There were two news events in Melbourne in the final week of 2004 – one small and curious, the other slightly disturbing – that hint at a larger issue at play in our community.
One event saw a crowd of hungry bargain-hunters stagger and trip as Myer opened its doors for Boxing Day sales, averting what could have been a stampede. The other reported that city charities had been inundated by Christmas volunteers offering a helping hand.
Neither event is particularly history-changing, but both reflect a tension between on the one hand, luxury fever, the all-consuming force of consumption and in parallel a niggling sense that this consumption is not only meaningless but unsustainable, both personally and socially.
Australians love to consume and we do it with abandon, as demonstrated by Myer’s sale. The unprecedented affluence that the large part of our community enjoys is reflected in our preoccupation with house prices, interest rates, iPods, debt, renovations, image, fame and tax cuts.
The figures speak clearly of our consuming passions. Total monthly retail sales are nearing $17 billion, compared to $12 billion four years ago. Household debt is reaching $700 billion – a massive escalation compared to the $180 billion of a decade ago. Australians now spend about 3 per cent of gross domestic product more than they earn annually.
However, what is more difficult to quantify and comprehend is the toll this cult of consumption is taking on our lives, both personal and communal. Like those Christmas charity volunteers, we are menaced by a sense that while we are most certainly richer, we do not necessarily have richer lives.
A growing number of researchers are putting a lack of happiness down to consumerism. Survey after survey demonstrates that the desire for material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income, is a happiness suppressant, with diseases of affluence ranging from obesity to depression.
A Newspoll survey in 2003, commissioned by the Australia Institute, showed that 62 per cent of Australians believed they could not afford to buy everything they really needed – despite the fact that we are richer than ever and that we are around three times financially better off than our parents in the 1950s. Ironically, when asked whether Australian society today was too materialistic, with too much emphasis on money and not enough on the things that really matter, 83 per cent agreed.
Aside from the personal consequences of consumption, there is also a massive communal toll. The State of the World 2004 report found we are using up goods and services at such a fast rate there will be serious consequences for the well-being of the human race and the planet. The World Wildlife Fund’s latest global report shows humans consume 20 per cent more natural resources than the earth can produce, and that populations of terrestrial, freshwater and marine animal species fell on average by 40 per cent between 1970 and 2000.
Local research also shows that we are running up an ecological debt which we won't be able to pay off, unless the government restores the balance between our consumption of natural resources and the earth's ability to renew them. From the dying Murray River to our growing rubbish dumps, from our power usage to our appetite for cars, it is clear that our levels of consumption are unsustainable.
In short, what is becoming increasingly clear is that infinite economic growth is at odds with personal and social growth. Markets have contributed to making our lives more comfortable and secure, but taken to unsustainable levels, they can erode fundamental values, clashing with personal and communal wellbeing.
It is patently irresponsible, for instance, for politicians and business leaders to tell the public that infinite economic growth is sustainable, that we can use and abuse the earth’s resources without constraint – forever. It is not possible.
Australian researcher Richard Eckersley argues that we should choose to redirect economic activity into creating a fairer, cleaner and safer world, thinking of health, not wealth, quality not quantity, as the bottom line of progress and the measurement for our way of life.
Eckersley writes in his book, ‘Well and Good’, that: “Most economic growth is derived from increased personal consumption, despite the evidence of its personal, social and environmental costs. We need, individually and collectively, to be more discerning about what economic activities we encourage or discourage.”
Clive Hamilton, director of the Australia Institute, questions whether the “whole growth project has failed”: “Has the pursuit of riches required the sacrifice of those things that do contribute to more contented and fulfilled lives, such as the depth of our relationships … and the quality of our natural environment?”
These are issues worthy of contemplation as we pack away our Christmas booty for another year, settle into a new year and its accompanying resolutions, fight our way through silly season sales and contemplate the needs of others, particularly in the wake of the tsunami disaster.
* An amended version of this article appeared in The Age Opinion section on Friday, 31 December, 2004.