THE PROBLEM OF AFFLUENCE.
The supreme, taken for granted, value in our society is to do with being rich and being able to consume a lot. Purchasing, buying, having and displaying many things, and many relatively expensive things, is seen as not just legitimate and morally unquestionable, but as deserved…if one can afford a nice or luxurious car then there can be nothing in any way wrong about buying it. There is no sense of unease or guilt associated with buying and having and using up things -- and no idea that this is the basic cause of the global predicament.
Of course the goal is not just to be wealthy, it is to become increasingly wealthy all the time. In other words the supreme national goal is economic growth. Nothing is as important as keeping the GDP rising. The “standard of living” is defined as GDP per capita, and “prosperity” and indeed “progress” are identified with increasing the capacity to produce and consume things.
There are two levels here. The first is the obvious one of the luxurious and opulent living of the very rich. Few can have this, but all would like it. Great wealth is not resented. It is admired. There is no concept that the capacity to get wealth should be capped. It sets the benchmark of high quality and it tells us we live in a society where all have the opportunity to attain it.
The second level is that of the middle and working classes, from the professionals and upper managerial people at one end down through the teachers, tradespeople and small business people to the relatively low income receivers. They want “nice” things like new cars and modern houses and they see as normal and respectable being able to drive hundreds of kilometres for holidays, having a wine rack, remodelling the kitchen, dining out, giving lots of Xmas presents, having elaborate electronic toys like computers and music players, travelling overseas, having nice furniture and many nice clothes. Shopping is a major leisure activity. The middle classes are also into property and investing now. “Polite, modest, respectable” wealth is a large part of the identity of the middle class. It is essential for feeling and displaying success, competence, status, self respect, and good standards. Style, fashion, good taste… consider especially the concept of “nice”. What qualifies as a “nice” car, or house or wardrobe is of course an expensive one. Old, patched, cheap, recycled things are rejected, indeed repulsive. Value is put upon the new, slick, in-style, high tech…and expensive. There is no concept of “good enough” or sufficient; if you can afford a bigger or more luxurious one that’s what you get.
When I was going to school you would see many people on the train dressed in old clothes, including paint-stained overalls and dusty bags carrying tools. Now everyone on the train seems to be on the way to participate in a fashion parade. There are no old patched or stained clothes. Every item is so new it could have come straight off a rack at the boutique.
The middle class is especially neurotic about dirt. Unilever the soap tycoon, recognised that his fortune was due to this. The middle class will scrub and vacuum and mow and trim and paint an order of magnitude beyond what is necessary for hygiene, tidiness and convenience (more accurately, they will pay someone to do it for them.) So the kilowatts go over the carpets yet again. They buy white clothes then put them into the washing machine after one wear, and have to scrap them when a stain appears.
So what is the problem with affluence?
Why pick on it…and on all the ordinary, decent, law-abiding and hard working people who want it?
1. Economic injustice.
The core facts that everyone should be glaringly aware of and deeply disturbed about are very simple. If in this world someone is affluent then many are poor. It is not possible for all people to have anything like the “living standards’” that are the average for the 1 billion people who live in rich countries such as Australia. If all 6.5 billion people in the world in 2006 were to have the Australian per capita rate of petroleum consumption, then world petroleum production would have to be 6 times as much as it is. But it is very likely that world petroleum production is close to its maximum and that by 2030 it could be down to half the present amount. That would mean that by about 2025-30 when population has increased, the amount of petroleum available per person would be only 1/15 of the amount per capita we use today in Australia. There is in other worlds no possibility of all people ever having anything like our present rich world per capita levels of resource consumption, or “living standards”.
The distribution of resource use in the world is extremely uneven and unjust. The people who live in rich countries are taking most of the petroleum and other resources produced in the world. In general our per capita consumption of things like petroleum, aluminium, coal etc is about 17 times the average for the poorest half of the world’s people. We could not have our affluent living standards if we were not taking far more than our fair share of the world’s resource wealth. Because we take so much most of the world’s people are severely deprived of necessities. At least 2 billion and possibly 4 billion are very poor. About 1.2 billion are so deprived and impoverished that they are hungry or malnourished. More than this number do not have safe clean water. About the same number do not have access to any medical care. Because they do not have enough food and clean water tens of thousands of Third World children die every day. Do you realise that our affluent living standards cause these effects? They are not the only causal factor; many other factors like the incompetence and corruption of governments are involved, but the main reason why billions of people live in terrible conditions is because they have very little access to the available energy and resources … and the reason for that is because a few rich people are taking most of them.
