Photo by George Jonathan.

The official Earth Day 2012 T-shirt for the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, where I’m working on a master’s degree, portrays a giant Pac-Man monster about to swallow the planet. The caption reads, “Don’t Tell Us the Odds.”

It’s a joke, but it’s not funny. It illustrates the deep cynicism about the future of our planet shared by some of the most environmentally knowledgeable members of my generation. Anyone who takes mainstream, data-driven planetary projections seriously should have major misgivings about the most rationally apparent outcomes of our current economic paradigm.

But if our economic system is leading us on a destructive path to a dismal future, why should we accept this system? The simple answer is, we shouldn’t: It’s our economy. A wide array of people, from Harvard students to anarchists and from Occupy Wall Street protesters to prime ministers, are all saying the same thing: We need to fundamentally transform our economy to make it work for us and for those who come after us.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In the first weekend in April, community activists, students, and academics came together at the Transition to a New Economy conference at Harvard University to imagine what a sustainable, equitable, democratic economy would look like. The day after the conference, several of the speakers and participants — including myself and friends from the nonprofit youth group SustainUS — headed to the United Nations Headquarters in New York to attend the High-Level Meeting on Happiness and Wellbeing hosted by the government of Bhutan.

At Harvard, scholars inspired by the 1972 Club of Rome report, “The Limits to Growth,” which examined the physical limits of our finite planet, came to challenge the more destructive aspects of conventionally accepted economics. Author Richard Heinberg and ecological economist Joshua Farley made the radically obvious suggestion that maybe we cannot, as mainstream economists suggest, grow our economy boundlessly. Neva Goodwin of Tufts University told us that increasing reliance on hightech equipment owned by the few would push wages down instead of the mythical upward progress continually touted by economists.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

We also heard about creative, game-shifting alternatives to our current system. Scholars like Gal Alperovitz advanced the use of co-ops, credit unions, and land trusts to lay the foundations for a new economy. Harvard’s Anush Kapadia argued that we treat the “too-big-to-fail” banks as what they have turned themselves into: monopolistic businesses, backed by the American people, that more resemble public utilities than private companies.

The following day at the United Nations, leaders from diverse backgrounds and vocations gathered to discuss the horrendous shortcomings of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the primary global indicator of wellbeing. Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley began poetically: “Mankind is like a meteor blazing toward self-immolation.” He then outlined why the GDP model no longer makes economic sense, much less in terms of happiness and wellbeing.

GDP says maximizing economic gain always makes us better off. Bhutan, in contrast, operates the model of Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH measures social and ecological effects of decision-making on par with economic effects. GNH is as unlikely a development in human history as the last Bhutanese king who, in 2008, imposed democracy upon subjects lamenting the end of his benevolent rule. Under GNH, from 1960 to 2011, when the rest of the world experienced unprecedented deforestation, Bhutan grew its forest cover from 45 percent to 72 percent of its total land area.

J. Natranjan, the Minister of Environment and Forests of India, said that a new economic paradigm is “utterly fundamental to the survival of the human race.” The ever diplomatic U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon added his support to the gathering, stating, “Social, economic, and environmental well-being are indivisible.” American economist Joseph Stiglitz chimed in with, “What you measure affects what you do.”

At the end of the conference, Thinley committed to continuing this discussion at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June, where leaders will gather to hash out the vision of a sustainable 21st century economy. Abbot Roshi Joan Halifax made an inspiring call for more youth participation in these discussions.

But, so what? Lots of words, lots of ideas, lots of names and too many fancy titles. Why does this matter?

As a young person burned by hope, it is hard to have any faith in grand solutions or over-arching strategies. Still, as long as we measure success by GDP alone, environmental and social concerns will always remain less important than economic concerns — until we reach the point of crisis.

Is Gross National Happiness the solution? Is it realistically achievable in this country? Maybe it is and our society becomes healthier and happier for it. Maybe it isn’t.

But either way, taking the GNH argument seriously puts increased pressure on the people defending our current economic model, its market failures, and our fundamentally unsustainable growth path. The more we gather to imagine a better future and a better economy, the more legitimate and politically potent our solutions become.

Since the failed climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the most rational visions for our future have all been depressing, and the environmental movement has been in disarray. Perhaps the next big step for the movement is collectively imagining, articulating, and implementing a just and sustainable economy.

It’s easy to be cynical. My generation will inherit a world destabilized by increasingly severe climatic events and a natural world strained to provide for billions of new humans. We will live to watch small island countries sink into the sea, and climate refugees struggle for survival.

But a global conversation has begun that has clear relevance to what’s being discussed here-and-now at the grassroots level across the country. This spring, why not smile in the face of fear and join millions of others in imagining and articulating an economy that makes us all happier?