Sustainable development is the central challenge of the 21st Century yet it is poorly understood. It is commonly thought of as conservation of the natural systems that human society depends on. We are told that capitalism is the problem because it feeds our self-interest and that governments must regulate our behavior to prevent us consuming nature. This book shows that there is a more enjoyable path to sustainable development.
What is missing in most discussions of sustainable development is the task of improving human lives. It is commonly presumed that this means increasing national income. Yet research has shown that in the rich countries the relationship between income and happiness is weak, that consumption does not make us happy, and that occasional bouts of happiness do not add up to an enjoyable life. The rich are only marginally happier than the middle-classes because we all have been trained by modern capitalism to seek happiness through excessive consumption on a happiness treadmill. Only constant fixes of more and more ‘stuff’ can make us happy and then only temporarily; we always need more. And the perpetual pursuit of – and constant failure to find – happiness through working and spending is consuming the planet. So we are told we must be forced to consume better or less to sustain development.
Because human systems are complex and unpredictable, governments cannot do this. They cannot solve much simpler social problems and prevent recessions and depressions, eradicate hunger or poverty, guarantee employment or affordable health care, or ensure peace and security. Using theories of complex adaptive systems developed from the natural sciences, this book explains why sustainable development – increasing human enjoyment while conserving the environment – cannot be created by governments from the top-down. Sustainability is not just another policy problem; it is a matter of changing the social paradigm from the bottom up.
For this everyone needs to learn the most valuable lesson of capitalism: to seek their personal self-interest, what is good for them. But this is not the self-interest that you indulge in the mall with shopping therapy. Positive psychology has shown that a truly enjoyable life comes from the pursuit of well-being that is a complete engagement with life by developing as far as possible our personal talents and abilities. Our psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are laid waste by ‘getting and spending’ in a competitive society. And an enjoyable life needs less consumption.
Two questions remain. First, how might it be possible to teach people how to find true enjoyment in the pursuit of well-being? This book shows how this might emerge with a social marketing campaign that uses progressive commitments within small social groups to enforce positive deviances from normal patterns of consumption. We can begin to learn how to manage our lives for enjoyment rather than accumulation by gaining financial management skills, avoiding most debts, and knowing the difference between needs – that we must have – and the unnecessary wants that marketers try to make us indulge.
If these lessons were well learned and people consumed much less as they enjoyed their lives in the pursuit of well-being, what would become of modern capitalism that thrives on constant economic growth driven by consumerism? Would it collapse into a permanent depression of falling demand and deflation? Because society is a complex system, no prediction is reliable and chaotic changes may always intrude. However, this book argues that if business and government react intelligently to the public’s changing demands, capitalism may be sustained but in a modified form. Capitalism continue and would sustain development if most of us pursued our personal well-being.