s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 45 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 45   (Winter 2008)

Changing the Question

by Nick Reksten

The possibility of massive and irreversible ecological disaster looms ever larger over society. An increasing number of studies suggest that the threat to ecosystems all over the planet is worse than previously thought. Depletion of fisheries, deforestation, desertification, and, of course, global warming threaten massive species extinction and the lives and livelihoods of humans worldwide. This comes at a time when the roughly five billion residents of the developing world have an increasing desire to live in the state of material wealth that can be found in only a handful of wealthy countries.

How can wealthy societies expect people to change the way in which they live on such a massive scale? Certainly voluntary lifestyle changes will not produce the massive energy use reduction that is needed to avert disaster. How can a society ask individuals to give up a significant portion of their income growth in the name of the environment?

Just as pressing is the question of how the five billion residents of developing countries, many of whom live in the direst poverty, can be asked to sacrifice income to protect the environment? There are many interesting and creative ideas put forth to assist humankind in its attempt to reduce its impact on the environment. But there is a critical disconnect between these incredible changes and the willingness of societies to implement them.

When a situation is seemingly impossible, one must look at its most basic assumptions and see how they may be altered to accommodate the new reality. Though much overused today, the term “paradigm shift” is best suited to describe the type of change that is necessary. This is a call for changing the most fundamental question of economic thought. Instead of asking “How can our society acquire more income?” we should be asking “How can our society become a happier one?” This can revolutionize how we as a society think about economic policy and lead to the subsequent reduction in energy use that is needed to avert ecological collapse.

It is no wonder that our society and mainstream economists equate higher incomes with increased happiness. For most of human history, this has indeed been the case. Offer a family at near-starvation levels of subsistence a higher income in exchange for more time spent laboring, and they will generally be happier despite the sacrifice of leisure time. Even when slightly more secure in terms of a food supply, the existence of some disposable income increases an individual’s freedom enough that they will be willing to give up more leisure time and sell their labor for it. In fact, this correlation between increased income and increased happiness holds until per-capita incomes reach about $10,000. Then the results become very scattered. [1] That is, research suggests that increasing incomes increase happiness less and less.

… increasing incomes increase happiness less and less.

This principle is consistent with the idea of diminishing marginal returns in economics. If I buy and eat one ice cream cone, it will make me happier than before. If I buy two, I may be even happier, but my happiness will not increase by as much as it did with the first ice cream cone. If I buy even more, I might become ill. If one considers that increased income involves a sacrifice of leisure time and that this leisure time could have been spent building relationships with family and friends, the same principle applies.

Of course, this also runs completely contrary to the principle of non-satiation in economics. This idea says that instead of simply buying more ice cream cones until I make myself sick, I’ll simply spend my money on another good or service that will give me more happiness. By this logic, no one can ever have too much money. However, this only considers a material view of the world. Perhaps my happiness can be most increased if I decide not to work and consume and instead spend the time with friends or relaxing outside. Due to a variety of factors, though, there is increasing evidence that many people in wealthy countries have passed the optimal level of income.

Our society in its present form is constructed to encourage work and consumption. Sprawling suburbs provide ample evidence of this. The standard here is huge houses that must be filled with material goods provided by income from jobs many miles away that can only be reached by automobile. As the documentary Save Our Land Save Our Towns points out, suburbs are largely the result of government programs and policies formulated during the 1930s. [2] This was a time in which current conceptions of societal economic goals were being formed, and these did not include concerns about the environment.

… sprawling suburbs are not what would make people happiest. The ideal is instead close-knit communities …

However, as the documentary notes, sprawling suburbs are not what would make people happiest. The ideal is instead close-knit communities: places where people can live, work, and shop all within walking distance. They want a neighborhood bar where they can casually have a drink with friends. This suggests that lives can be enriched through close relationships instead of just more and more consumption.

This is the very shift in logic that must be solidly attained for significant cutbacks in energy use to occur. By changing the question, society would, in effect, be de-linking the idea of progress from economic growth. In a society in which the pursuit of more and more wealth assumes prime importance, environmental destruction is assured. However, in a society in which people are judged to be wealthy in other terms, such as experiences or relationships, ecological collapse will be far less likely. The things that make people happy may vary considerably, but very few people would agree that a world that has been through human-caused ecological catastrophe would be a better one.

This change in thinking would also go a long way towards reducing the amount of conspicuous consumption — that is, consumption for the purpose of displaying social status to others. If wealth is measured in terms of material possessions, then that is how humans will tend to display their status level. This means buying things such as designer clothes that have little in the way of extra utility over a much lower-priced alternative. As a wealthy society such as the United States experiences greater income inequalities, people have to consume more and more to simply keep displaying the same status. [3] This is not something that can go on forever, though. As economist Jon Wisman notes, “Conspicuous consumption suggests that we are on a treadmill in which we consume ever-more with no increase in happiness.” [4] Therefore, by associating things other than material possessions with wealth, this cycle of consumption and consumer culture that is so environmentally destructive can be tempered.

Perhaps the most important aspect of changing the question would be to change the way in which society views environmental protection. With the current way of viewing wealth, environmental protection tends to conflict with the goal of ever increasing income. If an area is protected or a law made restricting pollution, it is, of course, seen to benefit society, but at the expense of the main goal. Short-term concrete increases in income tend to be favored over more ambiguous long-term payoffs. One need look no further than the hesitancy of the United States to sign the Kyoto Treaty as evidence of this phenomenon. If things other than further development are valued, though, an avenue is created in which the goal of environmental protection can have legitimacy equal to that of economic expansion.

Finally, for those in the developing world, the idea still offers hope. If wealthy countries adopt this outlook, much more robust environmental treaties would be written. These could forge a partnership in which wealthy countries, no longer as concerned about increasing incomes and more concerned about environmental destruction, help poorer countries to develop to the extent that all are lifted out of poverty. This process can use much cleaner technology than was available during the Industrial Revolution, and poor countries can adopt similar goals to the wealthy countries, seeking to make happy societies rather than societies that simply consume more and more.

… those who shape public policy should be continually asking how to make society happier.

Not surprisingly, much of humanity has confused additional income with an end in itself, rather than simply one path to happiness. Society has no choice now but to correct this erroneous assumption. To do so will leave us in a much better position to make the changes that we need to in order to prevent ecological collapse. This does not mean voluntary changes to lifestyles. Instead, those who shape public policy should be continually asking how to make society happier. This can transform society by doing such things as reviving towns which, in turn, would both make people happier and make large and relatively painless cutbacks in energy use. It can shape the way that our children are educated in public schools and create a generation that does not find it so problematic to choose between additional income and environmental protection. By simply asking “How can society be happier?” we can take the first step on the long journey of saving our planet from ourselves.

Nicholas Reksten is a recent graduate of American University. He now conducts renewable energy policy research for the Japanese government in Washington, DC.


1. Bill McKibbon, Reversal of fortune, Mother Jones, March/April 2007, http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2007/03/reversal_of_fortune-2.html

2. Thomas Hylton, Producer, Save our land save our towns, Bullfrog Films, 2000.

3. See Samuel Bowles and Yongjin Park, Emulation, inequality, and work hours: Was Thorstein Veblen right? The Economic Journal, 115, November 2005.

4. Jon Wisman, Savings, class identity, and conspicuous consumption. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Institutionalist Thought, Western Social Science Association Meetings, Calgary, April 13, 2007.

[2 jan 08]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 45 Contents