By: Hunter Lovins
Published: October 14, 2014
Prosperity. Every segment of society seeks it, but ask what it means or how to get it and the answers are not always clear.
Do possessions equal prosperity? The mavens of Madison Avenue tell us: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” So we measure self-worth by what we buy, going deeper in debt to project the perception of plenitude.
A New Yorker cartoon portrays a woman in an elegant boutique asking whether they have something to, “Fill that dark empty space in my soul.” As Dana Meadows observed, we seek to meet non-material needs with things. It’ll never work. Worse, we’ve allowed the ad industry to induce the impression that in the absence of whatever they’re selling, we’re inadequate.
To play this game, you need money. The siren song is work harder, and you too, can join the moneyed class. It’s seductive: we all know someone who did win: the entrepreneur who struck it rich, hard-working immigrants who scrimped to put the kids through college, clawing their way to the middle class.
But Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century shows the system is rigged. Working harder won’t ensure prosperity. Without transformation of the financial system, the neoliberal ideology that has imposed austerity around the planet is punishing everyone who is not an owner of capital.
GDP and prosperity
Such a situation is fragile. After 9/11, George W Bush famously implored a panicked public to go shopping. Not for therapy, but because his advisers rightly reckoned that an economy built on consumption acting as if no shock has happened will achieve precisely that economic impact – no contraction.
At all costs, keep Wall Street prosperous. So governments bailed out the banks, the 10 biggest of which are bigger now than they were before 2008, as most of the world’s people live on the edge, further from prosperity.
Despite its creator, Simon Kuznets, warning that it could never measure anything beyond the velocity of the economy, gross domestic product (GDP), the international metric for wellbeing, counts increased flow through the economy of money and stuff as better. But that’s clearly wrong.
Spending money may increase GDP, but not necessarily wellbeing.Robert F Kennedy observed in 1965: “Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising … ambulances to clear our highways of carnage … locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them … destruction of the Redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.
“It counts napalm, nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play … beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages … It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.
Employment and prosperity
Politicians cling to growth because historically it tracked to job creation and prosperity depends on having a job.
The new political currency, job creation, justifies any expenditure. But can enough jobs deliver shared prosperity? Automation, structural changes in the economy and the jobless recovery suggest not.
Can new jobs even pay enough? Wal-Mart got a black eye for putting boxes in stores for its own underpaid associates to donate food so the least-well off of its employees might have a Thanksgiving supper. Slammed in the media for tone-deafness, Wal-Mart’s same store sales have been dropping, despite its prior success with green initiatives. In contrast, Costco takes care of its employees, paying a living wage so that they are able to buy their own supper, and has rising same-store sales year on year.
What we really need is not a job but an assured livelihood. Some European countries discuss whether a minimum living should be considered a basic human right. Opponents ask how to pay for it – by which they really mean how do we keep people from becoming lazy slackers? A financial transaction tax or Peter Barnes’ tax and dividendapproach to limit carbon emissions could generate the funds.
How might people create meaning in their lives if they do not have to define themselves by the job that they do? Interesting trends, such as a rejection of home and car ownership, suggest there’s greater hunger for meaning and relationships in life than for accumulation of stuff.
Millennials’s preference for their mobile phone over the keys to a carreflects a bundle of choices that are both encouraging and scary: a shift in consumer preferences to the sharing economy is key to buying time to deal with looming resource shortages, but could spell disaster for many industries: the rise of Uber and Lift have taxi companies mounting campaigns to get them banned as they offer their customers a viable alternative.
But customers love such services, and are using them to transform their lives. Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia proudly describes how his “hosts’” choice to share unused space with strangers can allow them to quit hated jobs, celebrating a trust economy that underpins his entrepreneurial success.
The changing face of prosperity
This is not only a western phenomenon. Dr Hiroshi Komiyama, chair of Mitsubishi research, has shown that demand for consumer goods is saturating in Japan. People have what they want, so buy less. Japan’s no-growth society, far from stagnation has delivered rising happiness, at least until Fukushima. The current, neoliberal government, however, is trying to reverse the clock, grow the economy and reopen nuclear power plants, but it remains to be seen if that’s what the people want.
Dr Nan Zhou of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory described a similar phenomenon in China, as well as how energy efficiency and increasing use of renewable energy can not only deal with looming energy shortages but clean up China’s deadly air and combat climate change.
These are but a few examples of a new narrative of what it means to be prosperous – what Scandinavians call “lagom” – having enough. A new narrative is emerging from New Economics Foundation, Capital Institute,New Economy Coalition, the Club of Rome and the Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity of an economy that will deliver prosperity for 100% of humanity – an economy in service to life.
But we can’t do it alone.