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It is often argued that those concerned about motivating ambitious and proportional responses to profound environmental challenges, such as climate change, must construct a compelling and inspiring vision of an alternative future.

Many environmentalists seek to build this vision upon an understanding of well being: particularly the recognition that increased material consumption, at least in rich countries, does not equate with increased happiness and wellbeing. Nevertheless it could be argued that there is something missing in the vision being offered. A society where there was more time, more community and more allotments is not likely to mobilize the movement for change that the present crisis requires. We need a vision which reaches more deeply into the human condition and is able to face more troubling sets of concerns.

On January 15th 2010 an invited group of philosophers, social theorists, psychotherapists and climate change activists met to explore this issue at the University of the West of England. This is a previously unpublished record of a meeting.

Human Wellbeing – is it all relative?

There is no universal model of wellbeing and therefore no ‘objective’ way of measuring it. But whilst it may not be possible to find a model of wellbeing which equally suits British and, say, Kenyan society this is not to say that we cannot develop agreement about a model of wellbeing appropriate for our own society, that is, the UK.

We need political and cultural spaces in which alternative visions of wellbeing can be discussed and elaborated. Whilst we should be cautious about prematurely pushing certain viewpoints the urgency of climate change requires proactivity. Governments are terrified of upsetting people by drawing attention to the difficult actions required to tackle the problem we face. It is easy for debate to become polarized between a laissez faire approach which argues that the market will solve things and a form of green authoritarianism. What is needed is a government which can act with authority on this issue without being authoritarian. It can do this by:

addressing its citizens honestly as adults,
having the courage to risk short term electoral popularity by spelling out that there is no painless way of achieving the necessary change,
recognizing and containing the anxieties and resentments that responding to climate change entails
Why Aristotle?

In Western thought, outside of religion, there is a surprisingly weak tradition of thinking about what constitutes the good life.

Utilitarianism: This gives emphasis to human happiness, and specifically the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But happiness is a poor guide to the good society. Long ago Aristotle argued that the gratification of appetite and the pursuit of pleasure stood opposed to human virtue and, in the long run, the desire for more leaves the individual with feelings of regret, dissatisfaction and self-hatred. The utilitarian approach is often connected to Quality of Life approaches that emphasise subjective well-being.

The Capabilities Approach: This approach, linked to the work of Amartya Sen[1] and Martha Nussbaum[2], draws on Aristotle’s thinking about human flourishing or eudaimonia. The Capabilities Approach is critical of utilitarian approaches to happiness arguing that ‘subjective states are not the only things that matter’ and that such approaches give support to economic models which emphasise self-interest maximization heedless of human relations and emotions. The Capabilities Approach argues that social diversity draws attention to the ‘role played by ethical principles in the design of the ‘good’ society’. It is an approach which stresses positive freedom, that is, our ‘freedom to’ achieve valuable functioning. Whilst Sen argues that what constitutes valuable functioning will vary from one culture to another, Nussbaum has argued that there is a set of broad capacities which apply to individuals in all societies. Her list comprises


Bodily Health

Bodily Integrity

Sense, Imagination, Thought


Practical Reason


Other Species


Political and Material Control over one’s Environment

Thus, for example, Nussbaum argues that the right to bodily integrity is a basic human right which is contradicted by practices such as physical and sexual abuse, female circumcision, etc[3].

But Aristotle’s approach is rationalist. For example, he saw reason standing in opposition to emotion. In Western thought it tended to be religion which was more comfortable in talking about human passion. As a result we lack a tradition of secular humanism with moral and psychological depth.

After Aristotle

The purpose of the seminar was to explore ways of thinking about human flourishing which could build upon the Aristotelian tradition or offer new departures from it. Some of the lines of thought that emerged were these:


Rather than imagining Utopias in the abstract we can ‘imagine otherwise’ by collectively improvising new ways of living

Such ‘prefiguration’ of possible futures is a core value in the Transition movement. Prefiguration is the practice of political imagination and for many involved in Transition initiatives acting together is a way of recovering agency


Doesn’t shy away from addressing the negative as well as the positive in humanity

Offers helpful ideas such as the ‘containment’ of anxiety, and the containing function of groups and institutions; negative capability – that is, the capacity to be in doubt and uncertainty; the recovery of projections which have led, for example, to the creation of enemies; ‘depressive openness’, that is, the capacity to remain receptive to the other rather than construe them as threat.

Intrinsic Value

The intrinsic value of things and people stands in opposition to instrumental value. The latter construes the other as a means to an end, the former sees the other, including nature, as an end in itself.

An intrinsic approach derives pleasure from the activity itself, from the journey rather than from the destination. If you have to ask ‘am I happy?’ then you can not be happy.


A concept from Erich Fromm and E.O.Wilson, a love of all living things, an intrinsic connectedness to other animals, a deep affiliation to nature.

New Humanisms

Martin Buber, Emanuel Levinas stress the depth of our relation and our responsibility to the other

Moral Imagination

Our moral imagination – our capacity to imagine the other, to act reparatively towards the other where relations have broken down, our capacity to recognize other peoples’ rights and entitlements (including the rights of future generations) – appears to have grown over the last century, giving grounds for hope..

Central to mediation, restorative justice


Recognition that we live in an interconnected world society, that social diversity as opposed to social homogeneity promotes human flourishing and collective resilience, and that inclusive relations between peoples is to be preferred to the creation of excluding communities whether at national or local level.

Look towards the development of forms of global governance – the International Criminal Court at the Hague, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would be examples.

