Monday, October 14, 2013

Sense and Sustainability, or how to live with less

"Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction." - Erich Fromm
"The devaluation of the human world increases in direct relation to the increase in value of the world of things." - Karl Marx
"affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." - John de Graff

In a discussion about living standards the other day, a TV pundit said that today's young people might expect a lower standard of living than their parents, because of the world's economic crisis. They were talking about the UK. He said it as if this was a bad thing, yet compared with the billion-plus people in the world who live on less than $1.25 a day, British people enjoy a high standard of living. Young people aren't all that shallow and greedy, are they?

I wrote the following for a Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Suffolk on 16th October 2000.

Since the 1950s increasing affluence has allowed many more people to spend, spend, spend, on more and more ‘stuff’ – household appliances of every sort, TVs and DVDs and WAP phones and cars for every member of the family, and clothes, and trainers, and foreign holidays. For most people, it means working longer hours to pay for it all. Those who’ve researched such things tell us that though many people have far more ‘stuff’ (all of the things I’ve mentioned, and more), fewer people would say they were happy than in the 1950s. It seems that once you get past having good health and good food, a secure home, and a satisfying job, all the other ‘stuff’ doesn’t necessarily make you happier, so why waste precious time working so hard just to spend more money? Meanwhile, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing wider.

Tomorrow, 17th October, is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Two years ago, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a message, which included the following words: ‘For the past three decades, we have witnessed the most rapid improvements in the lives of billions. A child born in a developing country today can expect to live 16 years longer than a child born 35 years ago. Infant mortality has been more than halved since 1960, and the share of rural families with access to safe water has risen from 10% of the total to 60%.’ ‘But,’ the Secretary-General went on, ‘…such gains can be reversed… the struggle for the eradication of poverty has reached a critical phase… So long as every fifth inhabitant of our planet lives in absolute poverty, there can be no real stability in the world.’

Absolute poverty is defined as an income of roughly a dollar a day – which is about 69p a head. Poverty knows no geographical boundaries, spreads over all continents and is present in industrialised and developing countries, though to differing extents. It causes inadequate standards of living, weak health, hunger, unsanitary housing, homelessness, unemployment, social exclusion and illiteracy. It cripples the lives of some 1.5 billion people, whose number is rising by at least 25 million a year, mainly women, children and the elderly. The 1995 World Health Report, ‘Bridging the Gaps’, found it to be the world's most ruthless killer and the greatest cause of suffering.

The cost of providing basic social services for all in developing countries is estimated at about £27½ billion a year over the next 10 years, which is less than 0.2% of the world income of £17.22 trillion. The sum needed to close the gap between the annual income of poor people and the minimum income at which they would no longer be poor is estimated at another £27½ billion a year, so the total cost would be roughly £55 billion, or less than the combined net worth of the seven richest people in the world.

Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots could be so easy, given the collective will. Can money buy happiness? It can make a huge difference to those who have very little, but it seems to make little difference to those who have a lot. Once you’ve got the basic necessities of life, you don’t actually need any more. I realise this is heresy in today’s consumer culture, where millions of people earn a living producing and selling ‘stuff’ no one really needs. During the recent petrol crisis, I wondered how many of the lorries on our roads are carrying junk from one end of the country to the other? It’s a weird world we live in. All that talent, all that effort, wasted on cluttering up our homes with more and more ‘stuff’, while a quarter of the world’s population live in absolute poverty. Doesn’t seem right, does it?
One of the books that influenced me when I was younger was 'To Have Or To Be' by Erich Fromm, published in 1976, which is about materialism and its effect on human happiness. Fromm anticipated the danger of nuclear war but didn't anticipate the danger of climate change. Since then, things have got much worse. The population is growing at an unsustainable rate, consumption likewise, climate change has accelerated, and the weather has grown more extreme. All of this is being largely ignored by leading politicians, economists and the right-wing press. They keep talking about economic growth, which is not what we need and probably impossible. What we need is economic sustainability. Over the next few years, it's going to be much harder for those who suffer from affluenza to ignore reality. I think that young people are far less likely than their elders to suffer from affluenza. I hope so, anyway.

An interview with Erich Fromm about 'To Have Or To Be'...

An American film about Affluenza...

Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic (Paperback) by John De Graaf, David Wann & Thomas H. Naylor.
Affluenza, by Oliver James.
Before you buy new books from Amazon or another bookshop, it's worth checking for second-hand copies at

Click here for a list of some of the things that the young people involved with the Post Growth Institute have done or are doing to live sustainably.

Postscript, from The Telegraph, 14th October -
... one might also say that anyone bemoaning middle-class decline is really just complaining about a loss of privilege. Why should anyone feel sorry for over-privileged parents whining about the possibility that their children might be marginally less spoiled than they have been?

The answer, I think, is this: what is happening to the middle class is happening to 99 per cent of the rest of the population, too. Anyone outside the gilded 1 per cent is seeing their relative position decline. That’s an awful lot of people looking ahead and seeing less, rather than more, on the horizon. And, no matter what class you belong to, that’s not a healthy prospect for anyone.

We'll never have it so good again.
 'We'll never have it so good again' - David Thomas.

The population of the UK has risen by 10 million since the 1960s, 3.7 million in the last decade. It's now over 56 million. Of course there'll be less of the sort of things Thomas writes about in the future. The reason is that there are more people, and maintaining the sort of living standards he looked forward to just isn't possible. But that needn't be a reason for pessimism. It all depends on how you define "good", on what your expectations are, on what your values are, and how imaginative you might be.