Jan 05, 2010
Who said this? "All the evidence
shows that beyond the sort of standard of living which Britain has now
achieved, extra growth does not automatically translate into human
welfare and happiness." Was it a) the boss of Greenpeace, b) the
director of the New Economics Foundation, or c) an anarchist planning
the next climate camp? None of the above: d) the former head of the
Confederation of British Industry, who currently runs the Financial
Services Authority. In an interview broadcast last Friday, Lord Turner
brought the consumer society's most subversive observation into the
In our hearts most of us know it is true, but we live
as if it were not. Progress is measured by the speed at which we
destroy the conditions that sustain life. Governments are deemed to
succeed or fail by how well they make money go round, regardless of
whether it serves any useful purpose. They regard it as a sacred duty
to encourage the country's most revolting spectacle: the annual feeding
frenzy in which shoppers queue all night, then stampede into the shops,
elbow, trample and sometimes fight to be the first to carry off some
designer junk which will go into landfill before the sales next year.
The madder the orgy, the greater the triumph of economic management.
the Guardian revealed today, the British government is now split over
product placement in television programmes: if it implements the policy
proposed by Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, plots will revolve
around chocolates and cheeseburgers, and advertisements will be
impossible to filter, perhaps even to detect. Bradshaw must know that
this indoctrination won't make us happier, wiser, greener or leaner;
but it will make the television companies PS140m a year.
know they aren't the same, we can't help conflating growth and
wellbeing. Last week, for instance, the Guardian carried the headline "UK standard of living drops below 2005 level".
But the story had nothing to do with our standard of living. Instead it
reported that per capita gross domestic product is lower than it was in
2005. GDP is a measure of economic activity, not standard of living.
But the terms are confused so often that journalists now treat them as
synonyms. The low retail sales of previous months were recently
described by this paper as "bleak" and "gloomy". High sales are always
"good news", low sales are always "bad news", even if the product on
offer is farmyard porn. I believe it's time that the Guardian
challenged this biased reporting.
Those who still wish to
conflate welfare and GDP argue that high consumption by the wealthy
improves the lot of the world's poor. Perhaps, but it's a very clumsy
and inefficient instrument. After some 60 years of this feast, 800
million people remain permanently hungry. Full employment is a less
likely prospect than it was before the frenzy began.
In a new paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Sir Partha Dasgupta
makes the point that the problem with gross domestic product is the
gross bit. There are no deductions involved: all economic activity is
accounted as if it were of positive value. Social harm is added to, not
subtracted from, social good. A train crash which generates PS1bn worth
of track repairs, medical bills and funeral costs is deemed by this
measure to be as beneficial as an uninterrupted service which generates
PS1bn in ticket sales.
Most important, no deduction is made to
account for the depreciation of natural capital: the overuse or
degradation of soil, water, forests, fisheries and the atmosphere.
Dasgupta shows that the total wealth of a nation can decline even as
its GDP is growing. In Pakistan, for instance, his rough figures
suggest that while GDP per capita grew by an average of 2.2% a year
between 1970 and 2000, total wealth declined by 1.4%. Amazingly, there
are still no official figures that seek to show trends in the actual
wealth of nations.
You can say all this without fear of
punishment or persecution. But in its practical effects, consumerism is
a totalitarian system: it permeates every aspect of our lives. Even our
dissent from the system is packaged up and sold to us in the form of
anti-consumption consumption, like the "I'm not a plastic bag",
which was supposed to replace disposable carriers but was mostly used
once or twice before it fell out of fashion, or like the lucrative new
books on how to live without money.
George Orwell and Aldous
Huxley proposed different totalitarianisms: one sustained by fear, the
other in part by greed. Huxley's nightmare has come closer to
realisation. In the nurseries of the Brave New World,
"the voices were adapting future demand to future industrial supply. 'I
do love flying,' they whispered, 'I do love flying, I do love having
new clothes ... old clothes are beastly ... We always throw away old
clothes. Ending is better than mending, ending is better than
mending'". Underconsumption was considered "positively a crime against
society". But there was no need to punish it. At first the authorities
machine-gunned the Simple Lifers who tried to opt out, but that didn't
work. Instead they used "the slower but infinitely surer methods" of
conditioning: immersing people in advertising slogans from childhood.
A totalitarianism driven by greed eventually becomes self-enforced.
me give you an example of how far this self-enforcement has progressed.
In a recent comment thread, a poster expressed an idea that I have now
heard a few times. "We need to get off this tiny little world and out
into the wider universe ... if it takes the resources of the planet to
get us out there, so be it. However we use them, however we utilise the
energy of the sun and the mineral wealth of this world and the others
of our planetary system, either we do use them to expand and explore
other worlds, and become something greater than a mud-grubbing
semi-sentient animal, or we die as a species."
This is the
consumer society taken to its logical extreme: the Earth itself becomes
disposable. This idea appears to be more acceptable in some circles
than any restraint on pointless spending. That we might hop, like the
aliens in the film Independence Day,
from one planet to another, consuming their resources then moving on,
is considered by these people a more realistic and desirable prospect
than changing the way in which we measure wealth.
So how do we
break this system? How do we pursue happiness and wellbeing rather than
growth? I came back from the Copenhagen climate talks depressed for
several reasons, but above all because, listening to the discussions at
the citizens' summit, it struck me that we no longer have movements; we
have thousands of people each clamouring to have their own visions
adopted. We might come together for occasional rallies and marches, but
as soon as we start discussing alternatives, solidarity is shattered by
possessive individualism. Consumerism has changed all of us. Our
challenge is now to fight a system we have internalised.
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