Economics for the Future – a new consciousness

Found this great article on the Anglican Social Justice website here in NZ, written by Robert Constanza.

Constanza’s call for a new, post-‘washington consensus’ vision of development will be lauded by many working in the field of social justice and international development. The hard thing will be getting the buy-in of the general populous. Whether we realize it or not, we are locked in a destructive cycle where the external costs of our high consumption lifestyles are hidden away for the most part – in our landfills, our atmosphere, and in the sweatshops and cotton plantations for the global south – while we are told  story of ever increasing wealth and prosperity by our advertising and entertainment media. In fact, we are exposed to over 3000 advertising images a day (source here), all telling us that we need to consume more stuff in order to be happy. This quote from Victor Lebow, an influential economist in the post-WWII reconstruction period, sums up the attitude of the time:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

An understandable attitude for the reconstruction of war-torn West, but one that has gone unchecked and led us down a dangerous road, as the current financial and environmental crises are showing us. This ‘fetish of commodities’ means that we have arrived at a global ‘tragedy of the commons’, where no-one wants to give up the ‘quality of life’ they have become accustomed to, especially when its easy to feel that any changes you make as an individual make very little difference (not true).. so why should you be the one to take the bus when you could drive, or recycle, or buy Fair Trade etc etc. You’ll notice that I put ‘quality of life’ in quotation marks, as the growth of unbridled capitalism, whilst bringing many blessings, has also spawned an individualistic consumer culture that has had noticeably negative effects on the mental health and family and community cohesiveness of western society (but that’s another post for another day!).

But all is not lost. There is a way forward out of this mess that we, the rich 20% of the world, have gotten our global family into. A new consciousness is needed, one that goes beyond us trying to ‘consume our way out’ of the problems we have created, that takes into account the interconnectedness of life on earth, and the multidimensional nature of human identity and well-being. I would recommend viewing the Story of Stuff online for a brilliant introduction to these issues and some of the alternatives now emerging. As Constanza so eloquently puts it,

Material consumption and GDP are merely means to that end, not ends in themselves. We have to recognize, as both ancient wisdom and new psychological research tell us, that material consumption beyond real need can actually reduce well-being.

Such a reorientation leads to specific tasks. We have to identify what really does contribute to human well-being, and recognize and gauge the substantial contributions of natural and social capital, both of which are coming under increasing stress. We have to be able to distinguish between real poverty in terms of low quality of life, and merely low monetary income. Ultimately we have to create a new vision of what the economy is and what it is for, and a new model of development that acknowledges the new full-world context.


~ by humblemonkey on August 2, 2009.

2 Responses to “Economics for the Future – a new consciousness”

  1. What do you think the economy is, Will, and what is it for?

  2. Well, you’ve got your classic definition.. that the economy is the management of the resources of a community, country, etc., especially with a view to its productivity. In western society, we understand our ‘economy’ only as it relates to the free market. This is fine to a certain degree. The problem is, we have come to use the science of economics as our ultimate ‘sense-making tool’ for both planning and mapping the progress of the human family. This has led to over-consumption in the west, exploitation in developing countries, and a ecological crisis worldwide.

    We need to start looking at human well-being more holistically. If this means expanding the term ‘economy’ to include social, environmental and cultural factors, then that’s fine… although it is ironic that the majority of serious proposals to take these things into account use the same language as the economists do right now (human and social capital for an example.. must we turn everything into a good to be consumed?).

    Personally, I think this is where the emerging dialogue around Sustainability adds value. The ‘Four Pillars’ model of sustainable development, touted by the United Nations, is a very positive step toward seeing a healthy, holistic way forward for all human beings. If we are to talk about Economy at all, it must be in such a way that seeks to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

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