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Your money or your life? Putting wellbeing before GDP

By Richard Eckersley - posted Friday, 27 December 2019

· A 2005 survey asked Australians which of two scenarios of the world in the 21st century more closely reflected their view: only about a quarter (23%) thought that 'humanity will overcome the obstacles it faces and enter a new age of peace and prosperity'; 66% thought 'the world is heading for a bad time of crisis and trouble'.

· In this survey, people were also given two positive scenarios for the nation's future – 'a fast-paced, internationally competitive society, with the emphasis on the individual, wealth generation and enjoying the good life'; or 'a greener, more stable society, where the emphasis is on cooperation, community and family, more equal distribution of wealth, and greater economic self-sufficiency' – and asked which came closer to the society they both expected and preferred. Three quarters (73%) expected the first, almost all (93%) preferred the second.

· A 2013 survey, co-authored with Professor Melanie Randle at Wollongong University, investigated the perceived probability of global threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, 54% of people rated the risk of 'our way of life ending' within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, while 24% rated the risk of 'humans being wiped out' at 50% or greater.


· In the survey, 78% agreed 'we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world' (activism) Almost half (48%) agreed that 'the world's future looks grim so we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love' (nihilism), and 36% (47% in the US) that 'we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world' (fundamentalism).

Alas, our politics and mainstream media fail utterly to come to grips with the scale and significance of such findings. When we sought to publicise the findings of the 2013 four-nation survey, the media showed no interest - except for The Australian newspaper, which ran a story on the top of page 3 under the heading. 'We're all going to die! (But I'm going to be OK)'. British morning TV coverage of Extinction Rebellion's (XR's) acts of civil disobedience in London in October had a surreal quality: XR's protestations about the threat of human extinction from climate change were pitted against people being late for work or missing appointments; an XR spokesperson was rebuked as a hypocrite for owning a computer, mobile phone and TV.

As bizarre, but in a different way, has been the Australian Prime Minister's reluctance to discuss the climate-change context of the current bushfire crisis and, when he did, to make the obvious but nonsensical point that the fires had nothing to with his Government's climate-change policies.

The current wave of global political unrest and protest is commonly attributed to growing inequality, corruption, austerity, thwarted expectations and climate change. But the reasons also go deeper, challenging the entire narrative of modernisation (as the above poll results suggest). British historian Kenneth Clark observed in his acclaimed BBC television series Civilisation that, however complex and solid civilisation seemed, it was really quite fragile. In the concluding episode, after reviewing thousands of years of the rise and fall of civilisations, he warns that 'it's lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs'.

Dutch futurist Frederick Polak stresses in his classic book, 'The Image of the Future', the importance of positive images of the future to the future. He studied how these images had changed over 3,000 years of Western history, and notes: 'As long as a society's image of the future is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full blossom. Once the image of the future begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture cannot long survive.'

These warnings seem frighteningly relevant to our times. The decay and disillusion may be commonly expressed in the language of today's mass media, politics and people's daily lives, but they will not be dispelled in that language. The roots of the decay are deeply existential, both in the physical sense of our survival and in the philosophical sense of the meaning and purpose of our lives.


My opening paragraphs are an upbeat assessment of a shift in the political winds. I fear the reality is different. The Conservatives' landslide victory in the UK, like the outcome of this year's Australian Federal election and other global developments, seems to be a repudiation of the changes we need to make in rethinking human progress. We can only hope that the worse things get, the more likely we are to wake up.

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About the Author

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher. His work explores progress and wellbeing.

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