Redefining production and consumption

What gets excluded from conventional measures of GDP? How is the wealth of a nation measured? This is a major area of rethinking at national and international level, the latest evidence of which is the Sarkozy Report[4]. Among other things this report notes that GDP mainly measures market production rather than government or household provision of goods and services. This links to longstanding feminist critiques of the concepts of work and production for the way in which they ignore domestic labour. The New Economic Foundation’s Happy Planet Index argues that a “successful society is one that can support good lives that don’t cost the earth”. The New Economics Foundation has also been influenced by the Capabilities Approach. In their National Accounts of Wellbeing[5] they distinguish between Personal and Social Well-being in the following way:

Personal Well-being Social Well-being

Emotional well-being Supportive relationships

Satisfying life Trust and belonging


Resilience and self esteem

Positive functioning

They define vitality as ‘how far people have energy, feel well-rested and healthy and are physically active’. They see ‘resilience and self esteeem’ as measuring ‘individuals’ psychological resources and mental capital’. They see ‘positive functioning’ comprising autonomy, competence, engagement, meaning and purpose. Putting these together the authors define well-being as “a dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going, through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and ‘psychological resources’ or ‘mental capital’”.

So, a society might have a thriving civil society (religious and spiritual practices, cultural festivals and rituals, etc) and dense and extensive household, kinship and neighbourly networks, a close and symbiotic relationship to surrounding eco-systems and yet have a low GDP. Hence the appearance of the concept of Gross National Happiness linked to the Centre for Bhutan Studies. Even in the UK there are a vast range of activities that contribute to the collective good that do not count in terms of GDP. For example, on any given night there are literally thousands of music gigs occurring throughout the country, mostly in non-commercial venues. This crucial dimension of British cultural life which stretches back over 40 years only ‘counts’ when it produces exchangeable commodities – likewise for organised sport, hobbies, the arts, and so on.

GDP is based on the exchange value of commodities not on their use value, hence the recent comment by Adair Turner, the Chair of the Financial Services Authority, that much of the banking sector was engaged in ‘socially useless’ forms of production. The use value or social value of an activity or product depends on its intrinsic worth rather than its price. In many Western societies there appears to be an inverse relation between value and price – most graphically illustrated by the scandalously low wages earned by those in the care sector. So ‘care work’ doesn’t count at all in the calculation of GDP (because it is done in the home, by voluntary organizations or by government) and yet it is absolutely central to human flourishing. There seems to be considerable potential here for connections to be made between the concerns of the climate change movement, the social policy/welfare lobby and contemporary feminism.

We also need to rethink what we mean by consumption. What if we separate consumption from material goods? Arguably in a good society there would be greater consumption of public services – education, health, social care, transport – where by ‘public’ is meant funded by national or local taxes, communal levies or mutual societies. The production of services appears to be less resource intensive than the production of goods and services. Human services are central to the development of human capacities (see Nussbaum’s list). In Europe the concept of Caritas, the roots of the word are in the Latin for ‘love’, is central to the ethic of service.

Is this an opportune moment?

Beneath the surface of British society a new structure of feeling is emerging which is beginning to doubt the link between wealth and happiness[6]. This has been fueled by growing evidence[7], including widely reported research by Unicef[8], which indicates that, for example, despite belonging to the fifth largest economy in the world British children are among the most unhappy in OECD countries.

Moreover, as the British economy pulls out of recession more slowly than most others the prospect of continued growth of the type we experienced over the previous decade looks increasingly improbable. Indeed the coming public expenditure cuts, which are the price of digging our banks out of their crisis, will further constrain the possibilities for economic growth.

It follows that irrespective of the climate change argument British political culture is likely to be more receptive to finding ways of uncoupling wellbeing from growth.

Politics, Utopia and Dystopia

The final theme that was around during the seminar could be summed up in terms of “human flourishing versus Mad Max”. In the shadow of the failed Copenhagen talks some participants felt that any talk of human flourishing had to be emotionally resonant. When you feel like you might be on the road to apocalypse this might not be the place and time to engage with well-being.

We can learn to ‘imagine otherwise’ by glimpsing dystopia as well as utopia, the former can be an effective vehicle for social criticism. The psychoanalyst W.R.Bion noted that when groups become suffused with anxiety they resort to splitting and paranoia, they are simultaneously frightened and frightening. Some likened the impact of climate change to a kind of collective PTSD and Transition can play a key role in providing relief from isolation and a working through of toxic feelings. Some in Transition speak of ‘dark optimism’. There can be no participation in projects of political change without hope/optimism. What spirit/ethic needs to inform the politics of climate change? Experimentation, learning (try everything, see what works), discursive elaboration (talk, argue), toleration of uncertainty, holding the space between denial and despair.

Written by Paul Hoggett (This is a previously unpublished record of a meeting:)

Paul Hoggett is a therapist, researcher and teacher. He is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of the West Of England and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and a member of the Severnside Institute of Psychotherapy. 


[1] Sen, Amartya K. (1985), Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford: Elsevier Science


[2] Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000), Women and Human Development: the Capabilities

Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Nussbaum, M. C. (2005b), .Women.s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities.,

Journal of Human Development, 6(2), 167-83.

[4] Stiglitz, J., Sen, A. & Fitoussi, J-P (2009) Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

[5] Michaelson, J. (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: Bringing Real Wealth onto the Balance Sheet. London: nef.

[6] R. Layard (2005) Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. Penguin.

[7] M.Rutter & D.Smith (eds) Psychosocial Disorders in Young People: Time Trends and their Causes. Russell Sage Foundation.

[8] Unicef (2007) Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Wellbeing in Rich Countries.