Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Measure of Things

How do we gauge our progress towards our development destinations? Are economic indicators the best measure?

Development. Progress. These words and others like them are often bandied about in an attempt to describe a goal for a future that is somehow better than our present.

But what do we mean by “better”?

Do we mean more stuff?

The current development models, which focus on economic growth as the means by which nations and those within them can attain a better future, certainly seem to indicate that better equals more. And, for much of the world’s people who scrape by with barely enough food to eat, water to drink, and without adequate shelter, more stuff is an appealing prospect.

No one, I think is arguing that those who have the least should envision a future with still less.
However, the question remains how much stuff?

Do we envision a future with a Tata in every driveway, a steak on every plate, and an ipod in every hand?

Putting aside the effects that such a model of development would have on the environment, what is the effect that a stuff centered economy has on us?

My economics 101 professor in undergrad stated that if we viewed the economy as a giant pizza with those on the bottom getting the smallest slice of the pie, a bigger economy means everyone gets more even if their percentage remains the same.

But what if you’re lactose intolerant? Put another way what if the economy is offering up items that one neither needs nor desires.

In the past two years I have moved five times: from New York to Vermont, Vermont to DC, DC to Montreal, Montreal back to New York. The one thing I have not had a hard time doing is accumulating stuff. In a system predicated on producing ever increasing amounts of stuff attaining more stuff becomes a passive endeavor. In the past three months alone I have acquired two t-shirts, an apron, a jar of gourmet mustard, a magazine, and a hooded sweatshirt, all for free, all stuff I didn’t really want but didn’t feel that I could refuse. I’ve also refused several shirts, an ‘eco-friendly’ reusable fork/spoon combination designed to replace disposable ones, and way too many of those stress balls. What I found much more difficult to develop was a sense of community, interpersonal connections - the relationships that make life worth living.

Everyone, you see, was too busy working to get money to accumulate the right kinds of stuff, while at the same time bemoaning their lack of time to devote to relationships, hobbies… life. The societies with the most stuff - the US, Japan - it seems are often those with the most overworked and overly stressed individuals and the ones where interpersonal connections are heavily predicated on economic markers.

The exception, interestingly enough, was in Vermont, a solidly middle class state (it has the 22nd best economy in the country) based heavily on agriculture. Farm work, my dairy farming roommate pointed out to me, doesn't work on a clock schedule. Past a certain hour, or season, the work simply can't be done anymore.

My point isn’t that stuff is inherently evil, but rather that using the economy as the dominant indicator of what makes a healthy, well functioning society that serves the needs of its people is flawed. Community, friendships, hobbies, and families are all wonderfully contributing things that make life worth living and should be factored into development models which seek to create a ‘better’ future.

These are ideas are admittedly harder to calculate, but perhaps that is a sign of their relative importance. The things that often have the highest value are those for which it is near impossible to affix a price; friendships, after all, are not fungible.

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