On happiness

569px-Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait) James Hansen says:

I was lucky to grow up in the era of rapidly rising expectations and opportunities. I was born on a small farm, the son of an itinerant tenant farmer. None of the farms that my five sisters and I lived on had electricity. Daylight was extended by kerosene lamps. I barely remember the use of kerosene lamps, because, when I was four years old, we moved a small house to the outskirts of town and by the time my brother was born, when I was 5 years old, we had electricity.

And so on. Which is, at first sight, weird: he claims to have been lucky to grow up in an era so primitive that they were using kerosene lamps. Why isn’t he bemoaning how unlucky he was compared to someone growing up today, where the standard of living is so much higher?

Because, as Hobbes says:

Seeing all delight is appetite, and appetite presupposes a farther end, there can be no contentment but in proceeding: and therefore we are not to marvel, when we see, that as men attain to more riches, honors, or other power; so their appetite continually grows more and more; and when they are come to the utmost degree of one kind of power, they pursue some other, as long as in any kind they think themselves behind any other. Of those therefore that have attained to the highest degree of honor and riches, some have affected mastery in some art; as Nero in music and poetry, Commodus in the art of a gladiator. And such as affect not some such thing, must find diversion and recreation of their thoughts in the contention either of play, or business. And men justly complain as of a great grief, that they know not what to do. FELICITY, therefore (by which we mean continual delight), consists not in having prospered, but in prospering.

The alternative “because” is “because Hansen isn’t thinking very clearly”. Which can’t possibly be right, obviously. That’s from The Elements of Law Natural and Politic not Leviathan, BTW.

Refs

* ELO – Mr Blue Sky

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    2013/01/08

    I don’t get your point really. Hanson says he is lucky in an “era of rapidly rising expectations and opportunities”
    which he then demonstrates by showing how the rising opportunities affected his upbringing. The opportunities and rising expectations is what he is thankful for, not the Kerosene lamps.

    [But during his upbringing, even though standards had risen a bit, they were far lower than they are today. Hansen, so me, seems to imply that he was "lucky" to be born then rather than now. Or some time in between. Even though standards have been continually rising since that time. Are you perhaps suggesting that he is "lucky" not to have been born even earlier?

    Hansen was born in 1941 it would appear. Is he (are you) suggesting that is a better time than 1951? 61? 71? -W]

  2. #2 Neil Craig
    2013/01/08

    Obviously most of thee world still lives in an age of rapidky rising wealth. Only those countries under the influence of the eco-fascists are in recession or low growth.

    The age of wealth and opportunity for everyone is barely born – which is why the eco-fascists are desperate to strangle it now. The catastrophic warming fraud, and all the hundreds of previous scares which also proved false, are part of that process,

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    2013/01/08

    Hansen is thankful not for having lived with kerosene lamps, but for the fact that he didn’t need them after age 5.

    [OK, I can certainly see having lectric rather than kerosene is something to be thankful for. But why then does Hansen say he was lucky? Wasn't he unlucky, to have been born too early? -W]

    As he goes on to say, there are many parts of the world that still haven’t made that transition:

    Did you know 1.5 billion people are still without electricity, most depending on kerosene lamps to extend their day? There are about 15,000 serious burn injuries per day. And about 800 million women and children inhale the smoke, equivalent to up to two cigarette packs per day.

    The essay goes on to mention a program to bring solar powered lanterns to Indonesia and thereby reduce the need for kerosene lanterns there. This project will have the additional effect of reducing Indonesia’s carbon footprint.

    Hansen grew up in a time and place of rising living standards for ordinary people.

    [Well indeed. So the later on you're born, the better off you are -W]

    That has been the exception, rather than the rule, for the history of human civilization (elites have frequently gotten richer, but any gains for ordinary people were often temporary). Much of the Third World has never known times of consistent progress for ordinary people. Hanson reasonably fears that much of the progress for ordinary North Americans he has seen in his lifetime will be reversed in the lifetime of his grandchildren.

