"Quality of life rather than forced growth": Three small but powerful words, which provide a key to changing the direction of social development, where our eternal pursuit of 'the most possible' is rather adjusted to the appreciation of 'adequate'.
On a global scale, we are part of the world's upper class. We live in a world of abundance, where we buy, own and throw away far too much. Nevertheless, we strive on, in an eternal rush, where many want more. It is symptomatic that the green shift has become a shopping spree, where environmental problems are sought to be solved through the purchase of new electric cars and other technical gimmicks.
The high consumption leaves a large ecological footprint. If all people on the planet were to live like us, resources would run out. The operations we carry out to ensure sustained, growth-based progress therefore represent a threat to the foundation of our lives. Perhaps the problem can be solved by decoupling growth from its environmentally problematic aspects, but we should in any case take a more fundamental question seriously: What is the point of pushing ourselves further and further? Shall we never get to the point where we think we can flourish without growing?
Some would say that the criticism of growth is class-blind. While the majority would be fine with less, not all are. Therefore, social inequality must be taken seriously when we formulate a vision for a more balanced social development. Those who struggle financially should not bear the heaviest burdens when transitioning to a green future.
At the same time, it is a truth that when the environmental crises grows in scale, it is the disadvantaged who will suffer the most. In this sense, the changeover is of value to everyone, something everyone should therefore take their share of responsibility for. But yes, it is important that we try to reconcile ecological balance with interpersonal balance, where we take care of those who fall outside our self-righteous materialism – while realizing that we all have to slow down a bit, if we are to secure the future of our children and grandson.
The one who flips through The future of Norway, will find a whole chapter on solidarity, diversity and the cohesiveness of society. Here I point out that many climate activists operate with a thin concept of the social. Environmental problems are reduced to a mixture of facts, technology and instrumental solutions, while culture, social structures, institutions, power and politics are overlooked.
Against this, we can formulate a green solidarity that embraces social equalisation, diversity and the intrinsic value of the future – plus nature, animals, yes, life in all its complexity. The nature/human web should be thought of as a whole, where we protect ecosystems, develop renewable energy solutions, create sustainable business development and at the same time ensure both quality of life and social justice.
Good enough is good enough
Topics such as quality of life and solidarity tell us that a greener society is about sea than counteracting the climate crisis and securing natural diversity. We should open ourselves to a profound reflection on why we link so much of our status and identity to money and consumption. Instead of cultivating a policy that says that the good life depends on more and more, we need an alternative life narrative, where our way of life and our responsibility for life on the plant are better balanced.
Are there openings to develop one more ecological culture, where our way of seeing, thinking, living, assessing and choosing is adjusted in a slightly different direction? A culture where more people realize that less is more? Because yes, it is entirely possible to be happy with less. It just requires a willingness to surf less on the surface of consumption.
Some imagined that the experiences with the corona could open a door to the art of limitation. The idea was that the experience of not having unlimited room for action could stimulate resistance, to jump off the spinning carousel, and search for a good life without more and more of everything.
Isn't it reasonably obvious that most people would have a nice life, even with reduced consumption? Research shows that people who live environmentally friendly and toned down rather than submitting to the demand for more of everything are both happier and need less to feel good.
Think of all the things we buy and throw away, all the extensions and improvements we strive for, all the renovation projects we undertake, all the trips we simply have to take. Do we really depend on all this? Those who shrug their shoulders and answer "no" have opened the door to a life with less stress, reduced bank loans, and a quality of life that no longer revolves around always longing for more. The alternative art of living requires that we develop our ability to speak this is good enough.
Approaches to such thoughts can be found in Arne Næss's philosophy, in Erik Dammann's value reflections, as well as in Pope Fran's little book Laudato Si. In a varied way, within a shared landscape, they challenge us to reflect on modern life. The environmental problems are perhaps a consequence of industrialisation, resource extraction and pollution, but the compulsion to grow also has a cultural, ethical and spiritual side. We need to realign our minds so that we recognize that the expectation to have every need satisfied is a cultural compulsion.
Can we become someone other than who we are?
Any biological species tends to spread as much as possible. As mentioned, the special thing about our expansion is that we were able to move beyond our habitat, and thus the conquest extended further than other species. Along the way, the biological impulse has turned into a psychological condition, nurtured in the last couple of centuries by modern culture's craving for growth and progress – where we have increasingly ended up seeing ourselves as conquerors, rulers and consumers.
Although features of ours biology, psychology og culture makes the will to grow strong, there are nevertheless opportunities to shape ourselves in new directions, if we only want to. Here I take the chance to introduce a professional term, namely "subject position". As soon as you understand what the word means, you will see that it is a good vehicle for thought.
