Saturday, October 25, 2008

New Scientist: The Folly of Growth

Kate Soper: Nothing to fear from curbing growth

It doesn't help that virtually all representations of pleasure and the life we should aspire to come from advertising, with its incessant message that our happiness is dependent on consuming ever more "stuff". We hear little about the joys of escaping the stress, congestion, ill-health, noise and waste that come with our "high" standard of living.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the work-dominated and materially encumbered affluence of today is not giving us enjoyable lives, and that switching to a more sustainable society in which we work and produce less would actually make us happier. For example, rates of occupational ill-health and depression have been shown to be linked to the number of hours we work, and once a certain level of income is reached further wealth does not correlate with increased happiness.

The absurdity of our situation is illustrated by the way our economy profits from selling back to us the pleasures that we have lost through overwork: the leisure and tourist companies that sell us "quality time"; the catering services that provide "home cooking"; the dating and care agencies that see to personal relations; the gyms where people pay to walk on treadmills because the car culture has made it unsafe or unpleasant to walk outside. As the economy continues to expand, consumer culture becomes ever more reliant on our willingness to accept this.

A growing number of people are starting to realise that there may be more to life than working to spend. Troubled by the negative impacts of a high-stress lifestyle, they are simplifying their lives and rethinking their values and desires. If we were to shift en masse to a less work-intensive economy, it would reduce the rate at which people, goods and information had to be delivered, cutting both resource use and carbon emissions.

Rather than entailing any sacrifice to our lifestyles, this would bring huge benefits. People would reclaim time for personal and family life. They would commute less and enjoy healthier modes of travelling such as walking, cycling and boating. Supermarket shopping would cede to a resurgence in local stores, making town centres more individual and boosting local communities. All this would transform urban and rural living, and provide more tranquil space for reflection, as well as opportunities for sensual experience now denied by harried travel and work routines. These revised ideas of the "good life" might also inspire less-developed countries to reconsider the conventions and goals of development, enabling them to avoid some of the less desirable consequences of the current model.

My one reservation regarding the above is that Kate Soper finesses the political economy of working less -- that is to say the trade-off between reduced hours of work and unemployment that growth-obsessed economists would rather not acknowledge but rather would actively suppress because it undermines their admittedly flawed "model of how the world works".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think these are the bogus 'voluntary simplicity ideas' endorsed by 60's types such as economist t. leary ("drop out, tune in..") psychic e.f. shumaker, which along with communism and socialism have been abandoned by everyone except cranks.

i am for a pro-growth liberal economy. the banks should immediately start issuing vast sums of money to anyone, in proportion to their net worth of course to keep risks in float (where net worth is defined as current assessments, including all mortgage and derivative liabilities, plus one's personal share of the $700B bailout you will earn). Then people can invest in manufacturing and information technology used for growing advanced high quality tulips. Everyone will be involved in production, marketing, and aquisition of tulips, or in the orchestra playing the financial instruments where the value of the tulips emerges, through (bose-einstein) condensation of the signifiers.

A 16 hour work day in the tulip gardens will be standard and possibly compulsory, as part of revival of national spirit.

Of course, there will still be unemployment, because some unlucky losers will not have what it takes to produce value in manufacture, commerce or orchestration of the economy. Not everyone is a 'maestro' like Greenspan who can conduct a well regulated militia waging war on the environment and the poor.

I think growth rates of 5-20% are quite feasible in such an economy (so long as people assess values correctly and don't squander assets on 'tangible' goods rather than tulips. However, it may be as the mystic philanthropist Peter Petersen has pointed out, that social security may run out, and even the federal reserve, because there are only 10**80 particles in the universe, so if we keep printing symbols at high growth rates eventually we will run out. So, the author's point that growth is limited may hold in a few billion years, but we can, following Dean Baker, simply apply an arbitrary cutoff for benefits after people have aquired a certain number of symbols of affluence.

A microcredit program or safety net possibly could be applied to those unqualified to produce tulips, so they can learn how eventually and so earn symbols of effluent.