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24 November 2014

How can we combine sustainable economic systems with improvements in wellbeing?

The left must lead rather than follow.

By Richard Wilkinson

For over thirty years now, progressive politics has lacked a clear direction. Politicians of the left (and of the right) seem driven by quick fixes, and people regard politics as something done by a mistrusted elite. Radical politics has lacked idealism, a sense of purpose and the ability to inspire. And it is time for that to change.

We desperately need a bold vision of the future. Climate change promises disaster on a global scale, but our politicians largely shut their eyes to the problem. Sustainability is all too often seen as if it meant moving towards an impoverished version of our current lives, threatening living standards as well as indulgences like holiday flights and air conditioning.

The problem lies partly in how we see rich developed societies as the pinnacle of human civilization, and ignore the reality of the many social failings which damage, rather than promote, wellbeing. Mental illness, stress, low social mobility and inequality are the symptoms of our modern malady. Although both health and happiness depend on a fulfilling social relationships, community life in most areas varies between poor and non-existent.

A society where getting richer comes close to defining  success and in which profit-hungry corporations  encourage consumerism at the expense of wellbeing, is not a society capable of rising to  the environmental challenge we face.

How then can we combine sustainable economic systems with genuine improvements in wellbeing?

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The first step is to realise that, as our societies have got richer, the main determinants of wellbeing have shifted. Rather than further increases in material standards, what now makes the crucial difference is the quality of social relations. Politicians concerned with wellbeing and sustainability should shift their focus from economic growth to trying to improve the quality of social relations and community life.

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In our current rootless society, we encounter each other as socially exposed, unknown individuals, whose worth is measured by outward wealth. Income, material wealth, status and social position are presumed to be indicators of intelligence and ability and, the larger the income differences, the stronger the impression that some people are extremely important and others are almost worthless.

By strengthening status insecurities and anxieties, inequality corrodes cohesive social relationships. Community life is replaced by the status competition which feeds consumerism.  In a society in which our own worth and the worth of others is measured by what we have rather than by who we are,  it is hardly surprising that we all want more stuff.

Consumerism is one of the major obstacles to sustainability. Jetting off to Abu Dhabi or purchasing the very latest smartphone or tablet may make us feel more socially privileged, but it is slowly but surely destroying our planet. The future of human wellbeing and the environment depend on replacing socially and environmentally destructive status competition with more affiliative social relations and community life.

So far, so obvious, but how can income and status differences be reduced? The best way of building more equal and sustainable societies is to extend democracy into the economic sphere. In more democratic companies –  not only co-operatives and employee-owned businesses, but also companies with strong employee representation on their boards and remuneration committees – management becomes answerable to employees. Hierarchy becomes overlaid with social obligations, and status divisions are reduced by very much smaller income differences. Workplaces become more like the communities in which we feel we make a valued contribution and derive a sense of self-worth. Rather than tip-toeing round powerful corporations, politicians have to recognise that our current business model lies at the heart of our problems.

Change on the scale it is needed can only be achieved if large numbers of people commit themselves to achieving it. It needs the political left to remember its aspirations for a better form of society, to understand, to teach, and to lead rather than follow. The world has never been in greater need of a radical alternative. It is now urgent that progressive forces in society should clarify an inspiring view of a future society which is not only environmentally sustainable, but in which the real quality of life is better for the vast majority. Only then will people commit themselves to the long task of bringing that society into being.

Richard Wilkinson is co-author of The Spirit Level. You can read A Convenient Truth: A better society for us and the planet by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett on the Fabian Society’s website here.