We say we want to maintain quality of life while using far fewer natural resources. That has huge ramifications. How can it be done? A sub-question is what quality of life might mean in this new context. Recently a session of the Compression dialog group explored that topic.
Quality of life has many interpretations and measurements, as can be seen from a Google session on the subject. The United Nations’ global framework covers the basics of physical living and social justice. Go to the micro level, and for example for those near death quality of life is no longer abstract statistics. It’s immediate and intensely personal.
How can we separate quality of life from prolific consumption? Statistically, all mature industrial economies have had rising GNP to energy ratios over the past 40 years. They are growing GNP using less energy. That’s the right direction, but still falls short. Total global energy consumption continues to rise by about 1% a year. It is not only big corporations who have to worry about how much energy they consume, but it is also important in the household as well. If you are worried about how much you are paying for the amount of energy you use at home, you can always look into a site like Simply Switch, who can help you find a cheaper provider and the latest deals around to save money. Chinese and Indian growth outstrips declines in more mature economies. And for example, the percentage of aluminum recycled is growing steadily, but production from ore, again led by China, keeps setting new records.
Something more is needed, and we tend to blame the producers in a tangled global knot. How much energy and raw materials used in China feeds consumption in markets like the United States? If consumers stop consuming, producers stop producing. By definition that’s total economic collapse, very fearful if we can’t imagine what comes after.
We don’t even have common terminology to visualize quality of life based on a different system and a different worldview of human priorities. For instance, the connection between quality of life and GNP is shaky. Nonsensical quirks in GNP models are well known; for example, rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy added to GNP. However, the GNP model adds up two ways like a spreadsheet. Its internal consistency is appealing. Economists realize that a closed system GNP model that omits much that is important, but open-ended alternatives like the Genuine Progress Indicator draw little attention. They are not nice, tight frameworks. Getting off that bias is a mindset change.
Of course, if health, food, clothing, and shelter are inadequate to survive, life is miserable – and probably short. But once basic physical needs are met, quality of life migrates from basic consumption toward the experience of living. Enjoying the experience may not take much except an appreciation of the world around you. Or in the developed world, we may be conditioned to think that we must have and use a lot in order to be “happy.”
Surveys reveal that many of us have an urge to serve others, and that provides quality in their lives. For them money is not an obsessive motivator. However, money motivates business. A core belief, codified in the business system structure, is that a business exists to make money. Blindly flowing that belief and maximizing sales to make money promotes consumption. Even weight loss businesses promote consumption – just not of food in quantity. Related beliefs keep piling on, for instance that higher pay attracts superior talent, and as a reward, demonstrated talent deserves to consume more.
Consumption is baked into our culture and economic system. We need jobs. Why? We need money. Why? Money buys stuff to consume, necessities plus much more.
Changing ourselves to promote quality of life while consuming much less is so huge that few of us in business can imagine any version of this new kind of world. For that reason, most environmental initiatives in business merely trim existing business models. Doing more than that poses seemingly unmanageable risks to cash flow.
Therefore environmental change initiatives gaining traction target communities and districts. There a lot of factors come together. There the end point of a great deal of consumption takes place. Change that, and in due course, business thinking has to come along. We have to build a fundamentally different system from the ground up based on different beliefs. Techniques to conserve resources are known. Many more can be developed, but the key is the will to use them. And that implies development of a much more consumption-free concept of quality of life.
So what does quality of life mean to you personally? Does it depend on how much you consume? What word or phrase connotes quality of life to you? Well-being? Happiness? Life satisfaction? Inner peace? Intrinsic growth? Graceful adaptation? (All these are phrases that someone used in the Compression dialog session.)
Descriptors being used at the community level are resilience and self-reliance. Can the community withstand and emerge stronger from almost any change or disaster? No one is proposing to revert to the isolation of many areas 200 or more years ago. Then a crop failure often meant starvation. The Irish Potato Famine was one of the last of these debacles. We have to do much better than that, but also not be dependent on a factory on the other side of the world, and be helpless if it is destroyed.
One way to describe this new kind of culture, in business and otherwise, is that it is capable of identifying, anticipating, and overcoming all kinds of problems in very short order. It is a true vigorous learning culture, not a culture of consumers in “learned helplessness.”