I Shop, Therefore I Harm: Our Model of the Successful Society Is Fundamentally Flawed. Consumerism Can No Longer Be King-The Planet Just Can't Take It Any More

By Jackson, Tim | New Statesman (1996), October 26, 2009 | Go to article overview

I Shop, Therefore I Harm: Our Model of the Successful Society Is Fundamentally Flawed. Consumerism Can No Longer Be King-The Planet Just Can't Take It Any More


Jackson, Tim, New Statesman (1996)


Prosperity is about things going well for us: in accordance with (pro--in the Latin) our hopes and expectations (speres). Ask people what that means in practice and they'll talk spontaneously about family, relationships, friends, security. Having a decent job. Feeling part of a community. Participating meaningfully in society. Prosperity is about doing well in life. Flourishing--in some broad sense of the word.

Income often comes surprisingly low on people's list of priorities for the good life. But it is clearly recognised as a means to an end. Higher incomes mean better choices, richer lives, an improved quality of life. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But growth has delivered its benefits, at best, unequally. A fifth of the world's population earns just 2 per cent of global income. Inequality is higher in the OECD nations than it was 20 years ago. And while the rich got richer, middle-class incomes in western countries were stagnant in real terms long before the current recession. Far from raising the living standard for those who most needed it, growth let most people down. Wealth trickled up to the lucky few.

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Fairness (or the lack of it) is just one of several reasons to question the conventional formula for achieving prosperity. As the economy expands, so do the resource implications associated with it. These impacts are already unsustainable. In the past half-century the global economy has expanded five times. But an estimated 60 per cent of the world's ecosystems have been degraded. Significant scarcity in key resources--such as oil--may be less than a decade away.

As policymakers prepare for a new round of climate negotiations in Copenhagen, they do so in the knowledge that since 1990 (the Kyoto base year) global carbon emissions have risen faster than business-as-usual predictions. The only thing that has remotely slowed them down is recession.

The sense of living beyond our means is almost palpable. Commodity prices rise; ice caps melt; financial institutions collapse. A continually expanding subsystem (the economy) on a finite ecological system (the planet) carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. A world in which things simply go on as usual is already inconceivable. But what about a world in 2050 where nine billion people all aspire to the level of affluence achieved in the OECD nations? Such an economy would need to be 15 times the size of this one by 2050 and 40 times bigger by the end of the century. What does such an economy look like? What does it run on? How much more growth can we afford?

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Let us acknowledge at the outset that poorer nations stand in urgent need of economic development. Asking China and India to curtail the rise in their living standards is never going to wash. Let's accept too, for the sake of argument, all the good things growth has brought (to some of us) in the past 50 years: improved longevity, better healthcare, wider education, less drudgery, greater mobility, expanding opportunities for creativity, leisure, travel.

Of course, there is evidence, too, of declining trust, failing community, social recession. But the point is: are ever-rising incomes for the already-rich still an appropriate goal for policy in a world constrained by ecological limits? Might it not be time to curtail material demand and place our ambitions on some other, more satisfying, goal?

The model we relied on was always unstable ecologically. It has now proven itself unstable economically. The "age of irresponsibility"--as Gordon Brown called it last year--was not about casual oversight or individual greed. If there was irresponsibility, it was systematic and with one clear aim in mind: the continuation and protection of economic growth.

In recent months, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy has asked world leaders to join a revolution in the measurement of economic progress. …

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