How do we take most of the resources? We take them simply by paying more. Because the global economy is a market system valuable things like petroleum go to those who can pay the highest price. In this economy what is most profitable is what is done, not what is most needed. Those who need resources and goods most but can’t pay much don’t get them. It is not an economic system in which things are distributed according to need. It is an economic system in which scarce things go to those who are richest.
The worst thing about the way the global economy works is that much of the Third World’s productive capacity has been drawn into producing for the rich few. Large areas of Third World land, which poor people should be using to grow food for themselves, now produce luxury crops such as coffee and sugar to export to rich countries. Most of the “development” that has taken place in the Third World is of this kind. Foreign investors never invest in what Third World people need; they always only invest in what will maximise their profits, which means producing things for export to richer people and for sale to Third World elites.
We in rich countries could not have our affluence, our high living standards, if the global economy was not so grossly unjust. How much would your coffee cost if most of the land now growing it in the Third World was put into growing food for Third World people? How much driving would you do if Third World people got a fair share of world petroleum production.
For these reasons increasing numbers of people recognise that conventional development theory and practice are in fact a form of plunder. The theory urges Third World countries to increase the freedom for the few with capital, mostly the corporations from rich countries, to develop what will maximise their profits, but this results in the application of most Third World land and labour to the production of goods to export to rich world supermarkets. Obviously Third World workers would be much better off if they could spend most of their time working in small local farms and firms to produce for themselves the basic things they need, rather than earning 15c an hour producing goods to export.
However by far the most important reasons for condemning the quest for affluence come from the “limits to growth” analysis of the global predicament. There is no chance of keeping up the levels of production, consumption, GDP and affluence evident in rich countries today, let alone of spreading them to all the world’s people. Our levels are grossly unsustainable. Yet our supreme goal is to increase these levels, as fast as possible, and without any limit. Because we have exceeded the limits to growth we are now heading rapidly towards a number of huge catastrophes, most obviously with respect to the environment…yet there is almost no recognition that the cause is the determination to have expensive lifestyles, and to become more affluent all the time. (See The Limits to Growth.)
Do you realise that affluence is the basic cause of the destruction of the environment, and that the ecosystems of the planet cannot be saved unless there is a dramatic reduction in the volume of producing and consuming going on? The environmental problem is mainly due to the vast quantity of things we take from nature, such as timber and fish, and all the habitat our cities and farms take, and all the wastes and pollution we then dump back into nature. If Australians were to use as much productive land per capita as is available in the world today, about 1.2 ha, we would have to cut our present use by at least 85%. There is in other words no possibility of saving he environment without huge and radical transition away from a society obsessed with affluence and growth. (See Saving the Environment…)
Do you realise there can not be peace in the world while a few insist on “living standards” that are impossible for all to have, which they can only have if they grab far more than others can have, and condemn large numbers to extremely bad conditions? Much of the conflict in the world is due to the actions of corporations and governments struggling to get hold of valuable resources and markets. The history of war, domination and misery on this planet can be mostly explained simply in terms of some people or states struggling to grab more than their fair share of the available wealth. There can be no hope of peace until this imbecilic behaviour stops, and that cannot happen while people insist on living affluently. If you want to go on enjoying high living standards then you better retain the military capacity to prevent other countries from getting as much of the world’s wealth as you get now. (See Maintaining Your Empire.)
So affluence is the most important causal factor behind the major problems facing the planet. Yet it is the overwhelmingly important goal of almost all people and social policy.
Who is to blame?
It should not need to be said that those most responsible for the situation are the big corporations and banks, and the super-rich 1% who own most of them. They are the ones who go after more and resources to buy and sell, and they get most of the benefit when things like coffee are produced and sold. But they could not do this and they would have little wealth and power if ordinary people in rich countries were not such eager and voracious consumers.
Most of the trouble and suffering that humans have experienced over thousands of years has simply been due to greed; i.e., to the fact that some individuals or groups or nations have decided to take more than their fair share. The British fought 72 wars to secure, i.e., steal and then dominate, their “empire”. Did none of those many Britons so proud of their Empire understand that it is wrong to be a thug or to take other people’s property? It is not possible for rich countries today to have high “living standards” without dominating the global economy, taking most of the resources and not only forcing most people to accept far less, but forcing them to work in factories and plantations producing things for us and getting very little for it. If people were content to live with what is sufficient for a satisfactory quality of life, i.e., to live simply and frugally, no one would have to grab more than their fair share and thereby condemn others to poverty.