We humans have the freedom to choose, but what we strive for will be characterized by the position we stand in when we make our choices of action. Whoever is born as a crown princess must shape herself with the view that she will one day become queen. A similar self-shaping also applies to you and me. Anyone who grows up in a Norwegian, modern reality is expected to find a life goal to seek in the direction of. There are many different roles we can take on, but aren't most of them characterized by an expectation that we should actively contribute to maintaining growth-based progress? It is this vantage point that we are expected to adopt, when we consider our options, choose a life's work and carry out our actions.
Where does this idea come from, and why is it so strong? If we look back to Adam Smith's liberal ideas from the end of the 1700th century, we discover that for him justice and social community were just as important as the mechanisms of the economy. Over time, however, a shift occurred, where the economic field became increasingly focused on "economic man", understood as an enlightened, independent, calculating actor in search of utility maximization.
It may seem that this thought has become entrenched in our culture. From being a professional figure, the economic man has grown to become a model for how we should think, calculate and make decisions – in short; how we should shape ourselves. The position has taken shape through various ideological projects, but it received an additional boost from the 1980s onwards. In the book Social democracy versus neoliberalism I write about this in detail, for those who might want to know more about the neoliberal turn in the shaping of Norwegian and Western society.
We humans tend to focus on the concrete and short-term, with the expectation that the world today will continue along the same track tomorrow. Thus we overlook the moving and unpredictable nature of the world. An instability that has gradually come to threaten us, as the effects of our activities have grown beyond all limits.
Is there still an opportunity to challenge what we have led ourselves into? This is where I find a kind of hope in words like "subject position" and "self-formation". Anyone who realizes that our way of life is shaped by the role we have allowed ourselves to be inserted into, will realize that it is possible to develop other points of view, and thus unlock other possibilities.
We are not only competitors in economic markets, but also social, cooperative beings—and whether we compete or cooperate, we can link our actions to something other than utility maximization. Rather than remaining in a position that threatens ecosystems, we can shape ourselves in new ways, with the aim of adopting a more responsible way of life.
The discussion I have lured you into is not about whether or not green growth is possible. What I am talking about is how we orientate ourselves in life, what we emphasize and what we seek in the direction of. Both as individuals and in a cultural sense, we should examine the possibilities of recalibrating our thoughts, so that we create movement in the direction of a greener societal development, where being is given more value, while having is toned down.
If we adopt such a position, the issue of growth becomes less urgent. Instead, it becomes important to ask how a good life with a good quality of life can be ensured, regardless of whether the economy is growing or not. A certain standard of living and a certain level of welfare are important for how well we feel, but beyond that, our thinking about quality of life should be freed to a greater extent from the economic-political sphere.
Quality of life is about something we experience, individually or together with our loved ones. But it can also embrace something larger, qualities of both the local community and the larger society as a whole. It is also important to realize that we can shape our quality of life, not only by reaching for it, but also by toning down our demands and being satisfied with what we have. Finding the peace of mind to dwell on what we have rather than rushing on to the next experience is in itself a source of well-being.
Anyone who wants to live more in harmony with the natural environment will recognize that the pursuit of short-term benefit and eternal growth cannot define our life choices. Instead, we should practice flourishing and developing along other tracks than via growth-based progress. It requires that we are able to see ourselves as interwoven and encapsulated in the biosphere, and thus also recognize that our self-shaping should be about more than the eternal pursuit of utility maximization. In this way, in the space between politics and economics, we can wedge in the foundations for a more ecologically responsible culture, where the idea that man stands above nature, and therefore has the right to extract as much resources as we wish, is toned down.
Does the change come from below or from above?
Will changes be created from above, through political decisions or economic decisions – or can the culture be adjusted from below, through us living differently, acquiring other values, arguing in new ways and creating good role models for others?
We know that our way of life develops over time, where certain traits become fixed and taken for granted. Creating change is therefore challenging, but it would be wrong to believe that culture is static. Impulses for change can arise from several quarters. When someone chooses to reduce their consumption, eat less meat, build eco-villages and energy-efficient detached houses, establish small and large contributions to a more circular economy, they can stimulate the rest of us to stop and think about our life choices.
We look at the rise of Norwegian environmental policy – presented in Kristin Asdal's thought-provoking book The nature of politics, the politics of nature – we will discover that resistance, criticism, commitment and activism influenced how both researchers, politicians and economic actors viewed the natural environment. In the course of a few decades, we came to see the world with greener eyes. New objects, new fields and new institutions were established, with the effect that the environment went from being something no one wanted to talk about, to becoming a framework everyone had to pay attention to.
I find inspiration in this. Of course, we are able to develop a broader way of thinking around quality of life and what it means to live good lives. It is only a matter of opening up the opportunity to think along other lines, to shape ourselves in new ways, and thus also shape a greener society.
The text is published with
permission from the publisher Solumbokvennen and author of Green Manifesto.
This is kchapter 5 in its entirety.