To achieve a steady state economy, we must first conquer what I will call status competition. What I mean by status competition is the social pressure placed upon individuals to possess certain items to indicate that they are successful, wealthy, appealing, intelligent, creative, and so on. As humans we do this sometimes subconsciously, because we attach status-associations to certain objects.
For instance, when I was shopping for a new home last year, many kitchens in desirable homes have granite countertops. Clearly, this is a luxury item, but what does it indicate? First of all, it indicates prosperity; additionally, one might look at a kitchen with a granite countertop and associate the owner with dinner parties, social connections, and fine dining. Now, despite the aesthetic appeal of granite surfaces, it does not actually help its owner make better food, or make more friends. The benefits to the object, beyond aesthetics, are purely the significations placed upon it by society.
Now, sometimes we crave material objects that appear to make our lives richer. The new iPhone is a perfect example. The advertisements feature users video chatting during important life moments, using visual communication; a wife tells her husband that she is pregnant, but not in so many words, and a father convinces his daughter to show him her new braces. The commercials are appealing; my wife was won over immediately. However, I have several friends that have perfectly good 3rd generation iPhones, trading in for the 4th generation model. Apparently, they do not understand the resources involved in making these phones. The 3rd generation iPhone is a device that provides incredible utility; 10 years ago it would have appeared cutting edge, and 50 years ago it would have appeared as a prop from a science fiction film. Yet, for some of its owners, it is not enough. Does it make sense for an object as resource intensive as a Smartphone to be useful for only a few years? Can we sustain that into the future, especially given concerns over diminishing resources, and the problematic sources of many of those resources?
However, a bigger question might be whether that iPhone or granite countertop does anything to give their owners intrinsic satisfaction. Given the wealth required to purchase those items, does the sacrifice of that wealth (and the work time to earn that wealth) help people become more affiliated in their communities, or become truly happier? What if instead of a granite countertop and an iPhone, those people had the option of a four-day workweek?
In his 1982 essay, “The Living Standard,”
Amartya Sen argues that:
“Absolute deprivation in the space of capabilities (such as whether one can appear in public without shame) may follow from relative depravation in the space of commodities (such as whether one possesses what others do)… Some of the apparent conflicts in defining poverty (the “relative” versus the “absolute” views) may be avoided by seeing living standards in terms of capabilities and assessing the value of commodity possession in terms of contribution to capabilities and freedom.”
In the light of Sen’s point, it is clear that status competitions can diminish happiness. Our lives today are full of material objects, and yet they do not necessarily make us happier. Those of us lucky enough to have careers work longer hours, and we are bombarded with manipulative commercial advertisements that aid and abet these status competitions. However, until we can begin the process of decoupling the material objects in our life from the emotional meanings we give them, the need for material objects will be exponential – we will never be able to achieve satisfaction. More importantly, we will never be able to achieve the steady state economy that Herman Daly advocates until we are able to concentrate more on utility and satisfaction, and less on appearance and accumulation.