    [Do you think that life expectancy hasn't increased over the last, say, 50 years for the third world? I'd have thought it has. Looking at Gapminder says they have. massively, since 1920 -W]

  4. #4 Paul S
    2013/01/08

    I suspect he’s pointing out that people don’t generally derive pleasure via absolute measurements: it’s the relative change that matters. For Hansen living from the 1940s to today he’s seen a relative improvement in his conditions. He can remember those conditions through time, recognise the improvement and derive some sense of happiness from the change.

    For those growing up today there is some degree of stagnation and perhaps decline in conditions, at least in some terms. Even though these conditions are probably better than they were in 1941, young people’s reference frames don’t include 1941 and all they can really see is the lack of any sense of progression.

    Depends on what you look at though. If you tie your sense of happiness to mobile phone technology or Internet connection speeds I suspect there’s a fair amount to buck you up… unless you live where I do anyway.

    [Ah, at last, a comment I can mostly agree with. I think Hansen is indeed thinking of exactly what I quoted from Hobbes - that people are happier when things get better, not from an absolute level of good. But when you say For those growing up today there is some degree of stagnation and perhaps decline in conditions we begin to diverge: I think Hansen is thinking this, and I think he is largely wrong. Its age-of-gold stuff. Things continue to get better -W]

  5. #5 Alastair McDonald
    2013/01/08

    I, like Markk, think you are misinterpreting what Hansen is saying. He is not saying he was lucky to be born when kerosene lamps were in use. He is saying he was lucky because by the time he was only five years old his family had electric light.

    [But if he is saying he was lucky because by the time he was only five years old his family had electric light how much more lucky are all of us subsequently who always had electric light. So in that sense Hansen was unlucky to be born too early -W]

    And he is advocating the replacement of those remaining by the solar powered lamps being invented by his Dutch friend Groen.

    What I find more interesting is his opposition to the Climate Dialogue blog. I agree whole heartedly with everything he wrote. Its instigation was a victory for denialism. But it seems to have fizzled out. Good :-)

    [I'm not so negative towards CliDia... <checks>... no, not nearly so negative. Perhaps even welcoming, if you stretch a point. As I understand it, more is planned, so don't be so sure its out -W]

    Cheers, Alastair.

  6. #6 Hank Roberts
    2013/01/08

    Hansen writes:
    “I was lucky to grow up in the era of rapidly rising expectations and opportunities.”

    He doesn’t delimit that era. But I’d guess he sees the rate of change now as not so “rapidly” rising — slower than it was during the 1940s and 1950s.

  7. #7 crandles
    2013/01/08

    [I think Hansen is thinking this, and I think he is largely wrong. Its age-of-gold stuff. Things continue to get better -W]

    Is this to any extent a result of your thinking ‘it is hard to get catastrophe from even 4C temp rise’? Do many other people (inc Hansen) think that is dangerous and leads to inevitability of collapsing ice sheets and different climates than we and our infrastructure are used to within a few decades?

    [Ah, well that's a different matter. I'm not talking about the future, for these purposes, and neither is Hansen (at least not explicitly) -W]

    There is also peak oil and gas potentially beginning to impinge on what we are able to do. As those high energy density products begin to get expensive EROEI falls. Can economic development outperform the effects of this?

    While I hope you are right, I think it is dangerous to be certain that you are right and things will continue to get better.

    [Weelll... you could, perhaps, argue that things are OK now, we should factor in potential future disasters and therefore "degrade" our present level of happiness to account for that. But if you accept that: so should Hansen, in his lucky days. If you counter is "but he didn't know" then you're just arguing that ignorance is bliss -W]

  8. #8 Tom Curtis
    2013/01/08

    Hansen was lucky. He grew up in an era without stagflation, global financial crises, or fiscal cliffs. He grew up in an era where economic growth (in the US, at least) was largely limited to the wealthiest levels of society. He grew up in an era where people could reasonably expect full, and lifetime employment. If Hobbs is correct, then for middle America, there has been no time of greater prospering than that between 1950 and 1970. Even though middle america is now much more affluent than in that era, the prospects of increasing affluence are much less.

