Do good lives – satisfying, purposeful, fun-filled – really have to 'Cost the Earth'? This is the theme, and title, of one of several wonderful books I read a few years ago (edited by A Simms and J Smith, published by Constable). It's an eclectic series of essays by well-known people in the UK – thinkers, doers, business people, journalists, novelists, politicians, designers and behaviourists … the late Anita Roddick of The Body Shop; Hilary Benn, doyen of British liberal politics; Larry Elliot, economics commentator … and so on. It's a refreshing array of views on Western society.
Western culture has become something of a cult for the rest of the world - worshipping material wealth and the high life, rather than the good life. We admire unstable 'celebrities' like Paris Hilton or Kate Moss, rather than achievers like artists, poets, engineers, activists, scientists, musicians, writers. We are now so driven by materialism –so consumed by consumerism – that we hardly notice what's wrong. That is, until we start to feel hollow and dissatisfied.
Those of us in 'the working class' also feel dissatisfied, personally and professionally, by the onslaught of information and lack of time. More than money, we crave time and mental space. We spend long hours making more money, commuting, shopping, paying taxes or balancing our budget (if we do). In our personal lives, we see too little of our children, get too little exercise, hardly know our neighbors. In our work lives, we suffer from information-overload, deadline-stress, grant applications, client deliveries. On both fronts, time is scarce. Does this sound perverse? To millions of people, it increasingly does.
Above the level of income needed to meet our basic needs, you might be surprised at how thin is the link between wealth and happiness. For far too many people in South Africa, where I lived for many years, life is a matter of stressful survival, without regular meals or a safe place to sleep. But it's well documented that a person's 'life satisfaction' depends on income only up to a very modest level. Then, wealth becomes essentially irrelevant to happiness. More important are the quality of your upbringing; the happiness of your family, your friends and community; job-satisfaction; good health; and spirituality. Whatever your income, these are the aspects of a 'good life'.
Many people work so hard that they hardly notice the world around them, their children growing up, or their parents growing old. Some are motivated not by a higher purpose, but by paying off debts incurred to buy a bigger home … a second home … a fancier car. Few are truly happy – indeed, some are desperately unhappy, with relationships suffering from their financial ambitions, even if they disguise it by material extravagance.
To some, sustainable living still seems like (or has been intentionally painted as) deprivation – the spartan fringe-lifestyle of a few earnest people in sackcloth and sensible shoes. It's not. You can live sustainably and still indulge in dark chocolate, bodysurf at sunset in the golden sea, have great sex, and laugh with friends until you cry. You just live lighter, buy local, and ditch the travel-intense, energy-intense activities which stress us all out.
Increasingly, a wonderful range of people – fun-loving, iconoclastic, fashionable, serious, passionate, irreverent, trendy, spiritual – have called the values of our hyper-consumption society into question. This is no longer new. It's time for us to consciously opt out.
It's not easy for some, when the daily barrage of marketing tries to persuade us that we're inferior if we don't live extravagantly and spend on the latest chic cars, homes, weddings, smartphones, or plasma TVs. And it's not just marketing. Whole systems of consumer contracts - think cellphones - are structured for planned obsolescence. But the 'tipping point' towards a more sustainable society is close at hand.
As a scientist and a public speaker on climate change and ecosystems, I meet an amazing diversity of people these days who tell me their experiences of sustainability. They don't fit stereotypes. Some are 20-something journalists with fashionable hairdos and i-pods. Some are community activists from Khayelitsha (the sprawling major township of Cape Town). Others are trendy editors, small-scale entrepreneurs, fruit-industry export strategists, or industry CEOs. There are as many different 'good lives' as there are people to lead them. It's happening … 'times are a-changing'. All we need to do is streamline our own lives, and stand up against politicians and companies flogging '20th-Century policies', 'bling', SUVs - or more sinister, the irrational and profit-protectionist idea that environmental and social safeguards are "hurting the economy" or "costing us jobs." That would only be true if you cling to a rigid, outdated mode of the economy. And tragically, that's what the 2017 USA administration is promoting at the worst possible time.
Some years ago, the South African Cabinet adopted a world-breaking policy direction – the first for a developing country – for low-carbon economic development. This was extraordinary, and something for which we should all thank them.
As debt relief campaigner Ann Pettifor, Executive Director of Advocacy International, says, "The world really does not have to be this way. We can change it."
Do good lives have to cost the Earth? Of course they don't.
The original 2011 version of this essay, "Do good lives have to cost the earth?" was published in the free South African glossy community magazine Full Circle and is available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269165977_Do_good_lives_have_to_cost_the_earth [accessed Mar 26, 2017].