ALL is not well with Mother Earth. Global economic crises, terrorism, climate change, and inequality are not just major problems today but existential threats.
The common denominator underlying these problems is the unrepentant focus on materialism under today’s dominant Western-inspired intellectual paradigm. Spirituality, knowledge, social solidarity and sacrifice competed equally with money and conquests as overarching life goals in previous eras. Today, money trumps almost everything.
The co-evolution of capitalism, democracy and science under Western civilisation has undoubtedly unleashed humanity’s most glorious material achievements ever. Consequently, the world today could be free from the drudgery, poverty, epidemics, famine and tyranny that plagued earlier eras. Excessive materialism threatens these positives.
Around 1750, when Western civilisation became dominant, people globally were overwhelmingly poor. Today, 40pc still live in poverty. Excessive inequality, which breeds major social and economic problems, has grown five-fold. The richest 10pc own 85pc of global assets. Around 40pc globally have attained middle-class status, though often through routine jobs and long commutes.
Many middle-income people spend 10-12 hours daily in boring jobs and commutes. This undermines their self-worth and causes social problems. Finally, 20pc are rich today but many among even them face major social and psychological problems. Over 50pc Americans report high and 30pc extreme stress. Divorce, anomie and crime are high in rich countries.
The move of just 20-30pc people into high prosperity is causing massive climate change. Recurrent recessions display the inherent instability of capitalism as investors chase risky ventures for high profits, and the helplessness of even rich governments to control them. Though much higher than under totalitarianism, freedom of thought in the West is still compromised since it requires easy access to differing perspectives.
In capitalist societies, people face high information overloads, while mainstream media largely emphasises market perspectives and 10-12 hours of intellectually-crippling work leaves no space for most people to search for alternative perspectives.
We need a better goal than materialism.
This progress has been spawned by co-evolving capitalism, science and democracy. Capitalism creates wealth by mobilising energies around self-interest. Science enhances wealth through inventions and increased productivity. Democracy helps spread it broadly by legislating equal economic opportunity, taxes and social transfers.
Without increased productivity through science and redistribution through democracy, increased self-interest induced by capitalism among people would have created more conflict than wealth. In fact, capitalism’s fortunate co-evolution with democracy and science masked its shortcomings. Otherwise, it may have fulfilled Marx’s predictions about its demise long ago.
The negatives today spring mainly from capitalism’s claim that pursuing unlimited self-interest and materialism ensures both individual and societal good. The social problems among the rich undermine the first claim; the existential global problems mentioned above undermine the second. Since materialism depends on heavy consumption of scarce resources, its excessive pursuit soon creates conflicts with other people, and even within people due to intense competition and stress.
The pursuit of bounded self-interest is necessary for survival. However, its excessive pursuit undermines the quality of life for all. The lack of a higher goal than cold and vacuous materialism within Western civilisation is causing alienation and a rejection of even its positive aspects such as democracy, human rights and sometimes even science globally. Humans desperately need a better life goal than materialism.
A number of alternative intellectual perspectives, eg, solidarity, Buddhist, green, wisdom and Islamic economics provide useful solutions. The common thread across these diverse paradigms is the emphasis on limiting materialism after reaching a comfortable standard of living and then pursuing more abstract goals like social solidarity, admiring nature, intellectual pursuits and spirituality.
These goals provide deeper human fulfillment than unlimited materialism and require more limited material consumption, thus freeing scarce resources and money for others to achieve a comfortable standard of living too.
Learning from communism’s failures, these perspectives do not aim to have a centralised and tyrannical government enforce this agenda by banning markets. Rather, they aim to influence people’s values about appropriate levels of material consumption. The changed consumption preferences of people will simply ensure a re-orientation of products and services produced by markets and deeper redistribution of wealth by democracies.
Humans must voluntarily adopt these alternative perspectives and establish a just and sustainable global order before massive economic depressions, climate change, wars or nuclear holocaust enforce them.