    Of course, Hobbs is not correct. Or at least, he is correct only of some people, some of the time – with the attitude he identifies being far more a matter of culture than of our basic nature. For many (probably most) people, in most times and places, far more important than prospering (ie, increasing wealth over time) is sufficiency so that you do not experience want of basic necessities (food, water, clothing, shelter, employment) along with security, so that you have no expectation of want in basic necessities into the future.

    Indeed, it is lack of security of necessities that is the cause of discontent in our times. While many entertaining gadgets have become immeasurably cheaper, the cost of basic necessities as been more or less constant over time since the 1970s. The proportion of household income spent on food, clothing and housing are near constants. But electronics are cheaper so that the left over income can buy more gadgets – a conditions mistaken as (and falsely sold as) increased prosperity. In the meantime, economic security has fallen to levels not far better than those in the great depression, and the ineptness of politicians in both the US and Europe may well bring us again to even that low.

    [The proportion of household income spent on food, clothing and housing are near constants - evidence? -W]

  9. #9 Tom Curtis
    2013/01/08

    “economic growth … was … limited to” should read “was not limited to”

  10. #10 Tom Curtis
    2013/01/08

    Here is a discussion of housing affordability in Australia. The key facts, mortgage interest as a percentage of household disposable income has risen from 4 to 9% over the last thirty years. Over the same period, housing debt as a percentage of household disposable income has risen from 20 to 140%, while housing debt as a percentage of assets has risen from 10 to 30%. Rents (not discussed in the article) have followed housing prices, though not as fast.

    It should be noted that part of the increase is due to more recently built houses being larger; although the trend from living in houses to living in apartments probably means overall housing area has shrunk. Certainly block size has shrunk, and older housing from the 50s -70s have participated in the general price increase, Consequently this is definitely a case of a greater percentage of household income required to satisfy the same basic need. Indeed, with housing costs exceeding 100% of mean household disposable income, many Australians are simply being priced out of the market.

    In the US, housing prices have been very volatile due to, first, the housing bubble and then the collapse initiating the GFC. Despite that, however, the trend (from eyeball) in house price to income ratio over the last twenty years has been positive.

    I don’t know the situation in Europe, but generalizing from these two examples, my claim that the cost of necessities as a percentage of income has not fallen is conservative.

  11. #11 John mashey
    2013/01/08

    Although more-or-less sharing a common language, the UK and US are not identical, and the post WW II worldviews were rather different. The US had an unchallenged economy, had not been bombed, and science was taking an increasing role, especially after the Sputnik wakeup call, when the US poured a lot of resource into encouraging science and engineering.

    US manufacturers were still whole, whereas much of the world’s was broken. In the1950s, large numbers of people with low-to-middling skills were able to add enough value in manufacturing to buy houses and do OK. The US came out of the war pretty much unscathed; Germany, Japan, France were wrecked. Russia was damaged. The UK had lost most of the empire and was damaged., Nuclear power was seen to be a zero-disadvantage magical power source. Teenagers could actually sometimes even own cars. More families actually owned two. Jet planes appeared, and air travel started to become a mass market item, which makes a much bigger difference in US. The Interstate Highway system was built. California took off after WW II, turning from somewhat of a remote backwater into a powerhouse (and land of extreme optimism).

    The “American Dream” has always been that children could be and would be better off than their parents (whether that was true or not, but especially for the baby-boomers, whose parents grew up in the Great Depression and then fought in WW II, it was really true for large numbers.)

    Meanwhile, and this is relevant to Jim’s specifics, see USA history section of Rural Electirification. Farming in the US is rather different in some ways than in the UK, given the geography and history. Especially post WW II, life on rural (I mean really rural) farms got a lot better (electrification, extension of telephone service, TVs (many people on farms, especially in midwest) were rather far from the nearest movie theatre, and sometimes pretty far from the nearest town. Better machinery and transport systems meant that productivity could rise, and farm population dropped from ~40% in 1990 to ~2% today.

