I have been enjoying a robust exchange of ideas with a regular correspondent. We disagree, in some cases vehemently, but we’ve both learned something from the debate. I like to think of it as a Socratic dialogue, where the objective is not to win, but to increase understanding. (And maybe the world could do with more Socratic-acity in our public discourse.) So for the purposes of this article, I shall call my correspondent Socrates (with apologies to Dan Millman/The Peaceful Warrior).

Our lively discussion boils down to a question that lies at the heart of the current economic quandary: do we continue to consume ever more, because this is the way to lift the poor out of poverty and improve life for everybody? Or do we rein back, because our overconsumption is destroying the planet? If you’re a regular reader, you can probably guess which way I’m leaning.

There is a danger, of course, that because this is my blog post, I might skew the argument in favour of my own point of view. So I ran this past Socrates before I published it. So if I have been at all unfair, it is with his permission.

Even though this is an abridged version of our correspondence, this is possibly my longest ever blog post. If you can spare the time, please persevere. If you really can’t spare the time and/or patience, read the first couple of points and then skip to the final conclusions.

This started when Socrates shared the draft of an article he had written, expressing his hope that I would like it. Socrates, I confess, my first impression was that I didn’t like it one little bit. It ran counter to so many of my favourite beliefs (which I suppose is what we like to call our prejudices). But rather than responding with shock and outrage (as is the fashion), I decided to get curious. I’d had enough interaction with Socrates, and we had enough social capital together, that I sensed we could have an interesting exchange about this. So I took a deep breath, set aside my apoplexy, and dived in.

“Hi Socrates. Your article is very interesting, although it also raises a lot of questions in my mind. Maybe you can help me out with these, so I can understand better?” (Blatant playing of the “dumb blonde” card.) I then lifted six quotes from Socrates’s article, and asked for clarification. Socrates, to his eternal credit, was game. “Thank you very much for these questions,” he replied. “I enjoy being challenged.”

It tackles a lot of big questions, so is necessarily incomplete. Please feel free to weigh in!

1. Quote from article: “Our lives have been made better throughout the ages because we have consistently consumed more”. My question: our lives have got better, and we have consumed more, so we undoubtedly have correlation, but do we have causation? Do you have a link to research that establishes this?

Socrates’s reply: I studied some economics at business school. I am by no means an economist, but I understand the basic precepts. It is perhaps so ingrained that I never stopped to think about this point. In economics, a key measure of improvement in living standard is growth in GDP/capita.

See article: What Causes a Country’s Standard of Living to Rise?

GDP/capita growth, in my mind, equates to consuming more. Technically, it is producing more – not consuming more. I sometimes find it hard to make the distinction, because generally a society consumes what it produces. (Sometimes they consume more than they produce.) Therefore, I find myself unable to answer your question satisfactorily. I will research it further.

My (Roz’s) view: The linked article perfectly captures the circularity of the standard argument. It leaps straight from the title, which is about causation, to the first sentence, which is about measurement: “One way to measure the improvement in the living standards of a country is by looking at the growth rate of its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.”

Does rising GDP cause a rising standard of living? Or does it reflect it? Or is there any causal link between GDP and standard of living at all?

As Robert Kennedy famously said in his election speech in 1968, “it [GDP] measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Even the creator of GDP, Simon Kuznets, said in 1934 that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”. And see this long list of quotes reinforcing the point, from all kinds of folks from Ban Ki-Moon to Angela Merkel to David Cameron.  

Clearly, a person earning $70,000 a year is going to have a better quality of life than a person living below the official International Poverty Line of $1.90 per day, which equates to about $700 a year. But according to some research, the correlation breaks down above $75,000, due to hedonic adaptation – essentially meaning that too much is never enough. There again, another study says that to achieve “optimal contentment” we would need to possess $100 million. (Wow, sheesh. Most of us had better get used to “SUB-optimal contentment” then.)

So…. Opinions vary. But some useful questions to ask here might be:

  1. To what extent is wealth a determinant of “better”, and how much is “better” a state of mind? (J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world, but was also a miserable sod.)
  2. How much “better” can a life be? Is more really always more? Or is there a kind of “terminal happiness”, like terminal velocity, beyond which more money can’t buy you any more happiness?

