THE PROBLEM OF AFFLUENCE.

Ted Trainer

The supreme, taken for granted, never questioned value in our society is to do with being rich and being able to consume a lot. There is some although not much questioning of competition and individualism, but there is almost never any public or private recognition that there could be anything problematic about affluence. Indeed 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.

In addition the supreme national goal is economic growth, ie., increasing wealth. 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 just about all would like it. They buy the Home Beautiful magazines to envy and aspire. Great wealth is not resented. It is admired. 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 low income receivers. They want "nice" things like new cars and nice 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, having nice furniture and many nice clothes. Shopping is a major leisure activity. The middle classes are also into investing now; they have property and shares and mortgages on their too-big houses . "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, respect, and good standards. 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"; 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 killowatts go over the carpets yet again.

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?

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 billion people in the world today 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 about 30,000 Third World children die every day. Do you realise that our high living standards cause these effects? They are not the only causal factors; 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 energy and resources … and the reason for that is because a few rich people are taking most of the resources available.

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 goods most but can’t pay much don’t get them.

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 allow the few with capital, mostly the corporations from rich countries, to develop what will maximise their profits, but this almost entirely results in the application of Third Wo0rld 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.

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 into 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.

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%.

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, mostly 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 this cannot be 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.

Who is to blame?

It should not need to be said that those most responsible for the situation are the big corporations and banks. 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 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 been due to greed; i.e., to the fact that some individual or group or nation has decided to take more than their fair share. The British fought 72 wars to secure, i.e., steal and then dominate, their "empire" How many proud Britons ever grasped 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 and to condemn others to poverty.

Hence the great hypocrisy regarding war. Most people claim they want peace, but it never occurs 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 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.

The (insurmountable) ideological problem.

Ordinary people in rich countries never think about these connections. They want more goods, luxuries and wealth and 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. 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 their affluence is extremely morally problematic, the situation would be quickly changed. But people in general simply refuse to attend to these issues.

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 effort by corporations and the media via advertising, to encourage 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 profoundly disturbing, and until there is a strong willingness to "live more simply so that others may simply live."

The 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 "normal" respectable standards. They do not attend to the fact that they are hogging and depriving people. If they were told their living standards are morally problematic, 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 your impertinence, and claim that they have worked hard for and therefore deserve their privileges.

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 by sport and the trivia of TV and popular culture into being perfectly docile consumers. A very few think about social issues. These typically middle class people show some concern for social justice and the environment etc. Some of them show considerable discontent with things like globalisation. But even these people totally 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 the commitment to affluence, to lifestyles that involve far more consumption than could be sustained for long or that all could ever rise to.

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 and frugality and sufficiency and an extremely low per capita consumption of non-renewable resources. We could for instance have perfectly adequate convenient, durable, and beautiful 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 growth within 100 metres 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 from local timber by local people. If we reorganised our neighbourhoods and towns we could ensure security, full employment and non-material sources of satisfaction for all, from very low levels of production and consumption measured in resource and dollar terms.

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 will not lead to life satisfaction. 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.

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The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment,
limits to growth, Third World...)and the sustainable alternative
society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative
communities, and a new economy.) Organised by Ted Trainer.
http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/