    For instance, the UK is ~94K sq mi, 63M people, 662/sq mile. Kansas is 82K sq mi, 2.9M people, 36/sq/mi. By US rural standards, almost nowhere in England is really very rural.(And my wife is from Yorkshire, about as rural as it gets. UK density has long allowed passenger trains to be useful.)

    Anyway, I sympathize with Jim’s comments. … although he might have been even luckier to have been in leading edge of baby boom in US, probably the luckiest generation ever to have lived on the planet so far. I was born in 1946, and our farm (which was just outside suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA, so nowhere near as rural as his) already had electricity, but it was truly wonderful when television appeared.)

  12. #12 dhogaza
    2013/01/08

    “But when you say For those growing up today there is some degree of stagnation and perhaps decline in conditions we begin to diverge: I think Hansen is thinking this, and I think he is largely wrong. Its age-of-gold stuff. Things continue to get better”

    Mashey touches on something important when he speaks of post-war differences between the UK and US. “In the1950s, large numbers of people with low-to-middling skills were able to add enough value in manufacturing to buy houses and do OK.”

    Yes, indeedy. Kids in their 20s today here in the US are increasingly priced out of not only buying houses, but even renting a flat for themselves. The percentage of adults living in shared housing in the US has been going up in the last decade. His generation … well, an old landlord of mine, a journyman printer (I think this qualifies as being of “middling skills”) was able to acquire *five* houses. People of my parents generation quite frequently not only owned their own home, but a cabin on the Oregon coast. Working class people.

    The 1950s and 1960s in the US were times of almost unbounded optimism. Overlaid with cold-war fears, but economically, those decades rocked. Science progressed … nuclear power put us on the path to electricity too cheap to meter! We were all going to have cars that could fly! DDT was saving agriculture! Cheap fuel, cheap electricity, life was getting better every day! Nothing could stop us!

    OK, I was a kid in those days, but the country’s optimism sunk through to we young-uns, too (I was born in 1954). The moon landing! My god! How exciting.

    So on an objective scale, obviously somethings are better. Cars last 200K miles rather than 50K miles (my folks had a classic 1957 chevy that made it to 100K miles and only had the engine rebuilt once!). Computers, technology, medicine, yeah big advances. All those kids who can’t afford to live in a flat alone can put on the headphones and listen to their iPod and tune their three roomates out … somewhat.

    What’s lost, and I’m sure what Hansen’s referring to, and which Mashey refers to above, is the feeling of ever increasing access to a middle class lifestyle, hope for a better economic future for ourselves in later life and our children, of technological progress free of negative side effects (such as global warming), etc.

    The UK in the 1950s was not, as I understand it, a place filled with the same spirit of unbounded optimism as the US. So I wouldn’t expect a citizen of the UK to really have a gut feel for what it was like in the 1950s and 60s when people like Jim were coming of age, or of how that really differs from people of the vietnam generation (like myself – economically, though, we all had the same expectation of being able to buy a house at a cost equivalent to about one years’ salary, not 5 to 10 years like today’s young adults, depending on where they live) or later generations.

    [I was born in 1964, so have very little personal experience of the 50's -W]

  13. #13 PaulB
    2013/01/08

    In so far as happiness is related to wealth, it’s not absolute wealth that makes you happy, but your wealth relative to what you’re used to. A steady progression is best.

  14. #14 crandles
    2013/01/08

    >”But if you accept that: so should Hansen, in his lucky days.”

    Disasters that involve us as a cause but we didn’t know in enough time are just accidents. It is when we know we are the cause and have enough time to stop it getting really bad that we should feel bad if we are not doing enough to stop it.

