After the Gold Rush, the first book published under the auspices of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, one of Britain's leading research groups, argues that unless the West can rethink its attitude to consumerism and free itself from an 'obsession with shopping', it faces deepening inequalities, persistent high unemployment and growing environmental damage.
The book, written by Stewart Lansley on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the centre, argues that the consumer dream has turned sour partly through failure to deliver the gains it promised and partly because it has degenerated into a rat-race. The growth in affluence and materialism has 'contributed to its own undoing'.
In the first half of the post- war era, the building of a cohesive society was a central objective. But since the 1970s, income inequalities throughout the West have widened, unemployment has grown, welfare systems have been dismantled and an underclass of the young, the poor and the unemployed has arisen.
The culprit, the book says, is the philosophy of 'competitive individualism' which expresses itself through material consumption and is hostile to policies seeking to redistribute wealth.
'Surveys may show that people would prefer to live in a caring, more co-operatively organised environment but that sort of society seems increasingly elusive. The trends of consumerism, of greater self-reliance, of corporate culture, of an increasingly privatised system of welfare are all pulling in the same direction - towards more competitive and divided ways of operating and living.'
Consumers seek status and identity through the goods they buy - expensive trainers, for instance - which help to distinguish them from others. This has created a 'leap-frogging' culture and turned consumption into a vicious cycle: hence the paradox that people 'do not feel better off despite increases in material living standards'.
Research for the European Commission has shown that rising incomes has not increased people's satisfaction with their lives. One reason is the greater costs of affluence - more time is taken up with work or consumption, for example. Affluence and inequality also combine to produce more crime - hence the growth in 'defensive spending' on crime protection.
All developed countries have been affected, although some - Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Japan and Sweden, for example - have been more successful at maintaining consensus and keeping consumer expectations in line with economic capacity.
The environmental implications of rising consumption are stark. To bring the world up to the average standards of the richer nations over the next 60 years while allowing a modest 2 per cent annual increase in consumption would mean a 160-fold increase in consumption per head. The alternatives are reduced population growth, restriction of consumption in the developed world or increasing the North-South divide.
Mr Lansley says there is evidence of a 'gnawing unease' with the consumerism of the 1980s but desire for more products has so far 'not reached anything like a peak' and is exacerbated by governments making promises of growth which they are increasingly unable to fulfil.
A more successful politics would encourage 'co-operative individualism' in which electorates are made aware of the limits and costs of consumption-led growth. The more likely future however, is 'a downward spiral . . . an era of prolonged tension, upheaval, instability and ever- widening divisions.'
After the Gold Rush - The Trouble With Affluence: Consumer Capitalism and the Way Forward; Stewart Lansley/Henley Centre; Century Books; pounds 20.
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