In Tim Jackson’s TED talk, I was exposed to a new way of looking at ways to innovate our economic system so that is can help us achieve a more sustainable and just world.
The first half of the talk lays the foundation for his main ideas. His manner of approaching basic economic ideas is not particularly captivating, but it builds the groundwork for what comes later. About halfway through the talk, he has built up a picture of what our economic system currently does. At this point he unleashes the following line: “It’s a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.”
People who follow the news know that the world’s economic system has some problems. What isn’t necessarily clear to all of us is that some of these problems come about because the system requires us to do things that are fundamentally at odds with our intuition. For instance, the paradox of thrift is an economic term commenting on the tendency people have to want to save their money during a recession, the time when it is most critical that they spend it to keep the economy functioning. Our personal intuition, if embraced by everyone else as well, leads us to cause a recession to deepen. In this fashion, acting to protect oneself from economic hardship causes the overall hardship to increase. This has been likened in concept to the prisoner’s dilemma. In this sense we are imprisoned by our economic system.
Jackson asks how we can approach the concept of prosperity in such a way that it makes more sense to our intuition. He starts by clarifying that the concept of prosperity must include consideration of the ecosystem upon which our prosperity fundamentally depends. Unfortunately in today’s world our personal conceptions of prosperity do not always include the ecosystem partially because we are all so busy living our lives.
Humanist tendencies are also at odds with our current economic system. Rich nations barely take notice of the two billion people in this world who can at best barely feed themselves because they suffer from intense forms of poverty.
Here comes the idea that floored me. We know that we as humans embrace both social and personal cares and worries. We care about ourselves, but we also care about others. We like new things, but we also value traditions. The current economic system encourages us to chase novelty, buying new things, and constantly consume. We have gone too far towards novelty, losing touch with the personal, social, and traditional aspects of ourselves. Our current economic system is, in essence, trying to make us value novelty above these other things.
If we stop and think about it, this generally isn’t what we want. The root desires we have are generally to feel good/happy. Even in his simplistic breakdown of our lives, Jackson correctly points out that there is much that we value much more than just novelty in our lives. Serving novelty to us in greater amounts isn’t going to make us as happy as a more balanced ‘meal’ comprised of elements of novelty and tradition that are applicable to both our personal and social lives. Personal preference should be what drives people towards what they want. The problem is that our economic system today is predicated on the notion of ever-increasing consumption of ‘new’ things and not what we might actually want.
Jackson encourages us to humanize our conceptions of prosperity and economics. Not just humanize in terms of philanthropy, but in terms of making our economic system reflect the fact that we are human beings. Entire dimensions of human experiences, cares, and thoughts are underserved by the current economic model, but it is within our power to change that.