Until very recently nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough food to survive. In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicted the life of man as poor, nasty, brutish, and short.1 Yet, a few centuries later a miracle had happened. Nowadays more people suffer from obesity than from hunger while the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, which was the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. And we may soon have nuclear fusion providing us with unlimited energy for free. That may be the end of poverty as poverty is basically a lack of access to energy.
In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was nearly as good as in the Garden Of Eden. The Utopians worked six hours per day and took whatever they needed. Utopia means nowhere but the name resembles the word eutopia which means a good place. The pun may have been intended. His book inspired a lot of writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many of us have more stuff than they need. So why do we work so hard and feel insecure about the future?
The answer lies within the dynamic of capitalism. The capitalist economy must grow. It is not enough that people just work and buy the products they need. They must work harder to buy more otherwise businesses will go bankrupt, investors will lose money, and people will be unemployed and left without income. To forestal this disaster, we are made to believe that buying stuff makes us happy. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind2:
To make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism. Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. Frugality was thus their watchword. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.
In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.
Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal.
Capitalism brought us prosperity so most of us won’t ask questions like why are there still poor people or are there limits to our desires? It might feel like biting the hand that feeds you. Answers aren’t easy to come by either. Alternatives to capitalism weren’t successful. Perhaps capitalism helped to reduce poverty more than anything else. But the capitalist dynamic of growth appears to be slowly halting. People are going into debt to buy stuff so they can’t buy more in the future.
And there is something else. Before long we may live inside our own make-believe fairy tale virtual realities writing our own life’s stories. In that case we won’t need a lot of real stuff any more. Finally there could be enough for everyone, and perhaps far more than we desire. Machines may do most jobs in the future so most people might become unemployed. That may require a new ethic. In the future there may not be an economy or money but for the time being we may need an economy that can flourish without growth.
Featured image: Illustration for the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More.
1. Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes (1651).
2. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.