Humanity is a long way from where it was 100 years ago. There has been so much good news to report as people have lifted themselves out of poverty and prosperity has spread around the world. Many people are able to live the kinds of lives their grandmothers could only dream of.
But, people are now also beginning to have nightmares about the lives their grandchildren will face.
Material progress has been a mixed blessing, and it has brought profound social, political and environmental problems. A lot of the apparent progress is revealed to be horribly skewed when one looks underneath the headline figures, takes account of distribution, and is a little more ambitious for anything beyond the most minimal of daily incomes.
Some of those challenges are reaching critical turning points – climate change is certainly one such looming catastrophe that is showing its face in unseasonal and record temperatures and more extreme weather patterns. Persistent poverty alongside inequality and its corrosive effect on democracy is another, seen in the widespread disenchantment with political systems and the rise of more extreme politics, born out of a sense that the ‘system’ isn’t working for everyone.
This is a key and unprecedented moment in history. Yes, the last few decades of growth have brought immense benefits, but those gains have been unevenly shared and are at risk of slipping away as the environment and society come under increasing pressure. The fruits of growth are rotting on the vine as economies remain geared to the pursuit of yet more growth.
The answer to this crisis is not to hark back to the past, whether that be a stalled vision of socialism or an imagined simpler time.
Neither is it necessary to imagine some further destination, either a techno- or eco-topia just beyond the horizon, if we simply press down on the accelerator a little further.
Humanity already has what it needs in a materials and wealth sense. ‘Enough’ is impossible to define, but many nations have arrived in a place where they have more than enough to meet basic material needs and secure a good life for all their citizens. The reality is, however, one of a world which is patently terrible at sharing and cherishing those riches.
Writing almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes foresaw a future time of abundance of the sort our world now has. But he also wondered if humans would find it hard to adapt. Survival has been a primary goal since time immemorial. So Keynes was thinking ‘with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man [sic], bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades’.
That insight describes the challenge of today – to avoid squandering this prosperity and to ensure it is shared a lot better than the current regime allows – individuals, societies and economies will have to change their habits. And by habits, think of the questions we ask, the priorities we make, the ways people balance their time, their spending, their energy, the ways businesses price and pay, the policy decisions politicians take, and the overriding purpose of the economy.
Changing these habits and re-configuring the associated processes, assumptions, policies and so on is about getting better at making ourselves at home with what we have, rather than trying to cram in more. Instead of growing more fruit that is unevenly distributed, the invitation is to savour what has already been grown – and to share it better with those who have too little.
In the industrialised world, the great challenge is not to remain competitive (after all, who do we want to lose that competition?), or to increase efficiency or production. The task is to shift gear without derailing, to reimagine progress beyond more of the same – the way so many thinkers, activists, entrepreneurs, and a handful of politicians already are.
There is plenty more to do, infinite opportunities for progress – but what comes next is improvement, not enlargement. The challenge is to make ourselves at home in the world.
By Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams, co-authors of ‘The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown-Up Economy.’
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