In 2008, the Governor of the Bank of England warned that “the 'nice' decade was over. Mervyn King was referring to the concept of 'non-inflationary consistent expansion'. In other words, the idea that standards of living would continue to rise and that there would be no adverse consequences now had to be faced for the illusion it was.
As we enter years of austerity with the prospect that the UK economy will only return to its 2008 level by 2014 at the earliest, it seems timely to take a look at the the largely unquestioned idea that economic growth is the only measure of success. Long before the credit crunch and the banking collapse of 2008, there was a general consensus that ever rising growth boosts national wealth and morale and that failure to grow must inevitably mean recession and gloom.
This view is so deeply entrenched that it has become difficult to argue that there may be positive outcomes to the downturn if we can be determined enough to show government and finance that these problems will not be solved by retaining the same thinking and attitudes which caused them in the first place. A redistributive and sustainable economy which would share out our GDP among more people, so reducing hostility and enabling a higher sense of well-being, is possible, but it will require some radical self-examination and questioning of long-held assumptions from a lot of people.
The boom years drove top pay levels so high that in the words of TUC General Secretary Brendan
Barber, “a super-rich elite have been allowed to float free of the rest of us”. The level of public anger at the excesses of boardroom pay and bankers' bonuses is entirely justified, but there is a danger that this will turn our eyes away from expectations in other areas of society which are no longer going to be sustainable. The politicians' trope of “the squeezed middle” is not helpful. Apparently covering incomes across a spectrum from just above poverty levels to well into the higher tax bracket, the catch-all phrase encourages many who are by no stretch of the imagination badly off, to feel themselves unfairly treated.
Those struggling under a genuine burden of poverty must receive a more just share of GDP if society is to cohere and we are to find a balanced future. Far too many of our fellow citizens really cannot afford to 'eat and heat'. Others have no hope of ever owning their own home or of renting with security. The formative experiences of millions of children is one of exclusion from the shared social, civic and recreational experiences many of us take for granted. But there are sufficient resources to give these families and individuals modest decency if we only have the will to do so.
The supposed privations of the reasonably comfortable are a reminder of how much transformative thinking is yet to be done if we are to create a society which is sustainable, not only in terms of justice for its poorer members, but also of living within the planet's resources. It is easy to point out the blinkered nature of the world view of those who think that downgrading their Sky package or eating out less often is evidence of hardship, but to criticise without encouraging consideration of an alternative approach is not likely to make much difference.
Rock bottom growth offers us the opportunity to stop hankering after unrealistic levels of growth and to look at means of improving our quality of life with diminished resources. Learning to cultivate contentment may take time but it would be both rational and moral to strive to do so.
Leisure time oriented more towards developing personal resources - the creativity of reading, music and craft work, the benefits of volunteering, walking more and driving less, of growing more of our own food and of generally learning that a valuable and fulfilled life is not dependent on the quantity of our consumer goods - would make us happier in the long term. It would also play a part in reducing the disfiguring inequalities which currently put any hope of personal and social flourishing beyond the reach of the genuinely poor.
High GDP unequally shared does not make for well-being. Its unquestioning pursuit has led us into a blind alley of injustice and environmental destruction. It is surely time for us to consider more rational means of using what we have and curbing some of our acquisitive instincts.
Wisdom speaks to wisdom across centuries and cultures. So I will make no apology for placing Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living” next to Quaker Advices and Queries: “the simple life, freely chosen, is a source of strength.” It could be time to 'occupy' ourselves.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen