In search of the good life

June 15, 2007

With Glastonbury Festival on June 22-24, Marion Bowman probes the host town's spiritual economy, Paul Heelas investigates spirituality in the workplace and Kate Soper asks whether rejecting materialism will make us happier.

Few today would dispute the contribution of the consumerist lifestyle to climate change or the need for action in the light of it. Yet all the emphasis to date has been on the new technologies required to maintain current rates of economic growth and consumption. Dissenting Greens are regularly ridiculed for their Stone Age or, at best, medieval nostalgia. Even when people acknowledge the importance of lifestyle changes, they still tend to view them as regrettable restraints on satisfaction: a duty we have to future generations rather than a move of direct benefit to ourselves. The overall presumption is that high standards of living equate with current consumption, and very little is said of the pleasures to be had by rejecting the growth-driven shopping-mall culture rather than continuing to keep it on track. We are held captive, it seems, to a consumerist vision of the "good life" to the exclusion of all other ideas of how to live and prosper.

But economic growth does not coincide directly with improved wellbeing, as was revealed by last year's Happy Planet Index, compiled by the think-tank the New Economics Foundation, measuring consumption levels against life expectancy and happiness. Top of the happiness index was Vanuatu, a small island in the middle of the South Pacific, which is ranked 207th out of 233 economies in terms of gross domestic product. In terms of happiness, the US was ranked 150th.

Other studies show that a lifestyle that is ruining the environment is also taking a heavy toll on our own physical and mental health. And many adopting greener consumption find that it offers its own alternative forms of delight and sensual reward. Much evidence suggests, then, that a less work-dominated, high-speed and acquisitive life would not only spare us many of the negative by-products of contemporary Euro-American affluence (the pollution, noise, stench, ill-health, obesity, car congestion, mountainous waste and erosion of local communities), but also open up new ways of enjoying ourselves.

Certainly, reducing the working week or daily workloads would significantly relieve stress both on us and on nature. It would free time for the arts of living and personal relating that are being sacrificed in the work-and-spend economy. A less work-intensive culture would also reduce the speed at which goods and information had to be delivered or transmitted.

This would have advantageous knock-on effects in many other areas, including allowing us more serene modes of travel, such as walking, cycling and boating. It would make roads safer, transform city living and boost local economies.

All this, of course, requires a significant break with the current deregulated market dynamic, its cultural hegemony and educational priorities. Yet the anxieties and frustrations created by current work routines and the blurring of the life-work divide are beginning to create a demand for wealth to be realised not in the profit-driven production of yet more ecologically disastrous and unneeded commodities, but in the form of a life-enhancing expansion of free time. Since any move away from shopping-mall culture is bad for business, companies now devote huge sums to persuading us that happiness lies in buying more things. The vast expenditure on advertising is indicative of the need to repress all inclinations towards freer forms of enjoyment. The dominance of its images of the "good life" also means that the appeal of alternative pleasures receives all too little representation. Yet as consumers become more inured to repeated injunctions to consume, and more anxious about carbon emissions, we glimpse a future in which even the most seductive advertisements will lose their power to persuade us that happiness lies in more acquisitions.

Meanwhile, we can begin developing a "post-consumerist" aesthetic and a "post-commodity" ethic of social and environmental responsibility.

Academics could do much to advance this by promoting public debate on the prudence and morality of the current vocational repositioning of higher education and its work-ethic-driven agenda. Teachers have much to contribute to a cultural revolution through which education would come to be valued primarily as a life asset rather than as an adjunct of industry, and people would revise their perception of the seductions of material culture.

One might hazard a comparison here with the consciousness-raising brought about through feminism and its gradual but profound impact on our way of life. As individuals were made aware of the role of gender in their being, and of its social construction and hence mutability, they entered into complex - and often painful - processes of self-change. A "green renaissance" working on affluent consumer sensibilities over future decades might issue in some similar revising of self-interest and aesthetic response. A lifestyle that was once seen as compelling could come to seem confining, and previously sought-after commodities be viewed as cumbersome and ugly through association with noise, toxicity, unsustainable use of resources or their legacy of unrecyclable waste.

These arguments may seem utopian. But no more so than the fantasies of those who continue to plot so nonchalantly for the expansion of airports or for a future in which schools will no longer provide playgrounds for fear of dissipating the entrepreneurial spirit of their charges in so wasteful an activity as play. For it now seems more unrealistic than ever, both socially and environmentally, to believe that here in the overdeveloped West we can continue with current rates of expansion of production, work and material consumption over the coming decades, let alone into the more distant future.

Kate Soper is a professor in the Institute for the Study of European Transformations at London Metropolitan University. She is writing a book on alternative hedonism.

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