Staff shortages in the Netherlands have become so acute that at the national airport and in bars and restaurants we need to be prepared for agonisingly long waits. In addition, shortages of energy, water, space, people, food, houses, and motorways are looming. All true, and probably also in other European countries. And so our response is: we need more!
But when you stop and think about it, it is an odd sort of reaction. Because this is not about shortages. In our part of the world, absolute poverty or large-scale degrading conditions do not exist. So what causes this Pavlovian response of always saying we need more?
We are stuck on the thought that ‘more’ (that is: more economic activity) equals more prosperity. But economic theory does not support this at all. Because if, in addition to the activities that give us pleasure - from long-distance holidays and buying clothes to eating - we also take into account the damage that this consumption causes, the picture soon changes. If the negative ecological and social effects of our consumption behaviour were taken into account, the economy would have already stopped growing.
We would then even find that in the long run, less economic activity would actually make us more prosperous. More leisure time, less obesity due to overconsumption, lower carbon emissions, lower nitrogen emissions and lower loss of biodiversity. Or, to paint a more urgent picture: no collapsing ecosystems that we humans depend upon.
Let’s change things fundamentally around. What if we were to accept the physical boundaries as our point of departure and let the economy operate within those boundaries? This would mean accepting that we must not mine more commodities, that it is not sensible to bring in more migrant workers for the sake of more economic activity and that we must recognise that carbon emissions need to be reduced.
We must aim to make the cake bigger, not necessarily in terms of economic activity, but rather in terms of (broad) prosperity. Price stimuli, innovation and market forces will remain as relevant as ever and will continue to drive prosperity. But within strict boundaries. That is possible. In fact, it has been done before. For instance, when propellant gasses that degrade the ozone layer were banned.
The reason why we are not taking such steps now, is not because of theory or because it is impossible. The real reason is that we do not want to give up any of our financial prosperity. We remain stuck in the belief that ‘more now’ will increase our happiness. Because if we assume that ‘more’ is to come, we don’t have to give up our own wealth to give others more perspective on a brighter future. For many people the assumed aversion to material loss is a more real threat than climate change. Even though if you ask people what they find important, they usually name immaterial matters, ranging from their health to their children’s happiness. So the only thing that we really need more of quickly, is imagination and the collective conviction that ‘a little less now’ is better for later.
This is a translation of Hans Stegeman's column in Het Financieele Dagblad, published May 10th, 2022.
Also read Hans' previous column 'Climate jubilation sounds shrill'.