 

2. Quote from article: “If we were to reverse our consumption habits, which is not possible, humankind would not flourish”. My question: why is it not possible?

Socrates: This is based on two factors, one data-based and one that is intuitive:

1) Based on the data, 194 nations with an aggregate population of 5.5 billion have a GDP/capita less than the global mean GDP/capita (World Fact Book), i.e. they produce/consume less than the global mean. It is a quick-and-dirty metric, since not everyone in those nations produce/consume the national averages. However, the general point is that most of the world’s population is not enjoying the same standard of living that you and I enjoy. But if there is any such thing as fairness, they most certainly should. And they probably would want to, if they knew what it meant.

2) Based on my own feelings, and of most of the people I know, no one, and I mean no one, wants to consume less. If I were forced to consume less, let’s say, owing to straitened circumstances, I would be less happy that I am now. I know this from experience. My friends and I, to a woman and to a man, always want to consume more. Better cars, better iPhones, more paté fois gras, more Champagne, more better everything. This may sound revolting to many people, but it is our reality. (As per my response to (5) below, I do not advocate consuming abusively, however I do advocate for eliminating want.) I have read your excellent essay about your first ocean crossing, and how you lost all your worldly comforts one by one. It sounds as though it was a revelatory experience for you, but as it was happening, it didn’t sound particularly fun.

Roz: Damn right, it wasn’t fun – at the time. But it was tremendously beneficial in the long run. And also, I was privileged enough to get to choose my “poverty”. Most people aren’t.

I think this really comes down to questions like these:

  • What do we think we are here for? (fulfilment, happiness, contribution, evolution, etc., or fun, hedonism, acquisition, amassing wealth, etc.)
  • What is the emotional state we are trying to achieve? (happiness, peace of mind, empowerment, connection, safety, etc.)
  • Daily we are exposed to advertising messages telling us that we can achieve these states if we buy their product, invest in their savings plan, vote for their party, etc. Are these messages true?
  • What is the emotional state that we hope to achieve by consuming more? What makes us believe that consuming more will enable us to achieve that emotional state?
  • If we have spent our lives so far consuming more, aspiring to consume more, and/or working to enable ourselves to consume more, has it worked? Have we achieved the emotional state that we hoped to achieve? Is our consumerism bringing us closer to that emotional state?

There is a book called Happier People, Healthier Planet, which surveys and interviews a lot of people (mostly, but not all European or American) who have chosen to consume less, either as a conscious decision or due to circumstances, and this has brought them greater happiness. However, they were a self-selecting sample of people who identified as “modest consumers”, so we can’t assume that their experiences are universal.

Chris Rose, in How To Win Campaigns, identifies three main groups who have different perspectives (and hence need differently-focused campaigns) – from Wikipedia (the percentages are given for the UK in 2012 – they vary over time, and probably over geographies):

  • Pioneers (inner-directed) are motivated by self-realisation. Their views are governed by values of collectivism and fairness. In their personal lives they are ambitious, but seek internal fulfilment rather than the esteem of others. (38%)
  • Prospectors (outer-directed) are driven by the esteem of others. They are motivated by success, status and recognition. They are usually younger and more optimistic. They are often conscious of fashion or image, and tend to be swing voters. (32%)
  • Settlers (sustenance-driven) are motivated by resources and by fear of perceived threats. They tend to be older, socially conservative and security conscious. They are often pessimistic about the future, and are driven by immediate, local issues affecting them and their family. (30%)

It seems reasonable to guess that pioneers are likely to be less consumerist, prospectors more so. So while a prospector may indeed find happiness in conspicuous consumption, for a pioneer consumption may be neutral or even negative. Daniel Kahneman would draw the distinction between “being happy in your life” (more prospector) versus “being happy about your life” (more pioneer).

Here’s something to bear in mind: According to the American Psychological Association, materialistic values are linked to lower life satisfaction. So for those who identify as materialistic and it’s not making them happy, they might want to rethink their value system.

 

3. Quote from article: “Life would not get better for anyone if we suddenly consumed less. Nor should we expect the ecology to be magically saved by such behaviour. Life would decidedly get much worse.” My question: In what ways would it get worse? Kate Raworth and Tim Jackson write very convincingly on the planetary boundaries and how we can continue to prosper without a growth in consumption. (They also both have excellent TED Talks.)

