Traditionally, we have measured social progress, or standard of living, as the amount of economic growth based on various indices (such as the GDP or gross domestic product, a measure of the gross domestic income per capita), however with more awareness of true sustainability and the fact that the richest nations are proving to be unhappy and unhealthy, this standard has come under increasing questioning.
“Living well on a finite planet cannot simply be about consuming more and more stuff. Nor can it be about accumulating more and more debt. Prosperity, in any meaningful sense of the term, is about the quality of our lives and relationships, about the resilience of our communities, and about our sense of individual and collective meaning.” (Quoted from ‘New economic model needed not relentless consumer demand,’ http://www.guardian.co.uk. January 17, 2013).
“It’s easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich,” says Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s minister of education. “Yet we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people.” (Quoted from ‘Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world,’ http://www.guardian.co.uk. December 1, 2012).
One of the first countries to steer away from the “accepted” way to measure progress, Bhutan, a country of mainly Buddhist heritage, is located in South Asia at the eastern end of the Himalayas, bordered by China and India. Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels, not the GDP. The gross national happiness (GNH) is based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and promotion of good governance. The country believes that well-being should take preference over material growth.
This way of thinking could have a positive effect on the future of agriculture, especially now as we witness the collapsing of financial systems, wide-scale environmental destruction, and a strong case for income gaps being an indicator of a functioning and healthy society. (Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2009). Backed by 30 years of research, Wikinson and Pickett show that modern social problems such as poor health, violence, lack of community life, and mental illness are more likely to occur in a less-equal societies.
The income gap concerns me the most when I look at farms in Ontario and how greater equality will be needed to shift the farm from self-interested consumerism to a more resilient way of practising farming. And why? I am astounded by the “estate properties” that chicken and dairy farmers are establishing for themselves in Ontario. These quota farmers are the epitome of consumerism at the expense of the environment, striving always to increase profits so that they can build a large new home and buy up more farms, while other farms strive for balance not only in their farm operations, but in their lifestyle choices and in the way they produce food, food that nourishes the human body. And often, these latter farmers find it difficult to make ends meet.