In the last few years, there’s been a shift in how economists and governments view progress. Instead of measuring success simply as a matter of economic growth, some have started to consider people’s actual lived experience–that is, their quality of life and well-being. For example, there are now several initiatives to quantify people’s happiness as an alternative to gross domestic product (see here and here, for instance).
There are well-known examples of countries embracing happiness economics, notably Bhutan, which invented “gross national happiness” as a metric in 1972. But, arguably, the shift has gone the furthest in Latin America, particularly in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. Both have programs to promote well-being among citizens and to incorporate well-being metrics into government decision-making.
In Ecuador, this broad push comes under the heading of buen vivir, a term that, in English, means simply “good living,” but, to Ecuadoreans, has a wider connotation. The concept has its roots with indigenous peoples, who emphasize the happiness of the collective, not just the individual, and who understand man and his environment not as separate things, but part of the same being. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to grant the environment constitutional rights, meaning lawyers can now argue for an ecosystem’s rights the same way they might someone’s human rights.
At the same time, buen vivir is also something more political, a philosophy in line with the “21st century socialism” espoused by several Latin American governments. It’s about a search for alternatives to American-style capitalism and justice for the poor. Buen vivir expert Eduardo Gudynas defines it as “development focused on the good life in a broad sense.”
In Ecuador, the man in charge of buen vivir is a former TV journalist named Freddy Ehlers. Sixty-nine-years-old, Ehlers heads his own happiness ministry, a department of 30-odd people, and enjoys direct access to President Rafael Correa. “He asked me to coordinate with all the government to see if our actions are really to give the possibility for happiness to flourish,” he says. “We’re working with all the institutions to promote the idea of buen vivir in which humans have to change the way we live, and the way we act. We are proposing to redefine the world.”
In practice, exactly what that means isn’t completely clear. But Ehlers, who generally wears a Panama hat in public, does have some ideas, and he certainly makes an enthusiastic spokesperson. One initiative from his office, for instance, will see all schools devote time to lessons in “values and virtues”–honesty, humility, generosity, solidarity–alongside the normal curriculum. “These are things the world has lost, and we believe it is the business of the government to help promote this in schools, business, among the civil servants and in the media,” he says.
Another initiative involves “traffic-lighting” foods for sugar, salt, and fat, so people are more aware of the danger of what they’re eating. And, the ministry’s “National Plan for Good Living” has objectives covering everything from energy (fossil fuels are out, renewables are in) to collaborative consumption and the sharing economy.
Ehlers is also interested in introducing lifecycle economics to the Ecuador’s government, so it begins to account for the environmental costs of its actions. It’s begun working with the Global Footprint Network, a California consultancy, to work out the total environmental footprint of the Ecuador’s economy and to begin to see how that economy can live within its environmental limits. GFN analyses show most countries live well beyond what their ecosystem will allow. For example, Switzerland currently needs four Switzerlands to sustain itself, GFN says.
“Knowing the footprint will give us a greater conscience,” he says. “We want [GFN] to come to Ecuador to give us good statistics about this, because, in other countries, they don’t have accurate statistics and that makes it difficult to follow this new path.”
At the same time, Ehlers wants to internationalize Ecuador’s approach, so other countries follow its path. “We believe the world cannot keep growing like it is, because we only have one planet. That’s why buen vivir is very important to talk about,” he says.