Socrates: As per (2) above, wealthy people would be less happy than they are now, and poor people would remain poor in a state of inequality. If the struggle of the poor were to worsen, it would certainly lead to unnecessary casualties. I will endeavour to read the authors you have suggested.

Roz: Certainly, the poor should not have to get poorer. But we come back again to the inescapable logic of the IPAT equation:

Impact (environmental) = Population x Affluence x Technology

So we can have sustainability, and we can maintain the current population, and we can all live affluently, but we can’t have all three. Take your pick.

 

4. Quote from article: “Ever-growing levels of consumption defines our progress as a species. If we were to stop growing, our progress would suddenly stop as well.” My question: But what about intellectual or spiritual progress? Surely these are not dependent on material consumption. Material and technical progress are not the only valid forms of progress.

Socrates: True. These are valuable and essential to our progress as a species, I believe. However, the physical manifestation of our ever-bigger ideas can only go in one trajectory. Think of space travel, to further and further places; nuclear fusion machines that are many miles in diameter; Burj Khalifa; super-computing facilities, though the chips are getting smaller, the assembled power are getting massively larger; and numerous other examples.

Roz: Well, I disagree that “our ever-bigger ideas can only go in one trajectory”. I believe we have many different ways that we could apply our intelligence and creativity. This is my personal view: I find the “bigger, further, faster, MORE” dynamic depressing rather than inspiring. I would feel a lot more proud to be a human if we were p

utting more of our intellectual firepower into greater understanding of ourselves and the amazing planet that we already have right under our feet.

As St Augustine said, “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”

Again, I come back to the question of WHY? (See 2.) What is it that we are trying to achieve? What are we trying to prove? Why this insatiable yang quest for more and more?

A friend reminded me of the classic NLP questions:

What do you want?

What will that get you?

How will you know?

In other words, before we romp ahead with conquering the universe, we might want to pause and ask ourselves why this would be a good thing to do with our resources.

Socrates: Furthermore, billions of people don’t have the access to adequate resources to concern themselves with intellectual or spiritual development; they are far too busy with just surviving that day. This recent edition of Goalkeepers by the BMGF spells it out nicely right at the beginning:

Give these people the necessities they need in life, and they are more likely to become part of the global intellectual development pool, contributing their particular genius. Give it not, and they are likely to contribute less, or possibly much less.

Roz: I totally agree with the huge desirability of everybody having the resources to live a decent life so that they can contribute and be fulfilled – and I would love to see humanity investing in THAT rather than missions to Mars or Burj Khalifa.

I’m sure Bill and Melinda mean well, and are doing wonderful work – but I have to ask a question here, because I genuinely don’t know: how much are they addressing the root causes of the systems that caused the poverty in the first place? According to Jason Hickel (and yes, I know there are many who disagree with him), we wouldn’t need to “give” the poor anything if we hadn’t taken it away from them in the first place. Maybe it’s not our “help” they need – they just need the Global North to stop screwing them over and leave them to get on with their lives. I know the transition would be complicated, but “the global poor” are actually smart, capable people (or at least as smart and capable as anybody in the Global North), living in sovereign nations, and I’m sure a fair and equitable transition could be worked out.

Even Warren Buffett knows that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.

 

5. Quote from article: “our consumption is a measure of our flourishing”. My question: in the US, average per capita consumption continues to rise…. as do opioid addiction, per capita expenditure on retail prescription drugs, obesity, etc., which would seem to contra-indicate human flourishing.

Socrates: I do not advocate for consuming abusively. I agree that this is a problem. I myself am guilty, being overweight unnecessarily, compromising my own health, and depriving others of resource. In my view, abuse is a symptom of technological adolescence, a function of suddenly finding ourselves with unprecedented levels of abundance. It is an ephemeral problem that will go away as our user sophistication level increases, as it has been doing for centuries.

Roz: I can agree with the “adolescence” part – yes, we are collectively behaving like an adolescent who almost overnight finds himself/herself in possession of powers (physical, sexual) previously undreamed of. I’m just not convinced that the lessons of one generation get passed to the next when it comes to addictions and excesses. Seems humans have always been pretty good at those. Technology is getting more sophisticated, but I’m not sure we are. 

