On making ourselves at home

Arrivals week continues with one of the key metaphors from The Economics of Arrival, by Jeremy Williams and Katherine Trebeck.

“To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune” wrote J K Galbraith in 1956. “But to fail to see that we have solved it and fail to proceed hence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”

That’s a line from Galbraith’s classic book The Affluent Society, written in response to the boom times of the 1950s. As he saw it, American industrialism had been a roaring success at solving the basic needs of humanity – people had food, homes, and all the consumer goods they could buy. Humanity’s survival priorities had been met, and a new political project was possible. The aims of an affluent society could be very different from those of a society where people were still struggling to get by.

Almost 70 years later, that observation is more pertinent than ever. The priorities of the 20th century are being vigorously pursued into the 21st – more growth, more consumption – despite mounting damage to people and planet. The progress of several generations is now at risk from climate change, debt, environmental decline, inequality and extreme politics. It’s never been more urgent to, as Galbraith put it, “proceed hence to the next task”. But what is that task?

This is what we call ‘making ourselves at home’. There are strong foundations in place. The walls have gone up. The electricians and plumbers are done. The construction phase is over. It’s time to make this place a home.

This is a shift of focus from expansion to improvement, from quantity to quality. It challenges the usual understanding of development as getting richer and richer, in perpetuity. It recognises that the economy is big enough – now how do we make sure that everyone is included and have what they need? There are enough resources in circulation – now how do we use them in a smarter and fairer way, rather than wasting or hoarding them?

There are many forms of progress beyond the material. Rather than pursuing an endless and abstract ‘more’, grown-up economies could seek a better balance of work and leisure time. They could create healthier democracies, using deliberative processes, participative budgeting or community auditing. Work could be improved through workplace democracy and employee ownership, which would also reduce inequality and create a more inclusive economy that ‘predistributes’ rather than relying on the state to do the redistributing. Industry can focus on true sustainability, designing out waste and developing circular business models running on renewable energy. Acquisitive individualist consumerism could give way to public affluence, created around high quality parks, streets and public spaces.

The Economics of Arrival that we describe in our book is no settling for less, no turning our backs on progress nor declaring the end of history. It’s an invitation to choose something more rewarding than just piling up more resources – an invitation to build something with what we already have. There is scope for all kinds of improvement. Science and technology will advance. Human creativity and imagination are boundless. Politics will evolve. The economy will remain dynamic. What changes is the ultimate goal. Making ourselves at home is an ethos of qualitative improvement that is a very different goal to the frequently meaningless, often unnecessary and sometimes harmful pursuit of more.

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