    Regarding the article I would suggest that Hansen is saying he is lucky to be born after 1940 rather than before and is simply not expressing any opinion about 1940 versus 1950 or later dates. Then the answer to “Why isn’t he bemoaning how unlucky he was compared to someone growing up today?” is partly that for someone born in say 2000 he doesn’t know how things are going to play out. Also wishing for the best possible birth year is irrelevant wishful thinking – more sensible to be happy with what you have got, which is better than previous generations than being miserable because you are wishing for something unobtainable.

    To me, it would seem a very bizarre interpretation to suggest he is claiming 1941 birth year is optimal. Nevertheless if you do take that bizarre view then Hansen could perhaps be claiming climate was not inevitably going to get really bad until around 2000 and therefore having 55 really good years from 1946 to 2000 is as good as you can get.

    I really commented because your ‘is, at first sight, weird’ seemed odd to me and I wondered if it was really because of odd conclusions of yours like 4C temp rise does not cause catastrophe. Or maybe you are miserable because you would prefer to be born in a million years time which is an obviously irrelevantly unobtainable desire? Perhaps this also drives you to be miserable and object to Hansen’s sensible conclusion because you would prefer him to be as miserable as you for the same reasons?

  15. #15 guthrie
    2013/01/09

    What also matters regarding happiness is your wealth relative to other people. If you see that some people are making loads more money whilst you and your friends and family aren’t really making anything more, you get a bit unhappier.

    Anyway, it’s a rhetorical setup he’s using, and you’re not playing fair by getting all analytical on i.

  16. #16 Eli Rabett
    http://rabett.blogspot.com
    2013/01/09

    It is the contrast that is important to people. Eli’s grandparents were born before indoor toilets were in use. Imagine their first flush.

    And oh yes, things were a lot tougher in England after the war (let alone Germany and France). There was food rationing until 1954 and currency controls and more.

  17. #17 David B. Benson
    2013/01/09

    I cannot precisely pinpoint the date at which the US West became overpopulated (1980s?) but it most certainly is now. I often feel a certain sadness for the misuse and misappropriation of this land. Sorry, but its becoming worser and worser, not better and better.

  18. #18 John Mashey
    2013/01/09

    Of course, it is unclear that flush toilets are necessarily a good idea everywhere in the long term, given the phosphorus issue.

    Unless recovered from sewage plants, phosphorus ends up in ocean.

  19. #19 Alexander Ač
    Brn, Czech Republic
    2013/01/09

    William:

    “Things continue to get better” – depends on where and for whom. Think Egypt, Syria, Greece, Pakistan, Iran, middle-class USA, Japan… etc?

    Alex

  20. #20 Neil Craig
    2013/01/09

    Guthrie said “What also matters regarding happiness is your wealth relative to other people. If you see that some people are making loads more money whilst you and your friends and family aren’t really making anything more, you get a bit unhappier. ”

    This is indeed a major driver of the “environmental” movement & also socialism. Schadenfreude – that the rest of society should,m under no circumstances be better off than the speaker, which can, of course, only be enforced by the most rigorous state control.

    [Trolling removed - W]

  21. #21 dhogaza
    2013/01/09

    Eli:

    “And oh yes, things were a lot tougher in England after the war (let alone Germany and France). There was food rationing until 1954 and currency controls and more.”

    Yes, indeed, and though WMC was born in 1964, I’m sure he’s aware of it. And of the fact that the UK’s place on the world stage was greatly diminished as a result of WWII, economically, politically, and militarily. The opposite being true here in the US, of course. Masters of the world! Except, oops, that slight annoyance of the USSR and its nuclear weapons …

    The Marshall plan helped rebuild western europe, but in doing so it guaranteed that the huge increase in economic output that happened during WWII here continued. The main beneficiary was us.

    Food rationing? We were baby booming!

    James was born in the beginning of that era of optimism and growth, I was born more towards the middle of it. Things have changed, and Hansen’s comments make perfect sense to me.