Hence the great hypocrisy regarding war. Most people claim they want peace, but it never seems to occur to them that there can’t be peace while they insist on their high “living standards”. There can’t be peace in a world where a few can be wealthy only if they take most of the available wealth and force the majority to live on too little. Our affluence causes deprivation, and therefore struggles and conflict and war. Most military capacity is deployed by the rich countries in defence of their empire, to keep “order” (i.e., the order that suits us), to support friendly governments (which will let our corporations invest on bonanza terms), to put down dissent and trouble, and to tip out rulers who threaten our investment and trade interests.(See Peace and Conflict.)
The destruction of society.
Unfortunately the “prosperity” of the last fifty years has created a large middle class in rich countries, which is now a powerful political force governments must attend to. More recently the power and wealth of the corporate super-rich have skyrocketed. Hence the triumph of the neo-liberal ideology; these large and powerful classes have supported the establishment of social and economic theory and practice which enshrines profit maximisation, the reduction of government regulation and spending, self-interest, freedom for market forces and therefore and freedom for those most able to take more. These processes are now causing the destruction of society itself, the elimination of the cohesion and collectivist values without which there can be no society at all. They are being replaced by rampant selfishness, legitimised by neo-liberal doctrine.
The (insurmountable) ideological problem.
Ordinary people in rich countries never think about these connections. They want more goods, luxuries and wealth but they are not interested in the fact that consuming more than one needs is an intense moral problem, or that it is destroying the environment or depriving people or fuelling war. They are not interested in the fact that when they use petrol to travel they are helping to starve and kill people – by taking more than their fair share of a precious resources which could enable more production of food and clean water for very impoverished people. If people in general acknowledged that the global economy which delivers their “living standards” is outrageously unjust, and that their affluence is extremely morally problematic, the situation would be quickly changed. But people in general simply refuse to attend to these issues, let alone discuss them, let alone care about them, let alone do anything about them.
The ultimate culprit is of course the economic system we have. It condemns everyone to producing and consuming as much as possible, and more and more every year. Corporations which do not maximise profits are taken over. Individuals who do not constantly work hard are dumped into unemployment and poverty. But the system's fundamental faults do not exonerate people in general. Yes there are powerful forces that distract attention, including the vast “marketing” effort by corporations and the media, ceaselessly stimulating more consumption, but to anyone who chooses to attend to the extensive information available on the global situation the realities are easily seen. The problem is that almost everyone flatly refuses to even think about these issues or to question affluence.
The global situation cannot improve until (among other things) there is widespread recognition that affluent “living standards” are highly problematic, and until there is a strong willingness to “live more simply so that others may simply live.”
The core problem is, in other words, simply greed. But people would be shocked to be told they are greedy. The problem is a largely unrecognised greed. People think they are just for respectable “normal” standards. They do not attend to the fact that the nice, respectable standards they insist on mean that they hog resources and deprive people. If they were told their living standards are morally unacceptable, they would indignantly reject the proposition. If you told them they should be content with what are sufficient standards as distinct from their affluent standards, they would be irritated and indignant at the impertinence, and claim that they have worked hard for and therefore deserve their nice things.
There is, in other words, a massive, total and fierce refusal to even think about this problem of affluence. In this society most people have been willingly stupefied into being perfectly docile consumers by sport and the trivia of TV and popular culture. A very few think about social issues. These typically middle class people show some concern for social justice and the environment etc. And some of them show considerable discontent with things like globalisation. But even these people almost completely refuse to contemplate the possibility that the social problems they are concerned about have anything to do with their own greed, their own never-questioned demand for expensive living standards. As soon as this possibility is introduced they lose all interest. Thus the agencies they support, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, the aid organisations, the social justice organisations and indeed the ABC, never discuss let alone focus on the fact that the basic cause of these many problems is simply the commitment to affluence, to lifestyles that involve much higher levels of consumption than could be sustained for long or that all could ever rise to.
Getting and gain, vs. giving, sufficiency and subsistence.
The limits to growth analysis of the global sustainability situation makes it clear that a sustainable society can have no place for economic growth. This means that the driving motivation in our society must be scrapped – that is the concern to get, gain, accumulate. There cannot be a stable, zero-growth economy unless this motive is replaced with a concern to have just enough for a good life. This means abandoning any interest in getting rich or accumulating wealthy. So in a satisfactory society we would all be content with that small amount that is sufficient, such as a nice, comfortable, small and humble (mud brick) house.
