What Do We Really Want?

The richer we are, the more miserable we become.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th August 2002

There is scarcely a discussion of climate change on the radio or television which does not involve a “climate sceptic”: someone who believes there is no problem. This would be unexceptionable if the media always promoted dissent: if, for example, someone was brought in to attack capitalism every time the economy was discussed. But the coverage the anti-environmentalists receive suggests that the dissent which reinforces an underlying orthodoxy is welcome, while that which challenges it is not. Whatever the explanation may be, the airtime their views receive is out of all proportion to the scientific support they muster.

But let us, for a moment, assume that they are right. Let’s imagine that climate change does not exist, that pollution does no damage to either ecosystems or human health, that fisheries are not collapsing, freshwater reserves are not drying up, topsoil is not eroding, and forests and coral reefs are not disappearing.

Let’s pretend too that there is no conflict between two of the avowed goals of the current earth summit: relieving poverty in the poor nations while enhancing economic growth in the rich ones. Let us pretend that there is no competition for resources between rich and poor. Let us accept, in other words, the myths of neoliberalism.

This is the position taken by the farmer and philosopher Simon Fairlie in his new pamphlet The Prospect of Cornutopia. He envisages the future which most of the rich world’s governments, economists and media foresee. In this vision, economic growth proceeds at some 3% a year, without threatening the earth’s capacity to support us. By 2100, if this rate is sustained, we will be 18 times richer than we are today.

Fairlie asks the question which so many economists have ducked. When we possess this fabulous wealth, how will we spend it? “A fraction of this amount,” he notes, “will provide all of us with the one car per two people which appears to be the saturation rate. … What next? Will everyone be jetting around the world on a weekly basis from airports in every town? Will each home have 10 rooms and a swimming pool, and if so where are we going to build them?” Will we then inhabit the terrestrial heaven which the advocates of endless growth have promised us?

I hardly dare to mention this, for fear of being accused of romanticising poverty, or somehow conspiring to keep people in the picturesque state to which I would never submit myself. But it is impossible not to notice that, in some of the poorest parts of the world, most people, most of the time, appear to be happier than we are. In southern Ethiopia, for example, the poorest half of the poorest nation on earth, the streets and fields crackle with laughter. In homes constructed from packing cases and palm leaves, people engage more freely, smile more often, express more affection than we do, behind our double glazing, surrounded by remote controls.

This is not to suggest that poverty causes happiness. In southern Ethiopia people desperately want better healthcare, better education, better housing and sanitation, not to mention smart clothes, motorbikes, refrigerators and radios. But while poverty does not cause happiness, there appears to be some evidence that wealth causes misery. Since 1950, 25-year-olds in the United Kingdom have become ten times more likely to be affected by depression. And it is surely fair to say that most of us suffer from sub-clinical neuroses, anxiety or a profound discomfort with ourselves.

Perhaps one of the reasons why people in Ethiopia appear to be happier than we are is that they have less to lose by letting other people into their lives. The more wealth we possess, the more isolated we become. We must defend it, and ourselves, against the intrusions of other people.

An increase in wealth is always either preceded or followed by an increase in property rights. Over the past 20 years, for example, wealthy people have laid claim to human genes, public archives, town squares and village greens, playing fields, beaches, even clouds and landing spaces on the moon. Having enhanced their wealth, they retreat to gated communities, hire guards and install CCTV and movement sensors.

The rich lock themselves in and lock everyone else out. So many fences rise to exclude us that after a while we are no longer shut out but shut in. And if we try to cross those barriers, we pay dearly, for the increasing freedom of capital has been accompanied by unprecedented rates of imprisonment. For both the secluded and the excluded, the fruits of economic growth become a substitute for human interaction: we watch TV rather than talking to our neighbours.

There is also plenty to suggest that as we become richer, we become less content with ourselves. It is incorrect to say that necessity is the mother of invention. In the rich world, invention is the mother of necessity. When people already possess all the goods and services they need, growth can be stimulated only by discovering new needs. Advertising creates gaps in our lives in order to fill them. We buy the products, but the gaps remain.

Already, in the rich nations, the beneficiaries of development spend much of their money on escaping from it: it costs a fortune now to live in a place which does not assault your eyes and ears with ugliness. To absorb our increasing wealth we must keep building. Our new cars need new roads on which to run, our new goods and services must come from new shops and warehouses and offices. One day there may be nowhere left in which we can shut the noise out of our heads.

Wealth also appears to reduce our capacity to act. Our reliance upon technology supplants our reliance upon ourselves and other people. As George Orwell suggested, “the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle”.

In other words, as Simon Fairlie argues, the rich world is approaching the point at which “satiation turns into deprivation”. Even if we were to forget the damage our growing economies inflict upon the environment, even if we were to ignore the conflict between our greed and the fulfilment of other people’s needs, we should be able to see that economic growth in nations which are rich enough already is a disaster.

Environmentalists have been fudging this issue for far too long. We have been demanding an accommodation between the unreconcilable objectives of ever-increasing wealth and environmental protection, an accommodation we call “sustainable development”. We know that the world is already rich enough to meet all real human needs, but that this wealth is not trickling down from rich to poor. We know that while there is a desperate need for redistribution, further growth in the rich world is likely to make everyone more miserable. We know that wealth has been romanticised. Yet we are afraid to ask for what we really want. Unless we are brave enough to confront the notion that growth is good, the world will shop until it drops.

The Prospect of Cornutopia can be obtained from chapter7@tlio.demon.co.uk