Are we too wealthy?
Do we demand an unsustainable and unrealistic quality of life? Does our desire to be wealthy place too much pressure on the economy and on the environment? Is it possible that we may have to think about accepting less?
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is a collection of contemporary links from the Internet. The author is a principal organizer for a Brisbane, Australia, discussion group whose members come from diverse backgrounds, and which deals with an eclectic collection of topics. Where a topic is of broad general interest I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.
1. Are you too rich, or is Australia too rich, or the human world?
It is always rather difficult to find anyone who will admit to being paid too much for their labour. It is always easy to find a legion who will claim that they are paid too little. Thus, reduced to a personal enquiry, few will admit that they are too wealthy. Once “we” is included to mean some impersonal population of Australia, or even a group of nations, then a debate can usually be had.
2. Resources versus material wealth
A general uneasiness about a population being “too wealthy” can be unpacked in various ways.
a) Given knowledge which has become widespread about limited global resources relative to the ever increasing demands of industrialized societies for materials, limits-to-growth debates are legitimate. In Australia the extremely high consumption (and pollution) model of economic progress is mitigated by a small population in a very large continent.
b) A part of the Australian population is concerned at an intellectual level about the ultimate price of ‘being too rich’ where that means depleting the environment in a non-sustainable way. The bulk of the population does not feel this (yet) in their bones, so the current political climate is safely built on a form of denial.
c) To draw a contrast with Australia, in China, which is also of continental size, but home to 20% of the world’s population, most of the current population has tried to follow late leader Deng Xiao Peng’s dictum that “to be rich is glorious”. Currently the price of that maxim in China is a life or death issue for that vast population, as well as, incidentally, for the ruling Communist Party. China’s industrialization and urbanization has resulted in the air being poisoned, with pollution in cites like Beijing routinely exceeding safe international standards multiple factors. The water is poisoned, and depleting in north China at a rate which might imply mass population extinction in the foreseeable future. Food is poisoned to the extent that the Communist Party elite obtains food only from its own militarily guarded farms while the general population is scandalized daily by exposés of criminal food contamination. Not unrelated to material concerns perhaps, human relations tend to be poisoned. There is zero public trust in China. Public officials are widely considered to be scoundrels. Positions of responsibility and secure jobs are routinely purchased.
d) I use China as an extreme example, and because I worked in the country for five years. However, somewhat similar scenarios can be tracked from Lagos to Delhi to Teheran to Moscow to Sao Paulo to Mexico City. A generation ago the United States of America, with 4.6% of the world’s population, could mindlessly squander around 30% of the world’s extractable resources at the time. Now much of the world’s population aspires to the same growth track. The maths don’t compute. However, the ultimate point is that the “too rich” segments of societies are probably the least likely to adjust their values, goals or methods, or to surrender any privilege. This has always been the case. The “too poor” segments of societies overwhelmingly aspire to the privileges enjoyed by the “too rich”.
3. The end of the growth model – what is to be done?
Large numbers of educated, reflective people worldwide have become aware over the last generation that the globalization of extreme material wealth in its present form cannot be sustained. In this awareness people differ from several preceding human generations where the prevailing belief was that economic growth (a.k.a. “progress”) was a good thing. In previous generations the political passions focused on how wealth was to be divided up – hence the broad labels of agrarian landlordism, market capitalism, crony capitalism, socialism, national socialism … and so on.
4. How the present generation is different from its predecessors
Segments of present populations have decided that most prior ideologies were variations on a global Ponzi scheme which is approaching its moment of collapse. That collapse might be expressed in the depletion of material resources, in ecological failure, or in the sheer breakdown through over-complexity of systems which failure-prone humans simply cannot manage. Whatever the looming breakdown point in any given locale or society, the focus of political dispute becomes “what is to be done”?
5. Carpe diem * ? [* carpe diem => ‘seize the day’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’ …. ]
If, like the scientist James Lovelock, you believe that it is already too late to save the planet and your children, an attitude of carpe diem might be rational (see Aitkenhead, 2008) 'enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan'. Carpe diem has been a popular attitude for certain personality types at least since the time of Aesop’s Fables (see “The Ant and the Grasshopper”), and is preserved in much literature (e.g. the Rubiayat of Omar Kayam). For most people everywhere, haphazardly informed through a haze of mass media white noise, and feeling personally powerless or indifferent, carpe diem will always seem a rational choice. Of course, people frequently have a “personal dream” and sometimes throw a wild dice for personal wealth, even when the odds are hopelessly against them. This is everyman buying a weekly lottery ticket. It may be as amoral and foolish as running drugs (see McCarthy 2014). The core expectations of such folk are probably impervious to high flown pleas for global responsibility. However, if we do look on from a great height, localized self-abandonment amongst scattered human groups and individuals is a rather different proposition from the finality of pending global extinction through the failure of societies to plan intelligently for the future.
