The only way to ensure future happiness is to change the way we live: a speech from Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica

Photo: The​Wan​der​Life​.com

Cour­tesy of The​Wan​der​Life​.com, here’s a rous­ing speech about the sta­tus of a world with a chang­ing cli­mate, ques­tion­ing the very nature of how we deter­mine our hap­pi­ness by Uruguay’s pres­i­dent José Mujica at the Rio +20 Sum­mit this past summer.

To all of the author­i­ties present here, from every lat­i­tude and orga­ni­za­tion, thank you very much. I want to thank the peo­ple of Brazil and Mrs. Pres­i­dent, Dilma Rouss­eff. Thank you all for the good faith undoubt­edly expressed by all of the speak­ers that pre­ceded me.

We hereby express our inner­most will as rulers, to adhere to all the agree­ments our wretched human­ity, may chance to subscribe.

Notwith­stand­ing, let us take this oppor­tu­nity to ask some ques­tions out loud. All after­noon long, we have been talk­ing about sus­tain­able devel­op­ment, about res­cu­ing the masses from the claws of poverty.

What is it that flut­ters within our minds? Is it the model of devel­op­ment and con­sump­tion, which is shaped after that of afflu­ent soci­eties? I ask this ques­tion: what would hap­pen to this planet if the peo­ple of India had the same num­ber of cars per fam­ily as the Ger­mans? How much oxy­gen would there be left for us to breathe? More clearly: Does the world today have the mate­r­ial ele­ments to enable 7 or 8 bil­lion peo­ple to enjoy the same level of con­sump­tion and squan­der­ing as the most afflu­ent West­ern soci­eties? Will that ever be pos­si­ble? Or will we have to start a dif­fer­ent type of dis­cus­sion one day? Because we have cre­ated this civ­i­liza­tion in which we live: the prog­eny of the mar­ket, of the com­pe­ti­tion, which has begot­ten prodi­gious and explo­sive mate­r­ial progress. But the mar­ket econ­omy has cre­ated mar­ket soci­eties. And it has given us this glob­al­iza­tion, which means being aware of the whole planet.

Are we rul­ing over glob­al­iza­tion or is glob­al­iza­tion rul­ing over us? Is it pos­si­ble to speak of sol­i­dar­ity and of “being all together” in an econ­omy based on ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion? How far does our fra­ter­nity go?

I am not say­ing any of [these things] to under­mine the impor­tance of this event. On the con­trary, the chal­lenge ahead of us is of a colos­sal mag­ni­tude and the great cri­sis is not an eco­log­i­cal cri­sis, but rather a polit­i­cal one.

Today, man does not gov­ern the forces he has unleashed, but rather, it is these forces that gov­ern man; and life. Because we do not come into this planet sim­ply to develop, just like that, indis­crim­i­nately. We come into this planet to be happy. Because life is short and it slips away from us. And no mate­r­ial belong­ing is worth as much as life, and this is fundamental.But if life is going to slip through my fin­gers, work­ing and over-working in order to be able to con­sume more, and the con­sumer soci­ety is the engine-because ulti­mately, if con­sump­tion is par­a­lyzed, the econ­omy stops, and if you stop econ­omy, the ghost of stag­na­tion appears for each one of us, but it is this hyper-consumption that is harm­ing the planet. And this hyper-consumption needs to be gen­er­ated, mak­ing things that have a short use­ful life, in order to sell a lot. Thus, a light bulb can­not last longer than 1000 hours. But there are light bulbs that last 100,000 hours! But these can­not be man­u­fac­tured, because the prob­lem is the mar­ket, because we have to work and we have to sus­tain a civ­i­liza­tion of “use and dis­card,” and so, we are trapped in a vicious cycle. These are prob­lems of a polit­i­cal nature, which are show­ing us that it’s time to start fight­ing for a dif­fer­ent culture.

I’m not talk­ing about return­ing to the days of the cave­man, or erect­ing a “mon­u­ment to back­ward­ness.” But we can­not con­tinue like this, indef­i­nitely, being ruled by the mar­ket; on the con­trary, we have to rule over the market.

This is why I say, in my hum­ble way of think­ing, that the prob­lem we are fac­ing is polit­i­cal. The old thinkers. Epi­cu­rus, Seneca and even the Aymara put it this way, a poor per­son is not some­one who has lit­tle but one who needs infi­nitely more, and more and more.” This is a cul­tural issue.

So I salute the efforts and agree­ments being made. And I will adhere to them, as a ruler. I know some things I’m say­ing are not easy to digest. But we must real­ize that the water cri­sis and the aggres­sion to the envi­ron­ment is not the cause. The cause is the model of civ­i­liza­tion that we have cre­ated. And the thing we have to re-examine is our way of life.

I belong to a small coun­try well endowed with nat­ural resources for life. In my coun­try, there are a bit more than 3 mil­lion peo­ple. But there are about 13 mil­lion cows, some of the best in the world. And about 8 or 10 mil­lion excel­lent sheep. My coun­try is an exporter of food, dairy, meat. It is a low-relief plain and almost 90% of the land is fertile.

My fel­low work­ers, fought hard for the 8 hour work­day. And now they are mak­ing that 6 hours. But the per­son who works 6 hours, gets two jobs, there­fore, he works longer than before. But why? Because he needs to make monthly pay­ments for: the motor­cy­cle, the car, more and more pay­ments, and when he’s done with that, he real­izes he is a rheumatic old man, like me, and his life is already over.

And one asks this ques­tion: is this the fate of human life? These things I say are very basic: devel­op­ment can­not go against hap­pi­ness. It has to work in favor of human hap­pi­ness, of love on Earth, human rela­tion­ships, car­ing for chil­dren, hav­ing friends, hav­ing our basic needs cov­ered. Pre­cisely because this is the most pre­cious trea­sure we have; hap­pi­ness. When we fight for the envi­ron­ment, we must remem­ber that the essen­tial ele­ment of the envi­ron­ment is called human happiness.


Pres­i­dent Mujica at his home — Photo: ElCom​er​cio​.com

One of our own found­ing fathers, Thomas Jef­fer­son, antic­i­pated Mujica’s line of think­ing, con­sid­er­ing him­self an Epi­curean in a let­ter to William Short on Octo­ber 31st, 1819, writ­ten just a few years before his death. He con­cluded his let­ter with a “Syl­labus of the doc­trines of Epi­cu­rus,” sum­ma­riz­ing the ancient Greek philosopher’s ide­ol­ogy as follows:

Moral.—Happiness the aim of life.

Virtue the foun­da­tion of happiness.

Util­ity the test of virtue.

Photo: Famous​Philoso​phers​.org

Jef­fer­son con­cluded his syl­labus with a stir­ring reminder, straight from Epi­cu­rus but applic­a­ble both in Jefferson’s world and in our world of today:

To pro­cure tran­quil­lity of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two prin­ci­pal dis­eases of the mind.

Man is a free agent.

Epi­cu­rus — Photo: Library​Thing​.com

Mujica warns that, with cli­mate change loom­ing, desire and fear may be increas­ingly tied together, as a cul­ture of desire leads to a fear­ful future. But both men agree with Epi­cu­rus: man is free. Free to think, free to pur­sue hap­pi­ness, and free to act. For the sake of the future of human­ity, we can only hope that peo­ple will take Pres­i­dent Mujica’s advice and change the way that they live so that we can be happy for years to come.


For a video of Mujica’s speech (with shaky, live-translated sub­ti­tles), see the UN’s WebTV site and click to about one hour in.