Ideas Lost in Time

The process of societal change – in attitudes, institutions, values, relationship patterns etc. – is accelerating steadily in modern societies. Their members are losing their ability to accommodate to these changes. Furthermore, since our basic needs are fulfilled, we engage more and more in competition for goods that some can have – but not all at the same time, not without serious quality deterioration at least. Moreover, we are working much to be able to pay for consumer goods that we cannot really consume because our time budget does not allow for it any more. This does not stop us from desiring even more consumer foods and from uselessly working to earn the money we need to pay for them. At the same time, whereas GDP has been growing continuously (with only minor periods of regress) for years, the satisfaction we draw from our lives has been at best stable in that time, since our aspirations change as fast as the economy (and our incomes) grows. Last but not least, this growth in production and consumption, as well as population, has led to a terrible, unsustainable level of use of Nature’s resources and services, which can in effect lead to a break down of the world economy.

What do these insights have in common? They were all made some 40 years ago, and little seems to have changed to the better – rather the contrary.

In 1970, Alvin Tofler, a US-American futurologist, wrote a book called Future Shock. He analysed the changes which modern societies are confronted with  – changes in values, structure of production, institutions (from schools to marriage), needs, science etc. – and came to the conclusion that they are becoming faster and faster. So fast that most people have difficulties to adapt to these changes. Their adaptation capacity and flexibility reserves were terribly overstretched – in the 1960’s. Tofler stressed that even though this unprecedented acceleration process cannot be stopped completely, it can be smoothed – through adequate education, testing and selection of innovations (in a broad sense) etc. He maintained that if we don’t react soon, the consequences for society may be disastrous. That was in 1970. Most of Tofler’s concrete expectations regarding the direction of change proved wrong. However, at the same time, the acceleration process has not ceased. It is ongoing. Few have recognized that and no-one even talks about systematically adapting to this dangerous process. Little has changed in this regard since 1970.

6 years after Future Shock was first published, an economist, Fred Hirsch, wrote another important book, about what he called the Social Limits to Growth. There, Hirsch argued that in modern, advanced societies where basic needs are almost completely fulfilled across the population, people start engaging in competition for what he called positional goods. These are goods that everyone can attain – but not everybody at the same time. Furthermore, increased consumption and competition for them leads to deterioration of their quality – congestion of suburbs, prolongation of education to reach jobs with higher prestige attached etc. This not only results in frustration, but also puts limits on economic growth – more affluence means more demand for positional goods (they become increasingly scarce), which means that their price rises/their quality deteriorates. It is a vicious cycle that can be broken, Hirsch argued, particularly by making people aware of the problem and fostering more collective action instead of private interest-seeking that is associated with social dilemmas. Above all, he called for a debate that would make the social limits to growth publicly known and foster a discussion on what may be done. Again, Hirsch’s analysis went almost completely under the radar and, if anything, positional competition has become worse in the meantime.

Another important insight was made by the Swedish economist Staffan Burenstam Linder who in his 1970 book The Harried Leisure Class (a reminiscence to Thorstein Veblen’s The Leisure Class) pointed out a major problem of consumer society – while we have become unprecedentedly affluent in terms of money, and thus able to buy extremely many consumer goods, the time budget constraining us has not changed (and is unlikely to change in the future, due to human biology and astrophysics). Theoretically, we are able to consume ever more goods and services. But both their consumption and acquisition require time – the more we try to consume, the less time is left for each good/service. This goes so long until we are not able to draw any utility from the consumption of those goods and services, because we have not enough time. Furthermore, we must work much to keep up to our aspirations in terms of consumption, making the time budget even more limiting. While working hours have declined almost all over the “developed” world, increased affluence as well as supply of and demand for consumer goods have more than offset this. 42 years after Linder’s book was published we still have not even seriously tried to find a solution to the problem recognized by him.

The three challenges of modern society identified by Tofler, Hirsch and Linder may be reason underlying what is called the Easterlin paradox. In a series of articles, beginning in 1974 through the 2000’s, the economist Richard Easterlin compared data on economic progress with surveys of life satisfaction in the U.S. and other countries. He came to the conclusion that, whereas within a certain society at a point in time there is a correlation between material affluence and satisfaction, there is no such correlation both across countries and across time. E.g., even though people in Brasil are much poorer than, say, US-Americans, they are not necessarily less satisfied. Equally, US-Americans today are not more satisfied with their lives than they were 30 years ago – even though they now believe that they were worse off in the past. Easterlin’s explanation for this is that while affluence is rising, so are aspirations (this has much in common with Hirsch’s social limits to growth). People don’t compare their current living standard with their own past, but with their neighbours. If all become richer, the satisfaction level remains unchanged. The question to be asked here is: why should our economies keep growing (beyond a certain point) if this does not make us better off? Especially if we take the next insight into account.

In 1972, one of the most controversial books of the 20th century were published by the Club of Rome – The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William Behrens. Using a computer model and insights from systems theory, the authors tried to model the consequences of economic and population growth. They came to the famous conclusion that, if unchecked, both would lead to a collapse of the world economy following a complete overuse of Nature’s resources and services. This analysis is still influential and controversial. Since 1972 (actually even before), it got both theoretical and empirical support. New environmental problems caused by human economic activity have been identified since – the damaged ozone layer and climate change are only two most prominent examples. At first glance, this case appears to be somewhat different from those discussed above – the limits to growth debate has kept going through the present, recently it gained new levels of attention. However, we still have not made the next step, we still stick in debates of the issue. Meanwhile, the Earth seems to be reaching the tipping points Meadows et al. were afraid of.

Already as early as in the 1970’s many of the most profound of humanity’s problems were identified: the limits of our capacity to adapt to changes; competition for positional goods and the resulting frustrations; the senselessness of consumerism without respect of time contraints; lack of correlation between economic progress and life satisfaction; and the grave ecological prospects of further economic growth. First approaches to solve or at least ease the problems were proposed. Now, some 40 years later, little has changed. Our civilization keeps proceeding as it did. Of course, some details have changed, but not the general pattern (or paradigm). Moreover, except in the case of ecological limits to growth, little research has been done and there is hardly any public discussion of the subjects I discussed above. We wasted 40 years. And we may be going to waste even more.

The books/article I referred to here are:

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