I was taught in some long forgotten high school class that the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that happiness was the driver behind all of mankind’s activities. If indeed that is true, then perhaps it behooves us to unpack what it would take to make 331 million Americans happy. Indeed, what would it take to make nearly 8 billion humans happy and do we have enough resources to do that? Perhaps in addition to looking at copper, oil, water, lithium, titanium and others as limited resources, we should start looking at happiness as a limited resource as well. Eudaimonia, Greek for happiness ,was Aristotle’s answer to the question: What is the ultimate purpose of human existence? Aristotle believed that in order to achieve happiness one needed to have both the physical goods to live and time for intellectual contemplation. One’s needs had to be met and they also had to be virtuous. According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life.
Modern day Buddhist leader and philosopher the 14th Dalai Lama would concur. He also has said that the purpose of life is to seek happiness the common era. The highly respected Dali Lama, referred to as his Holiness, is a present-day leader and yet they landed in a similar philosophical place.
Aristotle realized that our enrichment was attached to virtue as well as tangible goods. Once someone had enough, he could contemplate the more perplexing issues of the day. Where Aristotle uses the word virtuous, the Dalai Lama uses compassion. Essentially, they are in agreement that our actions towards others is attached to our happiness. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” At the time Aristotle promoted his ideas the world, I doubt he comprehended the hurdles to happiness presented by numbers of humans that we are experiencing in a world bulging at nearly 8 billion. At the time this Greek philosopher walked the earth, the whole planet had 162 million people on it.
For reference, that is the same amount of people that were in the US when I was born in 1954. Not only has the world experienced incredible modernization between the time of Aristotle to Dalai Lama, it has experienced the kind of growth only computers can comprehend. While humans are biologically the same as they were 2363 years ago, we now live in a world where we have to share the resources on which we depend with nearly 8 billion more people.
Assuming Aristotle, and the Dali Lama are on to something here, it just may behoove us to treat happiness as a precious resource that is at risk in an overpopulated world. I propose that access to happiness is just as much at risk as our non-renewable resources. Our deficits can be measured, and Ecological footprint network does a great job letting the world know what is happening with our natural resources. They describe this deficit as a bio-capacity deficit. “if a population’s Ecological Footprint exceeds the region’s bio-capacity that runs a bio-capacity deficit. Its demand for goods and services that its land and seas can provide….exceeds what the region can regenerate
We are also experiencing a happiness deficit. The two go hand in hand, even though happiness is difficult to measure. It’s hard to be happy when you run out of water and you are scratching for food. Long ago an experiment was done with rats. Given adequate food and water, the rats exhibited all kinds of mental illness when they began to live in overcrowded conditions. We share ¼ of our genes with rats, so we may be subject to the same consequences of loss of happiness in our overpopulated state.
Growth based capitalism is based on the narrative that to be happy we have to have lots of material things. One can never be happy without the newest car, the biggest boat and a larger home. We literally buy into the system that demands our throw away habits. From built in obsolescence to fiscal year pressures, this unsustainable economic system is making the planet wither under our feet.
Now anyone who has watched the series, “Behind the Music” knows, extreme wealth and fame are recipes for disaster not happiness. Biographies of poor musicians who became wealthy with their hits, more often than not, discovered how unhappy fame and wealth got them. Many ended up leaving us too soon at the end of a needle. Why bring this up? Because many will say that you do not need money to be happy ala the riches some accumulate. But Aristotle wasn’t talking about needing 5 Rolls Royces that Maurice Gibbs of the Bee Gees once owned, he was talking about enough wealth so one didn’t need to worry about one’s basic needs and have the luxury of time for contemplation. Besides, he lived 2218 years before the internal combustion engine was invented .Happiness is not available to everyone now and will be in even less supply in the future. Why? Because the very basics all humans are challenged by our overwhelming demand and out of control global greedy systems.
Could we distribute our resources more equitably? Colonialism and its sister sinister force, globalization, are still in operation around the world. Many try to fight a world in which the rich and powerful take from the poor and vulnerable. In theory we could do a better job, but that too is threatened by overpopulation as we wake up in a world with over 200,000 more people in it every day, and those all of those people need resources.
According to Habitat for Humanity, 1.6 billion people live without adequate shelter, 1 in people currently live in a slum, and they also predict that 1 in every 4 people will live in a slum by 2030. Living with adequate housing and food is not a guarantee of happiness but it sure is a prerequisite for the opportunity to become happier.
Growth of slums is directly tied to growth of our numbers as resources will keep falling short in a closed system. Nobel efforts exist to make the world a happier place. A quick Internet search finds that there are 45 main NGO’s devoted to ridding the world of poverty. While this is an impressive effort to end global poverty, the billions who still suffer remain higher than anyone would desire due over-demand of limited resources caused by overpopulation. It is of course is also the way the irrational accumulation of money rules the world instead of the laws of physics and ecological principles. Corporations have globalized their neo-capitalistic earth gobbling ways and the continual growth of 80 million new passengers to the closed system every year contributes to keeping poverty a growing problem.
The access is to happiness is crippled when we continue in our rigidity and keep acting as if the earth and its biosphere were limitless. To continue to fuel growth in a closed system is beyond foolish, it is suicidal. Happiness does not flourish when the earth and its life-giving biosphere is ignored. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. Inadequate sanitation is also a problem for 2.4 billion people—they are exposed to diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, and other water-borne illnesses. Two million people, mostly children, die each year from diarrheal diseases alone.” It is impossible to be happy in a water scarce world.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (born 1935) has been around the world witnessing both our progress and our population growth. He teaches that to be happy is to have compassion, but unlike Aristotle he has also witnessed the earth warming in his homeland of Tibet and the earth gaining 6 billion people in his lifetime. The way those additional people take away from the possibility of happiness is not lost on him. He said, “One of the great challenges today is the population explosion. Unless we are able to tackle this issue effectively, we will be confronted with the problem of the natural resources being inadequate for all the human beings on this Earth.”
Though he did not go as far as saying that happiness dwindles as overpopulation overwhelms the earth, he did say, “The growth in population is very much bound up with poverty, and in turn poverty plunders the Earth. When human groups are dying of hunger, they eat everything: grass, insects, everything. They cut down the trees, they leave the land dry and bare. All other concerns vanish. That’s why in the next 30 years the problems we call ‘environmental’ will be the hardest that humanity has to face.”
We need to start to see happiness and the opportunity to contemplate a more virtuous life, as a precious and dwindling resource. It is just like water, oil, copper, tin, lithium and the rest. Realizing this, we just might understand at a deeper level the change that is needed. We need to change our story. Tell someone we are about to run out of silica and they may not understand the implications. But tell them they are going to run out of happiness now and for generations to come and a whole new audience may awaken to the thief that is overpopulation.
To quote novelist James Baldwin,” Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This content was originally published here.