More than 70 people, aged 10 to 85, poured into St Peter’s Crypt on a midsummer evening for a session of deep thinking punctuated by feisty and good-humoured exchange.
Opening the evening was Will Davies, author of “The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business sold us Wellbeing”.
Will claimed that society’s fixation on happiness is a false conflation of psychology and biology, and served the interests of elites. Face-reading software designed to pick up customers’ smile is all about money-making, he said, pointing out that governments exceed both mandate and competence when they introduce happiness metrics into public policy.
After a reflective set of questions and answers (“Can you define happiness?” asked one woman), the Balloon took off again, to more tempestuous territory.
Sherine El Taboulsi argued that communities have the biggest role in combating the extremism of their members.
Individuals and state policies matter, said the Egyptian-born Oxford scholar, who has interviewed thousands affected by conflict in the Middle East. But communities themselves must address the impact of terrorist narratives.
The question of individual vs community morality, and the role of foreign policy, inspired strong challenge from the audience. One younger audience member pointed out that at her school in Luton, young boys idolised both Nike football boots and Osama bin Laden, apparently unaware of any contradiction.
Hot air in the room cooled during a convivial wine break, followed by the evening’s most contentious speaker.
Austin Williams of Future Cities opened his challenge to sustainability by pointing out that no passenger balloon would even lift off the ground without liquefied gas. Fossil fuels, he claimed, remain essential to human advancement. The anti-development stance of environmentalists implies that poor countries like Bangladesh are destined to stay that way forever.
Facing down gasps from the audience, Austin claimed the green outlook was miserabilist and regressive. He took the volley of questions in good cheer (“Do you mean, you agree that the climate is changing, but you just don’t care?” cried out one audience member. “No, I just care about poverty and equality more”, Austin replied.)
The vote at the end was tight. 21 people threw their support behind Sherine; Austin won 22 votes against sustainability, but Will Davies carried a majority who shared his concerns about the unintended consequences of pursuit of wellbeing.
Thus, the second De Beauvoir Balloon Debate sailed upwards with the argument that the science of happiness is indeed a tool for social control.
Photos: Helena Smith