1. Relating personal wellbeing to environmental sustainability – how to shape a nutshell?

When I chose Happier People Healthier Planet as the main title for my book I wondered whether there should be a punctuation mark in the middle. I decided against the insertion of a comma or a colon between the two halves, as I didn’t want subtly to convey the sense that creating a healthier planet should be the sole reason for enhancing happiness; happiness is, after all, a worthwhile and legitimate pursuit in its own right – as is recognised in the US Declaration of Independence. The subtitle gave me much more pause for thought, however. I needed succinctly to communicate the core proposition of the book, that optimising genuine personal wellbeing is key to achieving the essential changes in prevalent, environmentally-damaging values and behaviours; for only by doing so will we be able to reduce the scale of depletion and pollution sufficiently to enable the Earth’s systems to continue to support human life and that of countless other species. I decided to do a little crowd-sourcing of opinions in order to try and generate a more detached perspective, and sought the views of a number of people who have contributed to the development of the book. I gave them some alternative words and phrases and asked them to tell me which they favoured. How Cultivating Wellbeing will Help us to Save the Earth; How Putting Wellbeing First could Help us Rescue the Earth; How Cultivating Wellbeing would Help us Protect the Earth. The choices to be made were thus between:

  • cultivating wellbeing / putting wellbeing first
  • can /will /would help
  • save the Earth / rescue the Earth /protect the Earth

This exercise was helpful – two people rightly pointed out that the Earth will carry on regardless, it’s life on Earth we have to worry about. However, few opinions out of the twenty-six were in complete agreement on the best combination. This was also helpful as the variety of likes and reasoning made me think more deeply about what I really wished to communicate and which words would work best to do so. More people liked “save” than “rescue”, but some found “save” hackneyed; “protect” was least popular. Some did not think “help” should be used at all, but I remained certain that “help” had to figure in the title as technological innovation clearly also has a crucial role to play in reducing the environmental toll of human activities. Views varied, too, on the best form of the verb. Some favoured the conditional “could” or “would”; but more advocated the present, active form of “can” or “will”. As for the options for the first part of the phrase, “cultivating wellbeing” was slightly more popular than “putting wellbeing first”. While I personally love the idea of cultivation, it is perfectly possible that some people would argue that we already do cultivate wellbeing – but they haven’t read the perspective in the book! Much more importantly, my whole point is that attending to all the many and complex sources of genuine wellbeing should be the principal purpose and rationale of policy. This, rather than the manufacture of financial profit for its own sake, which is the current prime motivator, should drive policy decisions. Wealth-creation of a real and enduring kind is about the nurture and maintenance of individual and social wellbeing. Of course money, both private and public, is necessary, indeed essential, in the service of health and lasting happiness, both in the present and for the future; but pursuing money for its own sake, chasing and accumulating sums much greater than can be deployed to this end, is highly corrosive of personal, social, institutional and political life – as well as the environment. I wanted the subtitle of the book to encapsulate this recognition. I agreed in principle with the small “crowd” I consulted that an active, present verb would be preferable to a conditional one. And it is true on an individual level that putting wellbeing first does benefit the environment, on an individual scale. Their responses made me realise that they seemed to be considering the question from an individual point of view, whereas what I wished to emphasise in particular was the collective, societal priority we should be giving to wellbeing. When public policy is determined pre-eminently by the joint demands of maximising private profit and minimising public expenditure, it is clear that there is scant understanding in government of the nature of and fundamental importance of wellbeing or of the conditions required for its nurture and maintenance. Existing public policies and practices tend to reduce the capacity of many individuals for fostering their own and others’ wellbeing, and severely limit the potential activity of supportive organisations. In the light of all of this, “putting wellbeing first would help”, although conditional, seemed to me to be a more definite and positive and less uncertain statement than “could” or “can” help. What, exactly, would be helped by prioritising wellbeing? It clearly had to be life on Earth, rather than the Earth itself. Second-verb-wise, “save” is a little clichéd by now; “rescue”, while heroic, might perhaps suggest a one-off endeavour to be accomplished and left behind – while what is needed is a permanent change of mindset and behaviour; and protect sounds somewhat soft and defensive. While all these approaches are perfectly valid, I decided in the end to go for a different word altogether: sustain. For this carries a sense of proactively nourishing, and of ongoing activity. Thus, having been born, the book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth, was named.

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