“Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work.”
The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2010)
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
In slightly more context:
“For thousands of years the best way of improving the quality of human life was to raise material living standards. When the wolf was never far from the door, good times were simply times of plenty. But for the vast majority of people in affluent countries the difficulties of life are no longer about filling our stomachs, having clean water, and keeping warm. Most of us now wish we could eat less rather than more. And, for the first time in history, the poor are – on average – fatter than the rich. Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. The populations of rich countries have got to the end of a long historical journey.”
p5, The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.
I was listening to Radio 4 a while ago, maybe about a week ago – as you do. Some guy was interviewing some other guy (that happens a lot on Radio 4). It was about the economy. And the interviewer asked the question “When can we expect to see standards of living rising again?”
This really struck me. I don’t mean to belittle the struggles that some people in the UK are facing at the moment – I am sure that there are people in the UK who need assistance to get the basics (like food, water, heating). I am also sure that there are many people in the UK who have much more than they need. I am one of them. I am not rich; I don’t make a huge amount of money; I don’t have an enormous amount of stuff – but I have food and water and clothing and shelter and access to transport and work and ways to communicate with others. Plus, I have library access, internet access, and Sky+, which between them give me access to an enormous range and depth of information on pretty much everything and anything I could think of – and an unlimited amount of entertainment. Further, I have access to social and community groups such as Church and dancing. I have an awful lot more than I need. And even if I lost a significant amount of money, I would still have almost all of these things (because I have a supportive family, and because you really can feed yourself rather cheaply if you want to base things on e.g. chickpeas, lentils and rice …).
So I find the expectation in this question – that material living standards should rise – very jarring. Raising my standard of living is definitely not high on my agenda – if anything, thinking about whether I should lower my standard of living / keep it the same but find ways to spend less money in order to be able to give more is the real issue (tangled up with questions of how to buy more ethical products, which may be more expensive than the alternatives). I find the assumptions underlying lots of media stories – that economic growth is always good, that it is the answer, that it is the thing to be looked to to fix everything – a bit odd, and slightly unsettling.
I know I am probably mixing up materialism/consumerism and stuff about the economy in my head, and I am probably getting lots of stuff wrong. Help and explanation and questions in the comments are very welcome! But I can’t get away from feeling that the general thrust of many messages seems to be that we should shop more and keep shopping and that will help fix the world – whereas I feel that we should probably shop a lot less. I guess these two might be reconciled by shopping less but spending more when you do because you’re buying a higher quality product. Maybe. What do you think of all this?