Book review: Do good lives have to cost the earth? - Andrew Simms

Jul 30

This book argues that what doesn’t work for human happiness and wellbeing doesn’t work well for the planet. Good lives should not, indeed ought not to be allowed to cost the earth. The argument, delivered trough a fractured prism of more than 20 (British) voices, unfolds at two levels.

First there is the growing body of science that shows how increasing levels of affluence do not translate automatically into a greater sense of wellbeing. Above a certain, fairly modest level of material and financial security, intangibles such as family relationships, meaningful work and health become much more important predictors of happiness than income. However, our selfishly capitalist society works hard to keep us onto the “hedonic treadmill” and make us forget these essentials.

The environmental agenda puts the discussion on a moral plane. Climate change is forcefully telling us something that we’ve known for a couple of decades: we have been overconsuming our natural resource base and as a result we have burdened ourselves with a potentially disastrous ecological debt. This is a moral issue as the downside consequences of our gluttony not only affect us but also the billions in less developed countries and those unhappy generations inheriting the planet.

This book argues that this crisis can only be successfully tackled by taking the sting out of the consumerist virus. We have to jump of the threadmill, get thriftier and do more with less. That much is clear. But a set of questions emerges upon which authors in this book formulate different answers.

One question has to do with the level - personal or policy - from which this transformation needs to be driven. Quite a few authors think it is really up to us, individual citizen-consumers: by changing the way we live, we influence the larger world around us. We shouldn’t wait for a post-Kyoto climate pact to come about (if it ever does), we just need to take the first step by honestly asking ourselves: “what is a good life for me and what does it have to cost?” Deep down we know the answer to that question. We know we don’t need all the “stuff”. We know we should be courageous enough to wrest control over our own lives from the advertisement industry, the car industry, big retail, financial services. These contributors try to convince us of the fact that this isn’t as hard as it seems: first focus on slight changes, then gradually start to rediscover the sophistication in simplicity and the joy of intangibles.

This book sheds little light on the role of macro-level policies in this transformation. Yes, we need new indicators to measure our progress towards realistic, sustainable goals. The intellectual monoculture of GDP needs to be enriched with other, more nuanced parameters that reflect how we manage our environmental resources and how happy we are. But the discussion is very thin and patchy on the complex governance issues surrounding these macro-societal transformations: what novel institutions and risk and burden sharing mechanisms do we need? How do micro-scale processes link into changes involving more expansive socio-technical systems? The book doesn’t deal with these issues. It is a missed opportunity as it seems to me that there is an emerging body of knowledge (labelled as transition management, transdisciplinarity and action learning) that could provide significant impetus to this discussion.

A second question that emerges from these pages has to do with the spirit with which this whole process of downshifting is going to be imbued. Designer Kevin McCloud (his contribution is one of the highlights of this book) tackles the issue head-on when he says: “For me the great danger is that we pursue the quick fix. If we’re not careful we’ll go down this terrible, utilitarian, shaker route where we all end up being dour ethically-shrunken miserabilists.” Indeed, there is a grave risk is that this whole undertaking - necessary as it may be - turns into some nightmarish, eco-fascistoid fantasy. The stakes are indeed high. Irreversible climate change is upon us. According to some of the authors, we have only a decade to steer the juggernaut on a fundamentally different course. Although several authors stress the enabling, joyful nature of the necessary adjustment to new realities, there are sterner and more alarmist voices in this book. They unwittingly send shivers down our spine: what will happen if peer pressure, what if the slow and compromising policy machinery and feedback signals from nature are unable to generate enough momentum in downshifting the populations of industrial nations? That’s another question that is not answered, only hinted at in this book.

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