6. Technology will save us (?)
The achievements of systematic research in technology and science since the late 18th Century have spurred an exponential growth in human populations, yet brought us to the point where the strains we are placing on the global ecosystem are no longer theoretical, but present and life-threatening. These technical achievements have not been matched by any universal progress in rendering benign the more destructive elements of human psychology and social behaviour. One outcome of this mismatch of technology and humanity is a kind of King Kong risk of extinction.
Another paradoxical outcome is that popular fatalism (submission to ‘God’s will’) has been at least partly replaced by a deeply held faith in the ability of fresh scientific and technological innovation to save us from any catastrophe. This kind of faith is manna for politicians and all seekers of profit. Indeed, wherever there is an existential threat, innovation will follow, no matter whether the threat is military annihilation , or a world food shortage, or climate change. Such innovations are often highly beneficial. Sometimes however, by removing an immediate political risk, they merely delay and magnify a long term disaster scenario. For example, hugely increasing crop yields may simply generate a large population increase and/or the diversion of grains into more wasteful livestock breeding. At the moment there is a great deal of (rather frantic) research into technological solutions to climate change. Since any such solutions imply geo-engineering the whole planet, the risks are incalculable, but sooner or later extreme solutions will be tried by one player or another.
7. The moral dimensions of being ‘too wealthy’
An earlier debate dealt with the proposition that “Ethical behaviour is harder for the rich” (Thor May 2013). My own rather fluid conclusion was that privilege was probably more important to most of the rich than wealth per se. Displaying privilege might take many forms, even selective philanthropy as a kind of soft power. The obverse of the “rich” debate topic might be a popular perception that the poor are less fearful and more generous than the rich, or less culpable in some other way. This is an idea which could apply to comparisons between whole societies, or between social groups within societies. Academic disciplines like Sociology, (parts of) Psychology and (parts of) Economics are built around exploring such questions. The outcomes from this kind of research seem to show that investigation models frequently prove what the researcher’s initial confirmation bias hoped to find. In the end we tend to be thrown back upon our selective personal experience and anecdote.
As an anecdotal experience, I can recall research I conducted from the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji on the changing status of languages in use (Thor May, 1990). To obtain the required raw data for this research, with the help of a Dutch demographer I divided the city of Suva into interview districts, then I sent my Year III linguistics students in pairs to conduct structured interviews with the inhabitants. Altogether 834 interviews were conducted. My students, all multilingual Melanesians and Polynesians, were deeply affected by the interview experience itself. Like thousands of cities around the world, Suva is ringed by squatter slum camps of very poor country-to-urban migrants hoping to make a better life. My students approached these places with great trepidation, having grown up on a diet of dark rumours. They were astonished by the hospitality of the squatter dwellers who invariably asked them in, offered food and water, and showed great interest in the research. In stark contrast, in the rich areas of Suva they often met a frosty and suspicious reception. Sometimes doors were slammed in their faces. Well, this is an anecdotal account, easily dismissed, yet I know that the interview experience had a more lasting impact on the perception of my young Pacific Islands elite students than any linguistics text book.
8. The Australian Story
National self-images within a culture are important constraints on group behaviour. The Australian self-images of generosity to losers, offering help to strangers, mateship, and so on were forged in the harsh years of the nation’s early life, where a majority of poor people, discriminated against harshly by the law and a smug ‘bunyip aristocracy’ (imitators of British forebears), often saw their best hope of survival in mutual assistance. The Great Depression of the 1930s reinforced the ideal of mutual solidarity by the poor against the predations of the rich. In a more recent age when building tradesmen and mine workers earn better incomes than the average university graduate, it has often been hard to maintain the Australian self-image of a good-hearted but poor majority standing against a tight fisted elite. This is especially so since all such ‘national virtues’ have been ruthlessly debased by the political class and the advertising industry.
The conflicted response of the Australian public to people in need like international asylum seekers may reflect some of this inner confusion of values. That is, with spreading wealth, have Australians become more fearful and selfish? For me personally, coming from a very poor background, surviving as a lifelong member of the precariat (the precariously employed), and now living by the grace of a safety net pension in a rented room, the whole guilt trip of Australia’s excessive wealth has remained a curiously abstract discussion to be had by other people.
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The source of this document:
meetup group: Gentle Thinkers http://www.meetup.com/Gentle-Thinkers/
discussion topics blog (for the list of proposed topics): http://discussiontopics.thormay.net/
topics already discussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm
comments: Thor May - firstname.lastname@example.org;
Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).
Are We Too Wealthy? (c) Thor May 2014