Today's date:
Fall 2000

From Well-Having to Well Being

To raise the notion of frugality in the midst of the greatest consumer boom in economic history may seem wildly out of place. But if globalization only half succeeds in lifting many more millions into the middle class in this century, by necessity frugality will become a virtue.

If the American right of "pursuit of happiness" and the Chinese slogan "to get rich is glorious" remain primarily defined by the dream of square footage stuffed with consumer goods, the success of globalization will also be its failure. More than a century after the onset of the industrial revolution, it is by now self-evident that one small planet cannot sustain so many consumers without wrecking the ecological balance.

According to A.T. Kearney, between 1980 and 1990 alone, global poverty rates fell by more than half—from 34 percent to 17 percent—as a single decade of economic integration lifted 573 million people above the absolute poverty line. At the same time, the middle class worldwide saw its median income surge by roughly 15 percent.

The most substantial gains occurred in Asia, where China’s continued development added significantly to per capita income growth. By 1990, eight of every 10 people in the region lived above absolute poverty, up from only five in 10 a decade earlier. Over that same period, the poorest tenth of Asia’s population saw median income rise by 58 percent.

The technological promise that we can have our cake and eat it too may well substitute for self-limitation up to a certain threshold. In the end, however, the expectation that some kind of planetary liposuction will save us from ourselves can be no substitute for a lean ethos that emphasizes the art of living over the ideology of consumerism.

Clearly, the answer is not technology but a cultural transformation that redefines wealth as well-being instead of well-having. The alternative of frugality does not mean poverty. It means living intelligently instead of wastefully as if there were no tomorrow, as if the polar icecap would never melt no matter how hot the fevered pitch of industrialized desire.

The first, slight movements in this direction face overwhelming odds. Not surprisingly, the world-historical clash between capitalism and communism was resolved in the convergence of materialist globalization. The clunky East German Trabi sputtered into the dustbin of history only to be replaced by the sleek BMW with more horsepower than any autobahn can accommodate. Ten Italian cities may have joined in a "slow cities" league in which the local inhabitants sit down for long lunches of local wine and tomatoes, but to keep up with the burgeoning population demands in China’s Pearl River Delta architects are designing skyscrapers in a mere week. In the 30 years Paolo Soleri has been building his arcological utopia in the Arizona mesa brick by brick, Phoenix has sprawled across the once pristine desert as the fastest-growing city in the United States.

Getting from here to there is a road strewn with daunting challenges, not least that of inequality between the sated few and the hungry, aspiring multitudes. Surely, the responsibility of self-limitation must fall mainly on those with the most to lose, not those with everything yet to gain; on those with two cars in the garage instead of those who have never seen a washing machine.

The central question, though, is whether the secular civilization behind globalization will admit a self-limiting awareness of the future—the accumulated consequences of human action—into the permanently temporary present that is the sole time frame of the consumer ideology. In history, only religion-based civilizations have been able to induce self-limitation as a practical ethos.

Mikhail Gorbachev once famously remarked that the best way to remember the future is to live virtuously in the present. For those too worried about tomorrow, John Maynard Keynes quipped that "in the long run we are all dead." But if today’s amnesia about the future persists, Keynes may well have been more prescient than he knew.

Nathan Gardels, editor, NPQ
NPQ extends a special thanks to the Harvard Design School Project on the City for permission to use excerpts of its Pearl River Delta study and the Guide to Shopping. Both will be published in January, 2001.

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