Jeff and I are traveling in Ecuador, and this weekend we visited the small town of Mindo. Saturday evening I watched these kids playing with some pieces of wood:
At first I was surprised to see them so apparently happy, because these kids are poor by my standards. I think this is part of what makes people throw up their hands at the idea of redistributing anything worldwide. How can every child in the world live like first-world children, with a Tickle Me Elmo, a bedroom in a big house, and a seat in an SUV?
They can't. There is not enough space, not enough fuel, not enough raw material in the world for every child to live like rich children. Nor for all adults to live like American adults.
But an American standard of living is not necessary for happiness. Despite having higher incomes and higher consumption of goods, Americans aren't as satisfied with their lives as Danes or Costa Ricans (source). That's probably because we're behind in some other things that help us be happy, like social connection. And if everybody consumed at the level of Americans, the planet would be trashed.
One model of global well-being I've seen is a "doughnut" - the sweet spot where people's needs are met but they're not burning through too many natural resources. And it occurs to me that these Ecuadoran kids are probably somewhere in that doughnut. Their house, like most in Mindo, was simply made from cement, wood, and corrugated metal. It has running water and a gas stove. Their town has a health center, a school, and a paved road going to the city. The kids looked healthy and cared-for, and they were clearly having a great time until it started raining and the grownups made them come inside.
I don't know much about these kids' lives, and I don't want to idealize them. I don't know how much education they'll get, or how safe their water is, or what opportunities there are for them in this small town. But I don't think people need to live like Americans to be happy. Personally, I try not to live like a typical American.
I think it's possible to hit that sweet spot where our needs – health, safety, useful work, good relationships, a functioning society – are met. Where we can enjoy our lives because we're not distracted by hunger or fear or sickness. That's the kind of world I'm aiming for.