Gross national happiness and the truth about policy

snakeMy wife is scared stiff of snakes. The passing of a large python along our back deck one evening had her stomping down stairs to the laundry for months. She still carries that wariness with her.

Just as seemingly continuous sweeping around the African rondavel meant you could see the mamba before it could strike you, so a general fear of slithering things has a survival benefit.

Fear of snakes makes perfect evolutionary sense. Those with the ability to avoid such dangers will survive longer than the more blasé. Often this trait can translate across to a fear of nature in general on the logic that snakes, mosquitos, siders, scorpions, wasps… just about anything that bites, stings, or looks like a critter that bites or stings, could be under any rock.

It is a surprise that nature in the form of woodland and forest equates to happiness and could become part of the ‘GDP plus’ approach to measuring national well-being — the elusive gross national happiness index.

The survival instinct that took us away from forests into man-made buildings with fly screens is tempered by an emotional connection to the trees for their nurturing quality. A gentle breeze through the trees as the birds sing and the blossoms waft their scent across our senses has a calming effect — a counterbalance to the fear. Not to mention the sustenance from the deer and berries.

But give 1000 people a choice between either living rough in the forest for 30 days or living in an all expenses paid 5 star resort at the beach for a month and I would put money on 999 of them choosing the beach.

This creates an interesting conundrum for GDP plus.

If people prefer the hotel to the forest but are supposed to be happier in the forest, what should governments do? They could promote economic growth to give more people the money to stay at hotels or focus on retaining the forests that might otherwise have to make way for the hotels and money-making activities.

Put in these terms the choice seems far too simplistic yet it actually goes to the heart of policy making. Policy has to understand values and then decide on trade-offs among them. How much more should economic development be valued over the protection of rainforest is a question of values. Building new hotels is a decision to trade commercial and comfort values against the benefits of the wind in the trees, the filtering of air and water, and the odd forest product.

What the policy makers must remind themselves every day is that the values traded are inseparable. They exist together in each person. The 999 folk who chose to go to the beach also value the forest even if they don’t choose to go there, even for a visit. It is true that our value for nature and its nurture are often buried deep enough in our psyche for us to deny its existence, but it is there.

Policy is not actually about keeping enough stakeholders happy to ensure future election victory. It is about understanding where the real value trade-offs happen, inside each person. Even the ones that are buried or smothered by those from instant gratification.

People are frightened of snakes for good reason and yet deep down they also remember that nature is good to them too. Sometimes they even think of this as they sip cocktails by the pool.

What policy has to do is remind them of this truth.

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