Better not bigger!

In many respects, rich economies are entering a period of diminishing marginal benefit – if not increasing harm – from the sort of growth currently sought by most political parties, ratings agencies, and mainstream media. In most advanced industrial countries real median wages have stagnated and we see inequality is increasing

Not only are too many people hurting from inequality – in Scotland, we need to look no further than the huge gaps in life expectancy or the skewed results between rich and poor areas to surveys asking whether people feel they can influence decisions in their area. The sort of economic growth many countries have pursued also risks the sustainability of our planet.

As the Stockholm Resilience Centre report, we have exceeded four of nine planetary boundaries and, according to the UN, 83% of the world’s people live in countries using more resources than their countries can renew. Herman Daly describes the way we count expenditure to clean up what our economic model breaks or pollutes as an increase in GDP as ‘uneconomic growth’. Uneconomic growth is perhaps inevitable when we have an economic model which encourages planned obsolesce, advertising and consumerism.

Accentuated by inequality, our economy itself propels us to become frantic consumers and takes us away from what really makes us feel we’re living a life that is worthwhile. We are drawn away from collective activities towards activities as atomised (but status-attuned) consumers. We are working longer hours to fund the lifestyles of the ‘haves’ or, for the ‘haves not’, simply to make ends meet. And, perhaps, because of this our self-reported life satisfaction no longer rises in line with GDP growth.

To create an economy in which we grow what really matters and reduce the size and influence of toxic and harmful pursuits, we need to shift our gaze away from narrow confines of economic development (so often distilled into incremental increases in GDP). We need to re-focus on broader, more humane and sustainable goals.

Not growth carte blanche, but neither unthinking ‘de-growth’. As Herman Daly has said: ‘[We need an] economics of maintenance, qualitative improvements, sharing, frugality, and adaptation to natural limits. It is an economy of better not bigger’.

This means a serious shift in how we do, see, use, and portray consumption. When you talk to folk – as Oxfam Scotland did to create its Humankind Index – they report that relationships, the environment, and security are what matters to them, not having more and more money or more and more stuff. But translating this recognition into actions requires nothing short of a new economic paradigm – new conceptions of the role of work, the role of businesses, and the role of the state.

Arguably, an easier part of this shift is changing how we use products: cherishing and repairing what we have and focusing on experiences rather than ownership of items. If we can break the perceived connection between consumption and wellbeing, then we can focus more on non-material dimensions of fulfilment via increased participation and consumption of (low resource) services instead of things. We can seek improvement in the quality rather than the quantity of what we do consume.

This also entails reducing the environmental impact of production processes (via, for example, the circular economy in which things are designed for repair and reuse). Simms and Potts propose a ‘new materialism’ which requires high labour input via re-use, recycling, and re-purposing. A labour intensive craft economy alongside high technology base can enable a shift from a consumer society to a producer society – but production that is done collaboratively and locally. To get there a range of changes are needed:

• Less materialistic options: non-work activities need to be appealing, accessible, and affordable. We need to foster events and spaces that build communities and provide alternatives to hedonistic consumerism (so dance halls rather than shopping malls). This requires safe cities; affordable public transport; clean parks; community facilities; and an end to over-work.
• Fewer, better, material goods: products need to be durable, repairable, have no inbuilt obsolescence, and be worth not just appreciating and repairing, but handing down to future generations.

Perhaps most importantly, we need a concerted effort to address wider drivers of consumption – the insecurity and status anxiety spawned by growing levels of inequality. Inequality (and associated polarisation of the labour market) pushes people away from activities that meet intrinsic needs and towards materialistic pursuits. Manfred Max-Neef would call them ‘false satisfiers’. Max-Neef’s use of the term ‘false’ is helpful as it underscores how extrinsic pursuits that will never succeed in really meeting our intrinsic needs.

Beyond basic needs what really provides fulfilment is not more stuff. What does provides fulfilment is spending time with friends, helping others, being in nature, decent and meaningful work, and having control over one’s life. While we might talk of decoupling our fulfilment from consumption, we need to acknowledge our true fulfilment is already decoupled from consumption; it is our efforts to deliver on this that are not and that it is the very nature of our economic model that creates this distortion.

Katherine Trebeck is Oxfam’s Global Research Policy Adviser