 

6. Quote from article: “we have an unlimited energy source that can drive all this splendour. This energy can cheaply drive extraction of resources”. My question: energy may be (relatively) unlimited, but resources are not. I found this chart very interesting: When We’ll Run Out Of Each Metal.

Socrates: Firstly, in my article, I did qualify this by saying that massively cheap and abundant energy could fuel expensive recycling of these resources. However, the data Visual Capitalist, or the US Geological Survey, or anyone uses is the economically extractible resources, based on the prevailing commodity prices today. If one drops the so-called cut-off grade for mineability, these reserves skyrocket, owing to the fact that the vast majority of all our worldly resources are very dilute, and go all the way to the core of the earth.  (I spent the first 10 years of my career in the mining industry, so I know a thing or two about this.)

Furthermore, I will say that something that is never factored into any extraction analysis is the metal content of seawater. Though extremely dilute, the ocean, your favorite place, is a massive repository of virtually everything in the periodic table. We have the technology of extracting and concentrating these elements from seawater, but it is massively energy-intensive and cost-prohibitive today. One day it will not be, when compared to terrestrial mining, and that day may be sooner than we think. Finally, the ocean, in its magnificence and mysteriousness, automatically replenishes any element which may be removed from it, by absorbing that removed element through the ocean floor. For example, let’s say there is a billion metric tonnes of zinc in the ocean. If we extracted 1 million tonnes of zinc, 1 million new tonnes of zinc would be absorbed through the ocean floor. Gaia applying her tradecraft.

For perhaps obvious reasons, I could not go into all these details in my little article, but resource scarcity is not something we as a civilization will ever have to worry about.

Roz: Really?! I tried to verify this magical regeneration of oceanic minerals, but drew a blank. I did find articles, though, expressing reservations over ocean mining for environmental and feasibility reasons. As for Gaia’s tradecraft, I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphise her, but if I was Gaia I’d be getting pretty ticked off by now at being endlessly poked and polluted, mined and fracked.

 

So, dear Socrates, we shall have to agree to disagree. I sense that what we both want to see is human flourishing, but we have very different views on what flourishing looks like, and how to get there.

Aristotle was writing about this in 350 BC, stating that happiness is the only thing that humans desire for its own sake, unlike riches, honour, health or friendship, which he thought we sought only in order to be happy. No doubt there were people who disagreed with him then, and over 2,000 years later opinions clearly still vary.

It makes me happy (!) to think that I don’t depend on externalities for happiness, as it gives me more autonomy and self-reliance, rather than being a hostage to fortune. All I need to do is to choose to be happy – and of course I’m immensely fortunate not to have to worry about my health, safety, food and water. Other ways of pursuing happiness may seem futile to me, because they wouldn’t work for me, but if they do work for other people, all well and good – so long as they actually are working.

I’ll turn to Spike Milligan to end this excessively long blog post on a lighter note:

Thanks, Spike!

 

Other Stuff (as if this wasn’t long enough already…):

Yesterday I was heading into London to attend a Thanksgiving lunch hosted by my friend Phil Lader (former US ambassador to the UK) and the investment bank Morgan Stanley. Given that the lunch was going to be crawling with bankers, my rather perverse choice of reading matter while I was on the Underground was How Do We Fix This Mess? The Economic Price of Having it all, and the Route to Lasting Prosperity, by ITV’s political editor, the early sections of which deal with the complexity and greed that led to the financial crash of 2008. This juxtaposition rather reminded me of the first audiobook I listened to on the Indian Ocean: The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, about ships being lost at sea to freak waves. Why would I choose to read about the most terrifying aspects of an environment (the ocean, the City of London) just as I’m venturing into it? No idea.

As it turned out, the bankers were (mostly) harmless. I had been seated next to Lord (Michael) Heseltine, who held many prestigious posts in Conservative cabinets under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. At 86, he is as charming and erudite as ever. And is an ardent pro-Remainer (i.e. anti Brexit), as am I.

So I trust this blog post is not seen as me biting the hand that – literally – fed me yesterday. Right now I would say that I am not a fan of consumerism – and overconsumption makes me feel physically queasy. But if someone can convince me that consumerism really is making the world a better place, for everybody and not just the 1%, then I’m all ears.

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