The Perfect Storm described in Chapter One is pretty scary stuff – and it’s not just the planet that is hurting. Both the planet’s and the people’s Wellbeing is falling.
In Affluenza, Oliver James says: “The Affluenza Virus… replaces our true needs with confected wants. We need emotional security or to be part of a community, we only want a newer iPod or a car”. Less recently, Henry Thoreau was already questioning our race for ‘stuff’ when he said in Walden: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without.”
The current economy seems to be blind not only to the planet but also to ourselves. Along with the growth in its economy, Britain has experienced less desirable growth areas:
- Growth in depression. More than two million Britons are on antidepressants. Self-harming has reached record levels. iv
- Growth in drug abuse. “Binge drinking” has reached record levels. v A million Britons regularly take Class A drugs. vi
- Growth in unhappiness. Unicef research suggests that British children are the unhappiest in Europe, the most likely to feel lonely and the least likely to sit down for a family meal, with barely 40% of over-11s finding their peers “kind and helpful” – the lowest score in the developed world. vii
- Growth in stress. The Samaritans report that five million people are “extremely stressed”, while the British Attitudes Survey shows time pressures encroaching ever more upon relationships with family and friends. viii
The same is true for the US where serious clinical depression has tripled in two generations and increased tenfold in the 20th century. Since the 1960s the US divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide tripled, recorded violent crime quadrupled and prison populations quintupled.
Research shows that after around $20,000 average per capita income the extra happiness every dollar brings an individual diminishes rapidly ix. The levels of reported satisfaction of people with incomes of $20,000 and $80,000 are virtually the same. In the US there are now counselling services to help the rich deal with the psychological damage caused by their wealth.
Ironically our addiction to consumption and our economy’s addiction to growth are central to our reduced Wellbeing. As Thomas Homer Dixon x says: “Consumerism helps anesthetise the dread produced by empty lives – lives that consumerism and modern capitalism helped empty of meaning.”
Research on the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), which measures Wellbeing and planetary footprint, revealed that in the past the ISEW stayed relatively level with GDP increases but in about 1966 in most developed countries the ISEW stalled whilst GDP kept growing. In the UK in 1974 and in the US in 1986, after 20 years of stalling, the ISEW actually started to fall even as GDP rose. By 1990 in the UK the ISEW was only 3% above its 1950 level, despite once having been at twice that level and despite continuing GDP. What this told us is that despite ever more economic growth, our economies are actually destroying value and progress, not adding to it. Rapidly diminishing returns on growth now mean that we are in a stage of uneconomic growth, delivering less and less added Wellbeing for people whilst destroying ever more of our planet. The figure below shows how the GDP per capita in the US has grown from $11,672 in 1950 to $36,596 in 2004, which corresponds to an average annual growth rate of 3.81%. On the other hand, GPI per capita remained near $15,000 over the period 1950–2004, growing at a rate of only 1.33%, showing the impact of social and environmental costs on economic growth.
(Source: Talberth et al., 2007)
- GPI = personal/household consumption expenditures
- + value of household work not counted in GDP
- + value of volunteer contribution work
- - crime factor
- - environmental degradation factor (resource depletion, ozone depletion, pollution…)
- - family breakdown factor
- - overextended worker stress factor
- - exploding Consumer debt
- - inequality of distribution of wealth and income