Citizen Action Monitor

Why do rich societies with lots of material goods, show few signs of meaningful social participation?

Given weak evidence of our ability to flourish, it is even more puzzling why rich societies pursue material growth.

No 2087 Posted by fw, October 30, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

In yesterday’s synopsis, Insatiable consumer desire aside, people are capable of restraining spending in times of economic crisis, Jackson reviewed evidence to suggest that circumstances periodically arise where ordinary people will act in their own best interests, rejecting capitalism’s seductive siren call for economic growth at all costs.

In today’s synopsis, Section 2, Chapter 7, Jackson puzzles over a paradox. In his words:

Tim Jackson

“…this kind of evidence provides for a sneaking suspicion that some degree of responsibility for the negative aspects of modern society is attributable to the pursuit of growth itself. As evidence of our ability to flourish, it doesn’t look good. And it becomes even more puzzling why exactly rich societies continue to pursue material growth.”

Tim Jackson is a British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

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The paradox of materialism, a synopsis, from Chapter 7, “Flourishing — Within Limits” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

In his opening sentence, Jackson declares: “The task of the economy is to deliver and enable prosperity.” Continuing, he emphasizes that prosperity rightfully goes beyond material wealth:

“Rather, prosperity has to do with our ability to flourish: physically, psychologically and socially. … prosperity hangs on our ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society.”

Think of it: within our grasp is the promise of more meaningful lifestyles with less stuff.

But, if “stuff” is somehow antithetical to “a meaningful lifestyle” then how does one account for the crucial role that material goods are said to play in communication related to our identity, purpose, family, friendships, work, social role and the like?

Clearly, there’s a paradox here, which, in Jackson’s words, is this:

“If participation is really what matters, and material goods provide a language to facilitate that, then richer societies ought to show more evidence of it. But the very opposite appears to be the case, and has been for some time.”

To support his claim that citizens of wealthier societies, having amassed abundant material possessions, do not show any overt signs of flourishing on a spectrum of “meaningful” lifestyle criteria, Jackson arrays his evidence as follows:

The scholarly contributions of Murray Bookchin, American anarchist, libertarian socialist author, orator, historian, political theorist, and pioneer in the ecology movement. Decades ago Bookchin held that modern society had already reached “a degree of … alienation that is virtually unprecedented in human history.

The research of American social scientist Robert Putnam, who, in 2000 published his famous study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, documenting “the extent of this collapse of community.”

Although he does not cite any studies, Jackson contends that years prior to the 2008 crisis, Western society was already experiencing “rising rates of anxiety and depression, alcoholism, declining morale in the workplace.

Surveys have shown that the “flourishing paradox” varies across capitalist nations. For example: Scandinavian countries rank higher on measures of trust and belonging; Latin American countries rank higher on subjective wellbeing; and Russia ranks lower on social wellbeing than other Eastern European countries.

Again, without citing evidence, Jackson states that trust in political and financial institutions fell after the 2008 debacle.

A study by the BBC that measured the extent to which UK communities, sharing a geographical region (village, town, or neighbourhood), have experienced a decline in trust since 1971, even though incomes doubled during this period. “ Moreover, the “loneliness index” increased in every region studied. The BBC offered this explanation:

“The authors of the study link the changes largely to enhanced mobility. ‘Increased wealth and improved access to transport has made it easier for people to move for work, for retirement, for schools, for a new life.’”

 In his concluding paragraph of Section 2, “The paradox of materialism,” Jackson puzzles over the evidence:

“…this kind of evidence provides for a sneaking suspicion that some degree of responsibility for the negative aspects of modern society is attributable to the pursuit of growth itself. As evidence of our ability to flourish, it doesn’t look good. And it becomes even more puzzling why exactly rich societies continue to pursue material growth.”

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