimaturs) while they're obviously wasting precious resources.

The scene leading up to this movie at the First Unitarian Church on 12th was cinematographic. Lindsey (36) lugged Tara's Casio keyboard on the tractor bike and sang her new political protest song for the first time in public. Satya (41) got it right away: music with a message, just like in the old days. We huddled around our serving pots atop the painted labyrinth, believably who we felt we were, in a near perfect setting (a city park after dark).

Then a posse of us bicycled over the Hawthorne bridge to catch this movie ($15 donation requested, no one turned away for lack of funds -- though maybe for other reasons, such as a full house). I (52) was having trouble with the pump falling off and so lagged a bit, but caught up and just managed to squeeze in.

Indeed, the event was so packed it looked like Lindsey and Whitney would have to go on without me, but then we managed to pack in a few more in the overflow room. I ended up sitting next to Tom Head, the famous Quaker economist (George Fox University) and Gayle of Bridge City Friends.

The FAQ after the movie was quite lengthy and I admit to having an overwhelming wish for fresh air and beer. Part of it was sitting in all my coats in the well-heated overflow room, connected to the main sanctuary by closed circuit TV. I ducked out to McMenamins on foot (not having a key to my bicycle) checking voicemail and messages along the way, then returned to catch more of the Q&A.

Then our motley krew regathered outside, waiting for the rest to rejoin. Alex strolled over to remark how Helen had remembered him. The Aris family had been in Ladakh as well, as Alex's dad was a famous student of the Himalayan Tantric cultures. Simon worked on Sara's bicycle, replacing the brake pads with the ones Lindsey had provided.

Lindsey talked about how local communities (such as hers in Florida) may become oppressive when there's no room for dissent or alternative lifestyles. Some might become clowns or shamans or musicians, but perhaps the others are shot at dawn? The parochially-minded have a track record of intolerance (illiberalism), witness Nazi Germany.

Satya thought truly innocent cultures were open to diversity, whereas bigotry was more a result of globalizing pressures. We'll likely revisit this issue in future debates.

Speaking of debates, Tara is at another tournament this weekend. Last night, she left her cell on a window sill and whoever picked it up wasn't about to track down the rightful owner ("finders keepers" is the law of the sea). Fortunately, I had it insured through Assurion and was able to suspend service and order a replacement for the $40 deductible (probably under the wholesale cost, plus they get premiums). The replacement (same make and model) should be here on Monday.

Per the movie, every action may be construed as a move for globalization or localization (a way of encouraging self awareness), as these poles were defined. Clearly this film is a recruitment drive of sorts. I might show it in sequel with Yes Men if sharing in college reading programs.

Our FNB study group had, two nights before as homework, taken in a previous film based on Helen's book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, and so recognized quite a few of the clips (recycled for this much longer movie). Satya had strolled through Ladakh after becoming a Buddhist monk and had been impressed by the apparent simplicity and sufficiency of the old ways, and the satisfaction level of the people practicing them. He'd done this quite independently of Helen's work.

One of the best parts of the film was that Indian farmer deadpanning about how one can't have infinite growth on a finite planet (audience laughter -- so obvious).

Another was outtakes from "Reality Tours" wherein Ladakhis get to tour "the west" and then go back home with more realistic attitudes. The impression they were getting from western tourists was that these people have any amount of goof off time with money to burn, thanks to all those labor-saving devices. That makes "the west" seem pretty appealing. However, the grim reality is rather different.

They're not prepared for the Wall-e sized rubbish heaps (ala Idiocracy), nor the level of loneliness that's created, especially among those who don't have the right "earning a living" story to fit a script.

The screenwriters have limited imagination when it comes to roles for the more elderly, or those not seeking celebrity status as fashionistas and/or as rebels without a cause.

Bucky (author of Grunch of Giants, about globalization in crunchy times) used to cast aspersions on this "earning a living" myth, as if individual humans could prove their own relative worthiness in God's judgement. Like many Buddhists, he had a more cybernetic understanding, saw our destinies as intertwined.