  22. #22 Eli Rabett
    http://rabett.blogspot.com
    2013/01/10

    Happiness is a warm Ms. Rabett

  23. #23 Hank Roberts
    2013/01/10

    I feel the same way.

    I still own one kerosene lamp, though it was a 1970s Whole Earth Catalog inspired purchase, not a childhood thing.

    I’ve gone from drinking out of any stream I hadn’t just recently washed in, safely, to carrying a miniteenieweeniemicropore filter so I can drink any wild water at all and not worry about Giardia.

    From weak fallible filament-breaking flashlights with carbon-rod cells that would leak and rust them out, to attentively charging lithium-ion cells that could vent and catch fire, for LED flashlights that, well, wow, just wow.

    From the ‘old Blue car’ to the 1953 Chevy wagon to the Peugeot 404 — and, well, from there down to the present day. Oh well, can’t have progress in everything, the height of the gasoline delusion was actually a really heady time to be young. 35 cents a gallon, my, my, my.

    Got to watch the first moon landing closeup on TV and fat and full in the sky, summer of 1969, and fly hang gliders over the couple of decades their design evolved from ‘barely not suicidal’ full luff divers to soaring wings.

    Hell, I hope you youngsters produce comparable good changes to live through. I hope your delusions do less damage than ours did.

  24. #24 Alexander Ač
    www.ac.blog.sme.sk
    2013/01/10

    William, or try this link: http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/by-the-numbers-20-facts-about-the-collapse-of-europe-that-everyone-should-know

    [But... you're mistaking weather for climate. That is about the current troubles. If you're suggesting those are permanent, and part of a long-term decline, I disagree -W]

  25. #25 Alexander Ač
    www.ac.blog.sme.sk
    2013/01/10

    Hi William,

    indeed, I do think this is the start of a long-term trend well into the future. Currently, I do not see prosperous global community running on any combination of nuclear-solar-wind+whatever (but no oil coal, natural gas, unconventionals).

    Undoubtedly, for many people conditions will continue to get better (think bankers, etc.) even under deteriorating economy and weather/climate.

    I am in the “peak oil and later peak everything” crowd, and I do not see any good reason, where a exponential growth of consumption/population can possibly be machted/bailed out by at best linearly growing technology.

    Yes, we have exponentially growing money supply and debt, but you can see where it leads. But I am not new with this, just forty years lagging after “Limits to Growth” publication…

    Cheers.

    Alex

  26. #26 Dikran Marsupial
    2013/01/10

    “We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”
    ― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

    Hansen is lucky because the memory of the tip of his nose having being cold allows him to appreciate being warm now (metaphorically).

    “…for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.” is about the only thing I can remember about having read Moby Dick (other than that it involves a whale at some point).

  27. #27 Eli Rabett
    http://rabett.blogspot.com
    2013/01/10

    +1 Dikran

  28. #28 Hank Roberts
    2013/01/10

    +2 Dikran, lovely quote and so true.

    I recall my love-of-the-time on a very unexpectedly cold camping trip — each of us sleeping in a down ‘mummy’ bag closed up but for the smallest nose hole so we could breathe — saying she’d felt cold, until a mouse stepped on the tip of her nose as it walked across us, and that tiny little icy-cold footprint made her feel quite warm by contrast.

    We all felt warmer hearing that.

  29. #29 Joe Seven
    usa
    2013/01/10

    Mr. Hansen says :
    “Burn risk is eliminated and birth rates go down. ”
    I have googled this and find comments on studies but no studies. Does anyone have a link to a peer reviewed study showing this result.
    Thank you

  30. #30 Jeffrey Davis
    United States
    2013/01/10

    I love England from 1946-1964. It’s an era in Black and White, of scarves, functional sweaters, raincoats, flat caps, pubs, crap cars, and emotionally treading water. Even teenage girls looked like grannies. Men were obviously all named Bert and were 30 minutes from going on the dole. The Beatles killed the era, but prosperity, technology, and Mrs. Thatcher dug up the corpse and ghoulishly devoured it.

