A high level of inequality drives the pursuit of status, and the pursuit of status is one of the drivers of environmentally destructive consumerism. (Photo: Creative Commons)
Moving to a society that works for people and the rest of nature means freeing people from the attractions that bind them to a need for more.
Is it possible to to build a society in which people have enough to live well and also feel they have enough? Or are we doomed as a species to stay on the hedonic treadmill that makes us want more consumer goods, even if we destroy nature to get those things? Are we doomed to be miserable when trying to make ourselves happy?
In his book Happiness: Lessons from a new Science, Richard Layard argues that a society with more affluence beyond a very low level of basic needs, which is $ 10,000 a year worldwide, is no more happy than a society with less. The things that have the greatest impact on happiness are health, the security of having nutritious food, housing, and the things one needs to participate in and the life of the society in which one lives Certainty that there will be a care system when someone is old.
The fight for policies that increase wages, tax the rich, question racial differences and lead to greater equality must be a central part of our work to build a just and sustainable society.
The happiness literature agrees that societies with high levels of inequality are less fortunate than those with more. The United States, a very wealthy and highly stratified society, has the same average happiness level as Costa Rica, a country with much less inequality and much less wealth per capital. Costa Rica also has much lower greenhouse gas emissions per capita. In a society with high inequality, the front runners are generally happier on average than those below. Other research has shown that status anxiety or concern about one’s own place in society is higher in a very unequal society even among the front runners than among the lower in relatively egalitarian societies. Since life in a society with high inequality is an essential driver of the human desire for more, an essential part of our work for a world in which we can all live well must be aimed at building a socially just society with a high level of equality.
In a society with high inequality, having more makes, on average, happier than someone who has less. But that’s not that more things make you happier. Rather, in a stratified society, having more stuff than others makes you happier than them. People are not naturally driven to look for more things. They are driven to feel good, and in an unequal society where status depends on having more than the next person, we find ourselves on a treadmill of destruction to use our resources in ways that status fear does who nourishes people and at the same time enriches those who benefit from it. A high level of inequality drives the pursuit of status, and the pursuit of status is one of the drivers of environmentally destructive consumerism.
Combating inequality is therefore a crucial step in building a sustainable society. In The Spirit Level: Why Great Equality Makes Stronger, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson make a very compelling argument, backed by strong empirical evidence, that inequality is a leading cause of many forms of social dysfunction. They argue that societies with higher levels of inequality have poorer social outcomes on many measures of social well-being. Her examples include mental health, incarceration rates, mortality, educational attainment, teenage pregnancies, lower social mobility, and more.
They find that the negative impacts not only affect the poor or society on average, but the wealthy in unequal countries also perform worse on these measures. They also argue that the negative effects of inequality are one of the major drivers of a wide variety of poor social outcomes. They argue that some countries have a tendency to do well in almost everything and others to do badly. You can predict a country’s performance on one outcome from knowing others. For example, if a country does badly, it is safe to predict that it will also incarcerate a larger portion of its population, have more teenage pregnancies, lower literacy, more obesity, poorer mental health, and so on. Inequality appears to make countries socially dysfunctional on a variety of outcomes.
In modern societies with high levels of inequality, people have become very self-conscious, obsessed with how we appear to others, are afraid that we may appear unattractive, boring, stupid or whatever, and are constantly trying to deal with the impressions, that we do. And at the center of our interactions with strangers is concern about the social judgments and evaluations they make of me: How do they rate us, have we presented ourselves well? This vulnerability is part of the modern psychological state that flows directly into consumption.
Greater inequality appears to increase people’s fear of social valuation by increasing the importance of social status. Rather than accepting each other as equals on the basis of our shared humanity, as we might do in more equitable environments, it becomes more important to measure each other as the differences in status increase. We come to believe that social position is a more important characteristic of a person’s identity.
They also argue that once a society shows high levels of inequality, the level of trust falls and this leads to more distrust, which then leads to support for policies that lead to more inequality because “mistrust and inequality are mutually reinforcing” .
In Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy, Robert H. Frank argues that in highly unequal consumer societies we are driven to conspicuous consumption because it benefits the individual even if it is bad for society. He claims, “smart for one and stupid for all”. A nice example he cites is a city on a highway lane with no signage regulations. Every business will compete to have bigger, brighter signs in order to get more customers. But if the city had a law that limited the size of the signs, everyone would be better off. The city looks better and the shopkeepers aren’t forced to waste money on huge signs. In a stratified society, individuals become happier when they have more than others. But more inequality in a society leads to less happiness.
In the US, the size of homes doubled between 1970 and 2010, but satisfaction levels have stayed the same. There is a dramatic and devastating shortage of housing for low and middle income people. There was a time when we as a society invested in building housing for people who did not have much wealth or income. There were hotels with single occupancy, government-subsidized apartment complexes, and many contractors building small houses. Over the past 50 years we have shifted from policies that argued that the government must solve problems to a neoliberal and racist view that argues that people who are not doing well are only their own fault. And so these modest forms of living are no longer being built. We are accelerating the creation of McMansions with tremendous social resources while millions of people are housed in precarious housing or not.
As long as people think they need a big house and a fancy car to feel socially successful, they will continue to vote for politicians who promise to give them these things and will keep making them want more. We need to change the social context that fuels this avarice. The biggest policy change that will slow down the hedonic treadmill is to enact measures like taxing the rich that reduce inequality.
What seemed impossible just a few years ago is now on the national agenda. Many politicians and social movements are working to regulate monopolies, eliminate tax havens, and reform tax laws to tax the rich and corporations. None of the actions needed to tackle inequality are easy to achieve, and yet they are not pipe dreams either. Efforts to reduce inequality have been tried and won and lost and won over time. One of the first acts of the incoming Biden presidency was to give low-income families an income tax credit. This step has single-handedly led millions of people out of poverty. The types of movements that have resulted in nationwide changes in inequality are generally the result of years of organizing. The work of the labor movement to raise the minimum wage and unionize the Amazon camps should be seen as part of the struggle for a sustainable society.
The climate crisis calls for urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. This will be very difficult to achieve and will be made more difficult in a society that is so unequal that people do not trust each other and where they feel driven to ever higher consumption habits in order to feel socially successful. When important social decisions are driven by insatiability and profit, it leads to environmental degradation, poverty and low happiness levels.
Moving to a society that works for people and the rest of nature means freeing people from the attractions that connect them to a need for more. The fight for policies that increase wages, tax the rich, question racial differences and lead to greater equality must be a central part of our work to build a just and sustainable society. Environmental sustainability and social sustainability are closely related parts of the same struggle.
Crossposted with permission from Common Dreams