[This post was originally titled "Can capitalism survive environmentalism?" but I've since realized that the current title more accurately reflects what I meant to say. I've also made a couple of minor adjustments in the body text to reflect this change. NIM 6/23/09]
A radio journalist called to talk to me about this question yesterday. I think it is one of the most important questions going, since so much of the eco-discussion centers around how we can save the planet while keeping the way our economy and society functions exactly the same. But the question is, do we really want more of the same?
I’ve heard that the Chinese character for “crisis” is the combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” I think about this a lot: how the fact that our current environmental crisis is an opportunity for us to take a step back and take stock of the way we live and whether we are really heading in the direction we want.
The assumption in western politics seems to have been, for the longest time, that economic growth is what’s most important. The priority, on both a societal and personal level, in other words, is to get more efficient, do more work, produce more goods, and get more money.
On a societal level, the idea is that a growth in economy will trickle down to the poorest of the poor and that the quality of life for all of us will improve. On a personal level, the idea is that more money means more comforts. We’ve used the idea of growth in income—and resource use—as a surrogate for growth in personal and societal happiness.
The problem is that this is not working on either level. More and more, studies are showing that growth is not trickling down. Despite the growth, the poor are getting poorer, the middle classes are getting middler, and the rich are getting richer. Here in the USA, people have begun to question whether our huge economy really does make for our being the land of opportunity. So, does further economic growth really equate to societal happiness?
As for the personal or individual level, members of the new branch of the psychological profession who call themselves “positive psychologists” say that we are on a “hedonic treadmill.” We earn more to spend more and then have to earn more to spend more and then…We get a quick burst of pleasure from our purchases but no long term increase in happiness. Meanwhile, many are stressed by working all the hours to do jobs they don’t believe in with people they don’t care for.
Increases in the baselines of our happiness, it turns out, don’t come from money once you’ve achieved an income equivalent of something like $40,000. What the positive psychologists say happiness does come from, on the other hand, is strong interpersonal relationships, doing what you are naturally good at, living a life that is in accord with your values, and achieving meaning by connecting to something larger than yourself.
What this all adds up to, in my view, is that the economic growth paradigm is making happier neither the people nor the planet—which can’t afford the resource use. If we use the current environmental crisis to change our priorities, maybe the world could be a better place in a lot more ways than one.
Having said all this, to allay suspicions to the contrary, I want to say that I am a total pro-progress person. I don’t want to take a single step backwards. I’m go straight ahead all the way. But I do question the definition of progress and going forward. If, for 150 years, we considered economic growth and technological advancement as our means of moving forward, is doing more of the same progress, or is it conservatism in the extreme?
A lot of the western world is now living a decent standard of living. That was real progress. But real progress does not mean moving from three TVs a household to four. Real progress may not be developing our left-brain techno-financier capabilities any more. Real progress, to me, means turning our attention to the world’s real problems and solving them, not in some trickle down way, but directly.
Let’s take a step back and ask these two questions. First, can we take all that we’ve learned and use it, not to figure out how to get teenagers to buy more cell phones, but how to get it so much of the rest of the world is not living in poverty and disease? Can we use our big brains to make pumps for wells in villages that have no water and solar panels for villages with no electricity, for example? Can we change our societal priorities from me, me, me to us, us, us?
Second, can we in the developed countries take a step back and ask ourselves what would really make us happy. Could we consume a little less and spend the time building stronger communities? Could we get off the earn to spend, hedonic treadmill that traps use in the stress cycle, and maybe find meaning looking for ways to help those who are way less fortunate than us? How much happier would we all be if we were able to say we were helping the less fortunate instead of quietly worrying that we were hurting them?
That to me, would be a real measure of progress, both for the planet and its people, because being kinder to the planet may well turn out to be the same as being kinder to its people. That’s the opportunity part of the crisis. So the question may not be can consumption-based capitalism—with growth as its exclusive goal—survive environmentalism, but should it?
PS Serendipitously, someone just emailed an essay on almost the entirely same subject, which you can read here.