    It depresses me a bit because I know that reversing the process will be dismal rather than tentatively hopeful.

  31. #31 Gator
    2013/01/10

    “The alternative “because” is “because Hansen isn’t thinking very clearly”.” — Was this sarcasm?

    In any case, thanks for bringing the Waka Waka to my attention. Not sure if that was the point of this post, but that part at least was interesting.

  32. #32 guthrie
    2013/01/11

    Ahh, I see Neil is back to his old tricks again, of assuming everyone is [PA deleted - W].

    This is of course someone who accuses greens of being anti-technology, never mind all the greens wanting fancy new solar, wind, wave and tidal technology, or the tech needed to increase efficiency of everything.
    In fact Hansens article itself is about the importance of newer technology for helping people improve their lives.

  33. #33 John Mashey
    2013/01/11

    Oops, US farm population dropped from 40% in 1900, not 1990 to ~2% lately.

  34. #34 adelady
    city of wine and roses
    2013/01/11

    I see where Hansen is coming from. I’m a classic baby boomer. Returning soldier marries in 1946, baby arrives 1947.

    I only vaguely recall kerosene lamps from the farms we had before I went to school. (At this point I should point out that some of our farming neighbours had something they called “wind-lights” – a conventional windmill attached to a car battery that allowed them to have electric light in the evening. Maybe even the radio.) But we really did, as Hansen says, have repeated wonders come to us through industrial society. Watch Hans Rosling for some of this flavour. http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine.html

    We got one kind of washing machine, then another, all the way to fully automatic. And remember town gas was rationed when I was born, so my mother had had to boil nappies on a little spirit stove, there was neither gas nor power to do this. Refrigerators – I remember the ice-man delivering blocks of ice, with a lethal looking hook device, to my grandmother’s icebox. I and my sister got constant reminders of this because we spent holidays with my other grandparents – in a mid-North town – baking, stifling heat and a wood-fired stove are not congenial companions. No refrigerator, there was one of those meat-safes cooled by evaporation on the back verandah. The only reason we survived was the 18 inch thick stone walls which provided a reasonably liveable sleeping temperature – just stay out of the kitchen. But of course we had to run the terrors of the traditional long-drop dunny at the furthest end of a very long unlit backyard if we forgot to “go” before dark.

    Television turned up, portable radios, record -players all the way through various incarnations to the mp3 player. All kinds of fantastic stuff – we had magic washing machine moments over and over again.

    I’m not so sure that new versions of gaming devices or upgrades of software have quite the same impact if that’s the sort of thing you have in mind as things constantly improving. They might look marvellous to us who’ve seen them through their earlier, clunkier incarnations. To kids who’ve had them all their lives? Not so much.

  35. #35 J Bowers
    2013/01/11

    Relative increase and equality of the share of disposable income could be why Hansen felt lucky compared to today. The higher the inequality in disposable income, the unhappier a nation is as a whole.

    With regards to his fuller article, the quiet revolution in cheap Chinese PV panels in the rural Third World (who will probably never be “on the grid” in our lifetimes) has allowed better communications through the ability to charge mobile phones for free, which in turn leads to higher incomes and exchange of money, and kids can study later into the night without the risk of harm from lamps fuelled by unpredictably priced kerosene. The WakaWaka seems to be the next step in accessibility to such technology, even if only through it being more acceptable in the West because of its design. I see the WakaWaka had a $50,000 goal on Kickstarter, and has over $400,000 peldged with eight hours to go, which could be a sign of confidence.

  36. #36 Tom C
    US
    2013/01/11

    Hansen can’t write and Stoat can’t read. This explains the problems with exegesis here.

  37. #37 Brian Schmidt
    United States
    2013/01/11

    I’ll second what Eli said upthread – happiness is interpersonal, dependent on who you’re with. I wonder if Big Thinkers like Hobbes forget that or never discovered it.

