Growth, Happiness and Diminishing Marginal Utility

Section
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
Page
3.4

Age economics’ journalist, Leon Gettler, nicely introduces the topic, below. He explores why “Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have become richer, their people are no happier than they were 50 years ago. In the same period, average incomes have more than doubled, we have more food and cars, bigger houses, central heating, better health, a shorter working week and more people take overseas holidays.”

(Gettler, L. 2007. The Age. April 18th)

Putting aside the very real difficulty that happiness is an extremely elusive quality and concept, making measurement, evaluation and comparison almost impossible, the article doesn’t really surprise, as our lived experience tells us that, by and large, the richer people we know aren’t happier than the poorer people we know (excluding, of course, the very grim reality of deep, grinding poverty), and people who have got richer through their lifetime, sometimes markedly so, don’t appear to be any happier; in fact, the opposite seems to be often the case. To use the language of the previous webpage – 3.3 – happiness seems to be largely ‘de-coupled’ from wealth/growth/consumption, so why is this so and why, then, do we pursue this path so relentlessly?

Gettler suggests that the complex psychology of the human being obstructs a nice, neat 1:1 relationship between growth/wealth and happiness through a variety of means, such as inability to focus, recall and clarify what happiness was and is, an inability to block the endless small ‘negatives’ in our lives, and the propensity to project the present onto the future. (Most important, of course, although it is not mentioned directly, is that happiness is made up largely of actions and feelings, like love, that have nothing to do with growth and consumption).

What he does touch on, most importantly, is utility, particularly declining marginal utility: “Each time we have a pleasurable experience, we adapt to it quickly so that experience yields less pleasure every time. ‘Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility and the rest of us call it marriage’1.

Diminishing (or ‘declining’) marginal (and total) utility can be most clearly demonstrated graphically:

(Tukioka Clinic. April 6th, 2019)

 

(Atlas Obscura. 2017. Jeremy Bentham – embalmed)

It is a simple idea, or ‘law’, that we all can relate to. The horizontal axis represents units of consumption – it can be anything: water, shoes, drugs, or in this case, tacos – and the vertical axis represents ‘utility’ (unit is ‘utils’). Utility means ‘worth’, ‘happiness’, ‘value’, ‘pleasure’, ‘wants’ of humans. This ‘unit’ was originally developed by the famous and eccentric polymath Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was expounded upon by John Stuart Mill who has already been extensively mentioned in T10. Note: Bentham’s ‘extreme’ utilitarianism led him to decree that upon his death his body should be made useful to science and education by insisting that it be publicly dissected and studied and thereafter preserved as an ‘auto-icon’ (a sort of mannequin) in a glass box that is still on display at University College London. Here he is:

Back to Diminishing Marginal Utility, the graph takes, at random, an item of consumption – a taco – and plots its utility as more and more is consumed. Initially, and especially if hungry, the utility gains are high, but as each subsequent taco is consumed these gains diminish, until by, say, the fourth or fifth taco the gains have flattened out, and by the sixth, they are becoming negative (you are feeling sick). This relationship can be seen at both the individual item level, or the collective level, and I think it is particularly instructive at this latter level where we can think of growth and consumption of whole countries or groups of nations. It is not much of a stretch to position the First World at the top of the utility curve where most or all our basic needs have been met, significant utility has been gained, but now it has flattened out as no matter what we consume it adds little to our utility, and even is reducing our utility as we overcrowd, overwork and degrade our environment. By contrast, the Third or Developing World can be envisaged at the lower levels of the curve where many basic needs have not yet been met and addition of each will bring significant utility gains.

This, at first pass, gives hope that we can ‘see’ and experience limits and negative consequences, and reduce our growth and consumption accordingly. But, as a whole, we don’t – why?

Somehow, we have divorced ourselves, in the First World particularly, from Diminishing Marginal Utility and told ourselves that the graph is 1:1: upwards and linear, ad infinitum. Partly this is due to blinkered self-absorption and narcissism, whereby we separate our individual demands for more from the collective negative impact, asserting all the time: ‘what harm can it do, just a little bit more of this and that…’ We have also displaced a lot of negative collective impacts in time and space, such as climate change, to future generations to deal with, or particulate air pollution – from materials processing – to the Third World to deal with.

Additionally, and most powerfully, we now have the global religion and god telling us, literally thousands of times a day (estimates vary of between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements/day1 for the average American!), that growth and consumption is good, vital, necessary, meaningful; the very essence of existence. While part of our brain may tell us that we don’t need more, we really don’t want more and this excessive growth and consumption is some form of addiction ruining our society and environment; advertising, fashion and technology are telling us the precise opposite: buy the new, the shiny, the exciting, the affirming good or experience and you will be happy, successful, love and be loved, accepted, and enter into a kind of grace of consumptive self-actualisation. This has completely over-ridden the off switch of Diminishing Marginal Utility, though it lives on in shadow form in modern consumptive behaviour whereby, just like the addict, the consumer must engage in ever more desperate, excessive and hard-core consumption to gain the same utility ‘hit’. (Think obesity, bathrooms, cars, watches, drugs, phones, etc…etc…).

1 https://www.redcrowmarketing.com/2015/09/10/many-ads-see-one-day/

Explore Other Replace the God of Growth with the God of Quality

3.1 Introduction

“The ‘economy’ became a god such as never before, and a happy, successful society was one that could please this god – sometimes by sacrificing beautiful things, to keep the deity from getting angry and harming people by withdrawing favours. And, ...

3.2 Sustainability

“Sustainable development – development that is likely to achieve lasting satisfaction of human needs and improvement of the quality of human life.” (Allen, R. 1980. Summarising the World Conservation Strategy1)   “Developm...

3.3 De-coupling Growth from Environmental Impact

After sustainability, the second and more recent prop for eternal growth, has been the notion of ‘de-coupling’; that growth does not, or need not, lead to environmental impact. Below are three responses to this assertion, starting with Ross Gittin...

3.4 Growth, Happiness and Diminishing Marginal Utility

Age economics’ journalist, Leon Gettler, nicely introduces the topic, below. He explores why “Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have become richer, their people are no happier than they were 50 years ago. In ...

3.5 The Slow City Movement

3.1-3.3 concentrated on our growth obsession and how it has been fostered and bolstered. 3.4 begun to undermine its hegemony with questions about its links, or lack thereof, to happiness and wellbeing, and now it’s time to turn our attention to an...

3.6 The Slow Food Movement

The Slow Food movement got underway before the Slow City movement and thus is, perhaps, more developed at this stage than the latter. Their website is a mine of information and they offer a range of services, networks and chapters. For instance: ...

3.7 The Slow Fashion Movement

Slow fashion is a more recent development than Slow Food and Slow Cities, but is based on the same idea – quality, not growth (quantity). The term arose in 2007 when textile consultant and author Kate Fletcher shone a light on the issue in The Eco...

3.8 Arts and Crafts and Artisan Movements

In many ways the modern ‘slow’ movements can be said to have come out of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which in turn had roots in medieval craft guilds. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London...

3.9 Hooked on Growth

Dave Gardner is the perfect heretic: softly-spoken, mild-mannered, unflappable and with a sense of humour; very hard to demonise and marginalise as ‘crazy’, ‘eccentric’, ‘dangerous’, ‘racist’, or ‘anti-people’. Heretics are, at best, dismissed - a...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
1/11

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

In a supposedly secular age there has arisen a global religion and god like never before, a religion whose reach and power makes every other belief system before it seem pitiful and insignificant: ...
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...