More importantly a zero growth economy is not possible without other radical changes in economic processes and systems. The present economy is driven by gain and getting, and all its processes involve these processesThe opposite of all this is a subsistence economy one in which people produce to meet stable needs. Items are not made to sell in order to gain, to accumulate money over time. They are produced to exchange for other needed items of equal “value”. This is the way tribal and peasant societies operate. (See Polanyi’s discussion.) Market day enabled all to get the things they needed, in exchange for a contribution to meeting the needs of others. No intends to gain from the exchange; they just intend to exchange items of a certain “value” for others of the same value”. They do not involve themselves in the market to get rich. (Merchants visiting the town, usually with non-necessities, luxuries, to sell, did trade to gain, but in Medieval Europe were an almost irrelevant minority on the fringe of the mainstream economy, and were not respected.)
In these subsistence economies the basic operation was not getting, it was giving...knowing that others would give to you. In other words the key mechanism was reciprocity. In tribes elaborate rules govern the giving and receiving, ensuring that all were provided for. (No one in tribal society was poor or hungry, unless times were difficult for all.)
These are the economic principles that must exist, whether we like it or not in a satisfactory, viable economy in the coming era of scarcity, in which we must develop mostly small local cooperative economies focussed on meeting needs, and without any growth. The focal concerns must be organising local resources and productive capacities to provide well for all, without any notion of gain or getting richer over time. The basic mechanism must be giving to others and the community, knowing that you will be given what you need. (...for instance contributing to voluntary working bees that maintain the community orchards.)
History can be seen in terms the damage the drive to gain eventually does. Often a civilization emerges and for a time has considerable equity, but in time some become more wealthy and powerful, and develop into a class with power and privileges and then dominate the rest. Their desire to gain drives a quest for more and more land, opulence, slaves...and foreign sources of wealth. An imperial phase begins. Because there is no concept of enough, before long there is overreach; it becomes impossible to maintain the empire, and the civilization self-destructs. At present the West is passing through the overreach phase while China is rising, driven by the single-minded obsession with getting richer and more powerful. This sorry story will not cease until humans learn to be content with enough.
What is the answer?
If affluence is the problem, does this mean we have to accept poverty, deprivation and hardship to save the planet? Emphatically not. We could very easily have a very high quality of life based on principles of simplicity, frugality, sufficiency, co-operation and an extremely low per capita consumption of non-renewable resources. For instance we could have perfectly adequate convenient, durable, and beautiful small houses, built from earth at a tiny fraction of the resource and dollar cost of the average house today. We could have perfectly comfortable, functional, neat, clean and nice clothes that are old, patched, tough and mostly hand made. We could have perfect dinners produced from food grown within one kilometre of our homes without any energy or chemical cost, let alone without any importation from the Third World. We could have a marvellous leisure and cultural experience in neighbourhoods that are diverse and leisure rich communities with little dependence on travel or expensive media. We could have very durable, functional and simple and beautiful furniture made to last by local people using local timber. If we reorganised our neighbourhoods and towns we could ensure security, full employment and non-material sources of satisfaction for all, via very low levels of production and consumption measured in resource and dollar terms.
The concern in The Simpler Way is with what is sufficient, not what is the best or most luxurious. A small, cheap mud brick house can be quite sufficient on all the criteria that matter, indeed it can be a beautiful dwelling. There need b e no element of deprivation or hardship about it.
A Simpler Way economy would probably require us to work for money only two days a week. That is just one of the many benefits it would bring. Add the freedom from anxiety about unemployment, poverty, loneliness, insecurity, violence. Add living in a supportive community that looks after its members and contains many artists and craftsmen, and the many festivals and celebrations, and the beautiful, productive landscape. These are some of the reasons why advocates of The Simpler Way insist that it would enable a much higher average quality of life than people in the richest countries have today. We would have very low monetary incomes, we would not be at all affluent, but this would be unimportant. In the things that matter we would be rich.
In fact material simplicity, frugality and self-sufficiency are the keys to a high quality of life. Being able to buy and consume and throw away more and more does not lead to life satisfaction. (There is abundant evidence that as GDP increases in rich countries measures of happiness etc do not.) Our biggest task is not getting people to understand that the pursuit of affluence and growth is leading to catastrophic breakdown, it is to help people in general to realise that The Simpler Way involves far richer sources of life satisfaction than the affluent consumer way.
For detailed analyses and documentation connecting with these themes see The Simpler Way Website, http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/