  38. #38 Andy
    Houston, TX
    2013/01/11

    Well, the important thing is now we know how old Mr. Stoat is.

    [You knew that already: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Connolley -W]

    A tangential thought I had is that folks tend to forget how our increasingly sophisticated technologies have blunted what would otherwise be a decline in human well-being. Folks get on Pielke Jr’s case for not including increased protective infrastructure (dams, levees, raised homes) and advanced warning systems when calculating trends in storm losses; and yet make arguments about mankind’s welfare and whether the decline in natural resources has or will affect it without taking into account technology and infrastructure improvements.

  39. #39 Vinny Burgoo
    2013/01/11

    Apropos of nothing much at all, here’s a pic of what average Brits ate in four months in 1949, when Hansen was 8.

    http://longstreet.typepad.com/thesciencebookstore/2013/01/the-anatomy-of-bacon-and-the-imported-food-needs-of-the-british-family-1949.html

    (Max Hastings’s _All Hell Let Loose_ is quite good on the food intake of citizens of the various Allied and Axis nations, although he is perhaps a bit anti-American. He is usually careful to say that discomfort is relative and it’s what you’re used to that calibrates suffering but he doesn’t bother with that when reporting an American housewife’s bleats about going without steak for a week.)

  40. #40 Neil Craig
    2013/01/12

    Because I said Guthrie has a record of wishing to prevent growth censored from my post Guthrie calls me (uncensoredly ) “evil minded” [He shouldn't have done that - I've removed that. The rest is trolling and I've removed it -W]

  41. #41 gallopingcamel
    Florida
    2013/01/15

    It is not often that I can relate to James Hansen but today I do…..at least a little.

    I was born on a farm a few years before young James. The water was pumped by hand and carried in buckets so we had a bath at least twice a year whether we needed it or not. We knew about electricity; our radios were powered by 120 Volt “High Tension” batteries and 1.5 Volt “Filament” batteries.

    In 1945 we had 50 pounds of dynamite that would no longer be needed to sabotage the Nazi hordes so we used it to create a deep pit 200 feet from our farm house. We filled the pit with stones collected from our fields and then covered it over with soil. Instead of that smelly pool we had an underground “Septic Tank”. Not many in our village could boast such a wonderful thing.

    When I was eleven years old, 230 Volt AC power came to our village. I remember the joy of casting those beautiful kerosene lamps into the trash (if only we had appreciated them more).

    OK, we were poor but we did not realize it as everyone we knew was in the same situation. The lesson that I learned from all this is that we can bring cheap electric power to every dusty hamlet in the third world, empowering them just as my family was empowered in 1948.

    We can do it by creating a hundred Mesmer plans. We can “Build a Nuke Each Day”.

  42. #42 Alexander Harvey
    2013/01/17

    It is not uncommon to restrict era to a locale, I think it is clear from the following text that he is refering to the USA from around 1945 onwards, which goes on to compare to the situation still existing in other countries

    He bemoans the use of kerosene, that he seems glad was restricted to his unrememered past, due to its dangers both then and there, and now and elsewhere.

    I think he is simply extressing how lucky he is to be young enough an american not to remember times and conditions such as those of his amercian elders and those of his less privileged contemporaries around the globe.

  43. #43 Hank Roberts
    2013/01/18

    This might help understand why Hansen feels fortunate — he knows where he came from, which gives a perspective.

    He’d lack that perspective if he’d lived only in the best of times, and I’d guess he knows that.

    Lacks illustrated (links at the source page):

    http://weeklysift.com/2012/09/10/the-distress-of-the-privileged/

    “Privileged distress today. Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism — it goes on and on….”

  44. #44 Magnus W
    2013/01/20

    recommends this
    http://www.happinesshypothesis.com/
    lots to read do not have energy to shorten…

  45. #45 Magnus W
    2013/01/29

    Going enviro might make you “happier” then saving a few bucks http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v3/n2/full/nclimate1808.html?WT.ec_id=NCLIMATE-201302

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