Beyond Material Concerns

Here at last we have arrived at what appears to be a core misconception in the heart of the industrial economy. By basing itself on a narrow concept of self-interest translated in terms of economic wealth and the possession of material goods, modern society has accepted a kind of poisoned chalice. Offering sanctity of choice, fulfilment of our desires, and the greater good of our fellow human beings, it has delivered environmental destruction, economic instability and new, alarming kinds of poverty: poverty of identity, poverty of community,17 and poverty of spirit.18 As Lewis Herber remarked, we have reached 'a degree of anonymity, social atomization and spiritual isolation that is virtually unprecedented in human history'.19

What characterises the development of the industrial economy, and perpetuates the myth of the success of the consumer society, is the assumption that all human needs can be satisfied through material goods. Accepting the existence of fundamentally non-material needs shatters that myth. But the prognosis for the future is brightened.

Traditionally, the struggle for sustainable development has been perceived as a conflict between environmental quality and human welfare. This is the dilemma with which I started out in Chapter 1, and which we have revisited continually throughout this book. But the concept of human welfare which has brought us to this dilemma has been too narrow: our vision of self-interest has been a misleading one.

The system we have constructed to satisfy our needs has led us astray: an economy profligate of material resources, an environment degraded by material emissions, and lives overburdened by material concerns. From within the darkness of this position appears the light of a new conception: a society which addresses itself anew to the complex question of satisfying needs; an economy which does not degrade the environment in which it must survive.

In this book we have only glimpsed at the possibility of this emerging vision. Moving towards it will be no simple task. Our culture has chosen a very specific development path. Its attempts to meet our underlying needs have potentially devastating material implications. How many of these attempts are fundamentally flawed? How much of the material throughput associated with them represents pseudosatisfiers, inhibitors and violators? How many of these needs could be met in less materially intensive fashion? How many of them could be met in entirely nonmaterial ways?

We do not yet know the answers to these questions because we have not been accustomed to addressing them. But we do not have to accept these features as immutable consequences of the physical world. They are choices. These choices are now embedded in powerful institutions and complex social frameworks. But they are nevertheless choices. We cannot change the laws of thermodynamics. But we can influence and exercise cultural choice. And this strategy may well provide us with the most significant and extensive opportunities for dematerialisation that we could hope to find.

Most importantly, we do not need to perceive new choices as a threat to our economic or physical survival. On the contrary, if we have the courage and the wit to devise a society in which non-material needs are once again recognised, and appropriately addressed, we can only expect to improve the quality of our lives.

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