July 8, 2009

The Low Energy High Happiness Society ?

 

My brother pointed me to a TED talk recently in which Bill Clinton identifies Wal Mart as a beacon of hope for the low carbon economy. This was a bit of a shock to me. Wal Mart ? A Beacon of Hope ?  

Yes, Wal Mart is making its business energy efficient, switching to renewables and generally doing things we might expect a good retailer to do. But surely ANY company that produces, distributes or sells physical goods has one fundamental raison d’etre – it wants more people to buy more things more often.

There is no supermarket in the world asking us to buy less food, no auto maker encouraging us to keep our existing cars, no fashion brand helping us to hand down clothes from older children to younger. It is not just companies – the global economy judges prosperity by GDP, a measure of the volume of trade. Our prosperity and well-being seems to depend on making, distributing and selling more things !

This raises an interesting question. Is it possible to build a society in which we do not need to buy more things in order to be happy and prosperous ?

Supermarket

Imagine two villages:

1) In BuyerVille, people want the latest thing and typically discard their items after a year to buy new ones. These are not evil folk – they try to make things using less energy and they recycle all that waste !

2) In SharerVille, the elders of the family make clothes for younger members using natural resources that they do not need to buy. People keep their goods for as long as possible, replacing only when necessary. The closely knit community of SharerVille means that you might give away things you no longer need to others, and might borrow things instead of buying them for yourself.

Now, the people of SharerVille appear to be perfectly happy, perhaps more so because of the sense of community and the lack of desire to always have the latest thing. SharerVille consumes less energy, uses fewer resources, and has a high quality of life.

However, in the real world, the concept of SharerVille is loaded with problems:     

 

  • SharerVille has very little trading and so has a low GDP. It is classified as a poor country.
  • SharerVille has fewer jobs. In BuyerVille, by contrast, you can get a job as a factory worker, a retailer, a recycler, or an old goods collector. With all those salaries, people in BuyerVille have money to spend on a wider choice of food and better healthcare.
  • Countries that look like SharerVille in the real world typically come with a host of other challenges, such as high levels of infant mortality, government corruption, and poverty. These countries also seem to be on an inevitable path towards becoming more like BuyerVille !
  • Previous attempts to build an alternative to the consumer society (namely, Communism) failed because they ignored the tendencies of human nature.

In other words, we see few real world examples of a successful SharerVille.

Yet, if you look more closely you CAN see elements of SharerVille that work. Arguably, the citizens of Minnesota in middle America might consume less and be more happy than the hard driving high earning citizens of New York. The joint families of the deep South might be prosperous enough and less stressed than the fashion conscious movie types of Los Angeles. The citizens of Bhutan (famous for their ‘Gross National Happiness’) might have all they want, whereas I in London still do not have the iPhone 3G(S) !

The fundamental question: Is it possible to build an economic structure for SharerVille that can be rolled out globally? Can we build a world in which success does not depend on buying more things? Can the new model keep people busy with fulfilling things to do, drive innovation, work with human nature instead of against it, allow people the freedom to do what they want?

Today, we have not found this new system, and until we find the answer we must remain happy with Wal-Mart using less energy to make more things !

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LINKS:

TED Talks: Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.

Bhutan and Gross national happiness

SharerVille communities are good for the average person with average needs and average ambitions. Not so good for the destitute – there is no incentive to do better, and not so good for the ambitious – no opportunities to do better.

The things about free market capitalism is that it gives free rein to the ambitious. However, all-pervasive free market capitalism forces everyone to think they need to be ambitious because everything is measured in terms of growth – individuals, companies, GDP.

Comment by Vihung Marathe — July 8, 2009 @ 10:55 pm