Relinquishment Can Be Fun! Redefining the Pursuit of Happiness to Create a Greener World


Eating like this every day wouldn't be very good for the environment -- and it wouldn't be much of a treat either. Photo by Jennifer Hattam.

Before I moved to Istanbul, I always thought of eating seasonally as a great idea in theory, but kind of a chore in practice. How were you supposed to remember if it was OK to eat asparagus in October or oranges in April? What if you really, really wanted to cook Brussels sprouts in the middle of June? But after going through the year watching artichoke vendors, cucumber sellers, or boxes of deep red cherries flood the city's streets and then disappear again, I started to see how limitations could perhaps provide inspiration rather than irritation.A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to make a pasta salad for a picnic. I settled on a recipe for warm pasta salad with spinach, pomegranate, walnuts, and goat cheese because it sounded tasty and I thought all the ingredients would be easily found at my local shops. But I had forgotten; pomegranate season was over. Fortunately, a bright display of just-arrived strawberries caught my eye at the store and I decided to use them instead, to much success.

Appealing to the Idea of Indulgence
German parliamentarian Bärbel Höhn seems to be thinking along the same lines. "We live in a world where everything is available. What kind of indulgence is it if we can go to the fridge year-round and take out strawberries?" the vice chair of the German Green Party's parliamentary group asked this morning at a panel discussion on eco-friendly lifestyle choices. "Wouldn't it be more fun to say, we have a strawberry season in Germany in June and we go out and pick them on our own?"

Hearkening back to the bygone days (at least in most Western nations) when eating meat was "an indulgence and a social enjoyment," rather than a big part of one's daily diet, Höhn flipped the oft-suggested admonition to eat less meat on its head by adding, "Why shouldn't we claim and demand our right to a Sunday roast that we look forward to all week long?"

Höhn's idea that environmentalists have to "convert relinquishment into fun" in order to win more adherents was a theme that kept popping up at "The Great Transformation: Greening the Economy" conference organized by the German environmental foundation Heinrich Böll Stifung.

Selling the Sustainable Lifestyle
Simply educating people about the links between their consumption and environmental protection is clearly not enough. As Klaus Müller, the chairman of a German consumer advice center, pointed out at the same panel, studies show that more than 80 percent of the population expresses a willingness to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. "But things get trickier when you ask about their personal behaviors," he added, noting that only 3 percent to 5 percent of consumers are buying organic products, and even fewer opt for fair trade ones. "There's a clear difference between what people say and what is being done in real life."


If we want to get more people onto public transportation, the last thing we should be doing is getting rid of train bar cars. Photo by Life magazine via Ivy Style.

Undoubtedly, many of those people are daunted by the perceived pain-in-the-ass factor. "People who haven't yet tried buying organic products or riding a bike are more resistant," Müller said. "Seeing a change in one's immediate environment has a much bigger impact than any kind of advertising campaign."

Sometimes that change is thrust upon people, as it was with my shopping habits in Istanbul. Where I used to feel frustrated at not being able to find everything on my shopping list, or having to decide between just corn flakes, muesli, and some kind of honey puffs in the cereal aisle, after a year living abroad, I found myself just as aggravated on a trip back to the U.S. by the amount of time I spent trying to decide between 50 different types of chewing gum or shampoo. Freedom, of the consumer variety at least, had become a bit of a burden.

Berlin residents have experienced a similar type of forced revelation, according to Hermann Ott, another Green member of the German parliament. "Bicycling traffic has doubled in Berlin over the past 10 years, in large part due to a general strike a few years ago," he remarked earlier in the conference. "The U-Bahn [metro] was closed, so people started biking and saw it was easy and fun."

Time to Scrap 'Sacrifice'
The idea seems so obvious, but it still often seems as if environmental campaigns focus on harms rather than happiness. Sure, green products are promoted as hip and cool, but I don't think efforts to encourage larger lifestyle changes have caught up. If we're ever going to get people out of their cars, we're not going to do it by lecturing or scaring them about climate change and pollution -- or even, probably, by hiking the cost of driving. Gas prices in Turkey are among the highest in the world and Istanbul's roads are still bumper to bumper.

Wouldn't the better approach be to convince people that if they're going to be stuck in traffic, it's much more pleasant and productive to be spending the time reading, napping, listening to their iPods, or getting work done in a WiFi-equipped train car?

Reinhard Bütikofer thinks so. "I don't think we will win the cultural debate if we always use the term 'sacrifice,'" the German member of the European Parliament said this afternoon at the conference. "The pursuit of happiness can be reinterpreted ecologically to describe an environmental 'promised land' where growth will still have a role, but not the destructive one it plays these days."

More about happiness and the environment:
Green Glossary: Gross National Happiness (GNH)
Find Happiness Without Buying It: Planet Green
The Happiest, Greenest Place on Earth - Seriously!
Happiness: No Purchase Necessary, Says Study
What does the "Hedonic Treadmill" Concept Mean for Happiness and the Environment?
You CAN Shop For Happiness...But the Purchases Aren't 'Stuff'
Experience the Economics of Happiness at Schumacher College
Save Money at the Bank of Happiness
4 Nations Happier than the U.S., With Half the Carbon Emissions

Tags: Berlin | Biking | Consumerism | Fruits & Vegetables | Living With Less | Turkey