What if we took the basics of life as our measure of success?
My father often used to say, “We can’t just keep covering the country in concrete.”
He would say this after reading about a new road or office block that was being built. Whether he realised it or not, he understood that infinite economic growth is just not feasible.
Current reports show that growth in many countries across the world will be negative for 2020. Given the huge increase in unemployment on account of the coronavirus lockdown, it’s hardly surprising.
Viewed through a conventional lens, where Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the measure of a country’s success, this is of course very bad news. Positive GDP growth has historically been seen as the solution to a country’s ailments. It means the productivity machine is working faster and producing more. But it also means we have to keep buying more, accumulating more, creating more jobs, earning more, expanding and seeking our prizes in global financial league tables. It’s a treadmill.
Our ‘system’ favours those who are financially successful, and gives them the power and the voice to control the world’s finite resources.
Many people have far too much… and many have far too little
Having spoken to various people about their experience during lockdown, it’s interesting to hear how many have appreciated the time to get back to a simpler life. Many realise they need less, that they can reuse and repurpose and repair things, and there have been many positives on an individual level.
As Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
At the same time, there are many, many people for whom lockdown has meant severe hardship. Many people are living from hand to mouth, and not being able to work is a disaster.
Getting back on the economic treadmill will not help
GDP is not the panacea for wellbeing and happiness. If we continue to measure and judge everything by GDP, and if the financial ‘machine’ keeps turning in the way it has over our lifetime (and before), we will simply continue to exploit our beautiful environment for resources and widen the inequalities between us. The clamour to be biggest and best will ultimately destroy us.
It’s time to finally change the lens through which we view success – and right now we have an unprecedented opportunity.
Let’s look at it in a different way…
Instead of thinking about money flowing from government or from big corporations down to the poorest at the ‘bottom’ (if indeed it ever reaches the bottom), let’s turn that hierarchy on its head.
The people with the least are possibly best placed to understand what’s really essential in life, for example, food, water, heat, shelter, health, safety and having a voice.
At a local level during lockdown many people have been finding ways to make things work. People have been sharing – and helping each other. Many have been experiencing a stronger sense of community than ever before.
Lockdown has been an opportunity for many more people to re-evaluate what’s important – the basics of life – making do when it hasn’t been possible to go shopping, making things ourselves, re-using and repairing things or finding alternatives, and finding richness in a simpler life.
What if we took the basics of life as our measure of success?
Let’s think about something we do every week, sometimes every day: we buy things.
Every purchase we make has a knock-on effect, for example the moment an item is scanned at a supermarket check-out, it creates an automatic demand for the same item to be produced/manufactured again – to fill the gap on the shelf in the store.
That new item requires raw materials and energy to produce it.
What if we stopped and paused before we made any kind of purchase?
Prior to travelling continuously for four years with just a backpack, I gave away most of my belongings. That process showed me just how much unnecessary stuff I had accumulated over the years. Most of it I didn’t need, regardless of whether or not I was going travelling.
If I hadn’t bought it in the first place, I could have lived in a smaller house, saved money and had much lower outgoings.
The things I couldn’t give away I took to a second hand shop/thrift store, some things went to a recycling centre, and sadly there was also some that had to go to a local landfill.
I very quickly realised that I couldn’t make stuff ‘disappear’. Once I had bought it, I had to either use it, recycle it, repurpose it or discard it – but I couldn’t reverse the damage done by buying it in the first place – and creating the demand for it to be replaced in a shop’s stock.
Even if I threw it away it would always exist somewhere.
The same principle applies to food. When I see cheap eggs for sale in a supermarket, I see the image of a suffering, featherless hen, pumped full of antibiotics and stuffed into a cage to produce eggs until she dies or is too worn out to be profitable.
Everything we buy has an impact
Everything uses up resources, and much of what we buy is not only waste, but damages the world around us.
The real cost is not what we pay for it; it’s the cost to the planet and to life on the planet. For example, when we buy plastic, even if it’s ‘recyclable’, we cannot reverse the fact that more plastic will exist in the world as a result of our one individual purchase.
Pretty depressing, isn’t it?
But wait – this is exactly what gives each of us more power right now
By drastically reducing what we buy, we send a message to manufacturers that demand is less.
By deciding not to buy something, a replacement does not need to be manufactured to fill the gap on the shelf.
By not buying something we can instead find ways to do without it.
By not buying something we benefit from not having to insure, store, heat, secure, repair, move or maintain it.
If demand fuels the GDP machine, then lower demand – coming directly from individuals like you and me – can have an impact.
Yes, there are 8 billion people on the planet, and it’s easy to feel powerless as one individual, But this concept gives us all a fighting chance of survival, and we can each apply it every single day.
This simple 3-step habit can literally slow down the machine
1. Before buying anything (food, fuel, objects, etc. – anything), stop and ask yourself whether you really need it. Will it enhance your life so much that it’s worth your money? And is it worth the resources it will take for the manufacturer to replace it in the shops?
2. If you do choose to buy it, how can you buy it without packaging? How can you check what – and who – has been involved in producing it? Every time we buy something we not only create instant demand a replacement item, but for the packaging too.
3. If you choose not to buy it, what could you use instead? As Mark Boyle*, the ‘Moneyless Man’ says, if we had to make everything we need instead of being able to buy it, we’d realise just how much we consume and how much we can do without. If it’s a large item and you choose not to buy it, how can you make that choice benefit other areas of your life – and the lives of others? e.g. being able to downsize and minimise and/or using your freed-up resources to help someone else.
This one single habit of only buying what we absolutely need to sends a powerful message to governments and industry that we want to see change. And each individual one of us can do this.
We need redundancy in the ‘system’; the treadmill needs to stay in reverse
The economic and financial press is predicting a resurgence in economic growth in 2021. Let’s not get back on that treadmill.
Economic growth stops in our day-to-day choices. Those choices are powerful and must be bold, as there is little time to waste. The poorest and most marginalised cannot easily negotiate their place in the current system, and our planet will not negotiate at all.
It is not enough to simply continue to recycle. We have to stop buying.
* Mark Boyle lived in a caravan for three three years without money (deliberately!) and founded The Freeconomy Community, which has now joined forces with Streetbank. He now lives in an off-grid cabin in Ireland that he built himself. He lives without technology.
Growthbusters is also an interesting website – particularly this podcast: The silver lining of COVID induced recession