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Do We Just Want More Stuff?

November 29, 2011

Post No. 5 in the Prosperity Series

Image: okokitsme via Flickr

Buying stuff? Is that what we’re for?

The Jackson-Ridley bout continues. In the last round (here), Tim Jackson said that unlimited economic growth cannot continue on a finite planet, while Matt Ridley was optimistic that it can. But even if it is possible, do we want it?

Tim Jackson says that the imperative for growth in our economic system results in social signals that appeal to the selfish, individualistic, novelty-seeking side of our make-up. We become addicted to distinguishing ourselves from other people through what we buy. If social signals rewarded the more altruistic, community-oriented side of our natures, opportunities for human flourishing would expand.

On the contrary, says Matt Ridley, it’s the growth in material prosperity that has enabled those opportunities for flourishing. He documents the many ways in which economic growth has enabled life to be better: our environment is cleaner and people are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, freer and safer – except in countries lacking material prosperity.

Real prosperity, says Jackson, is not about stuff. It’s about friends, family, trust, participation in society, and purpose in our lives. It’s about being more rather than having more. But according to Ridley, material prosperity is what creates trust and amity between people and fosters community and purpose.

Duelling generalisers – but Ridley makes by far the larger generalisations. He sees growth as all good, but of course it’s a mixture of benefits and costs, and Jackson identifies some of those negatives: the psychic cost of tying our identity to what we own – an iPhone, a Ferrari – rather than who we are; individual self-enhancement rather than joining with others in an altruistic purpose; loneliness rather than wellbeing. But again these effects cannot be generalised – there are many people who are savvy consumers who also participate fully in their community and enjoy a sense of wellbeing and purpose.

It is hard to untangle these positives and negatives – the line between selfishness and altruism runs through each of us. But perhaps, as Jackson says, that line has been nudged toward the negative side by the imperative that out economy must get bigger every year. Can we poke it back a little?

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level, report on their research into income equality in OECD nations and present evidence that life expectancy, child wellbeing, literacy, social mobility, trust and involvement in community life are all better in more equal societies. Infant mortality, obesity, homicide rates, imprisonment, drug problems and incidence of mental illness are all worse in less equal ones. Wilkinson and Pickett believe we should use tax, welfare and other policies to lower the gap between the top and bottom income earners, because to do so will benefit everybody, not just the well-off.

The Nordic countries and Japan have more equal income distributions, the richest 20% averaging about four times the income of the poorest 20%, compared with Australia at seven times and the US at 8.5 times.

Tackling inequality could be a manageable first step in moving towards the altruistic, community side, but even such a small step is unlikely in Australia’s present political climate. It is even harder to imagine how Jackson’s whole project of moving to zero-growth could be implemented, given that many of his proposals are vague, that he lacks a convincing political strategy and that he claims we can have capitalism without growth, without explaining how such an oxmoronic system could exist (see review).

But his argument is still forceful: it is likely that growth will come up against limits, causing a crash that will make the GFC seem like a fleabite. We can hope that innovation will rescue us, or that solar power will push back the planetary limits, but we don’t know how likely that is.

This series has been more about questions than answers. It’s hard to find our way through the labyrinth of uncertainty and conflicting evidence and work out what we should do. We need to talk about how we manage our activity on this glorious planet, and we need to do it in a spirit of inquiry, not standing on our own rocks of certainty shouting down those perched on different platforms.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Beverley Bloxham permalink
    November 29, 2011 4:57 pm

    Thank you Bryce for presenting this discussion… it is very timely and pertinent to our modern times.
    Keep up the great work!

  2. Bryce permalink*
    November 29, 2011 9:14 pm

    Thanks, Beverley, good to have your feedback. I wish more people thought these questions pertinent, and more leaders demonstrated leadership about them.

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