A View From the Understory - July 2021

A View From the Understory -  July  2021

Let’s shun the Selfish Society

In 2008, the New Economics Foundation (1) drew together psychological data from many sources to help define the human actions that promote well-being. They declared the most significant of these to be; connecting to the people around us, being active in our bodies, taking notice of the world, learning new skills and giving to others.


I’m old enough to remember when these qualities were not exceptional but found in most human beings and constituted most of what it was that we did in any given day. It was an era in which we were called citizens not consumers, we lived in a society not an economy we had a life not a life-style and time was a resource not a commodity.

The post Second World-War “Great Acceleration” had just begun. Slick PR-men with new sales psychology showed us more and more shiny things. Before we knew it we found ourselves nudged into an ever increasing desire for more and more things. The market-place expanded well past needs to wants. Neo-Liberal economists and ardent policy-makers drove the economy endlessly on to maintain and enhance our lifestyles until we became addicted to growth and our own excesses. The new mantra; economic growth. We are all culpable in this.

Seventy years on some of us in western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic (weird) countries have reached a state of extraordinary material abundance. Unsurprisingly along the way the natural world has been damaged critically as a result of this. But perhaps also unsurprisingly is that as a result of this growth-glut, many of us it appears are suffering as well from a sense of what has been described as emotional deprivation. In fact in her book The Selfish Society, Sue Gerhardt writes that “many people are chronically deprived of what really matters”. Lets analyze these two critical conditions.

In 2009, Stockholm Resilience Centre Director Johan Rockström and Australian ecologist Will Steffen identified nine Earth-system Pressure Points including Climate Change, Ocean Acidification, Biodiversity Loss and Chemical Pollution, which impact on planetary health and survival and subsequently devised nine ecological planetary boundaries that should not be crossed. Only one of those pressure points, Ozone Layer Depletion, is improving with time. Two others, Air Pollution and Chemical Pollution, have yet to receive boundaries around which all can agree. Most of the other six are all beyond their safe boundaries and worsening or intensifying annually. The most critical are Nitrogen and Phosphorous Loading. These two naturally based chemicals are used for agriculture and alarmingly our industrial approach to this process has pushed them both to more than 100% over their limits. Put simply our actions of the last seventy years in particular have pushed our planet to the point of collapse.

So there better be a good reason for such detrimental behaviour. A lot of species have gone to the wall so that we human beings could get our equation right. At the very least universal equality surely has been achieved. So how does it look.

Well it’s not good. For the minority of human beings not obviously the victims of inequality, war, despots or poverty and not refugees from their homes or falling foul of the effects of climate change (fire, super-cyclones, flash-drought, rising sea-levels) it appears that measurable levels of happiness have plummeted even as excess is sky-rocketing. It seems that many people now aspire to something more than just possessions. We have realized that the instant gratification of consumerism was all along just disguising a poverty of spirit.

In a better version of our world human beings would inspire to the art of living rather than being obsessed with the act of moving upwards, a healthy economy would be designed to thrive not grow and to incentivize happiness, fun and wellbeing, over profits, resource gouging and wealth accumulation, governments would aim to help us by striving to nurture and promote good social outcomes rather than bulldozing through the desires of vested interests and the other species on earth would breathe a sigh of relief.

If ever there was a time to strive for a better world surely it is now. We as individuals need to act first to bring our perceptions closer to those five actions that promote wellbeing. Those moving ahead can help others with their struggle. We could all be culpable in this.

(1) Aked, J. et al. (2008) Five Ways to Wellbeing: The Evidence. London: New Economics Foundation.

This article was first published in The July 2021 Kuranda Paper #333.