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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 24/10/2008 | 1 Comment

Listening to the news over the last few days about how we are on the brink of recession has  been dispiriting. However, my sinking feeling is not because this economic downturn will lead to  difficulties for many people’s lives but because most of the commentary on it is so short-sighted.

As the figures were published showing that the UK now has negative growth, the Chancellor was on the radio assuring us that the Government will not sit and watch. They’ll be pumping in money all over the place to make sure they get the economy growing again.

It is obvious why politicians are taking this action. When the economy slows down people lose jobs, businesses and homes because of it. Even those not severely effected usually have to ‘draw in their horns’, as my mother likes to say, and spend less. So this may mean people spending less money on holidays, or every day items they’ve  come to rely on like ready meals. Psychological research shows that people really hate losing things and so these changes will feel painful. Since there will be an election within a couple of years politicians feel obliged to show that they are competent and capable of solving these economic problems by getting us back to ‘business as usual’ or else they won’t get re-elected.

However, what is missing in the everyday debate about the economic crisis and looming recession is the frank admission we need to embrace the slowdown in consumer spending - not try to stop it happening. The positive thing about crises, or events we can’t stop, is that they bring about opportunities for real change. The stark fact is we need to get away from the idea that our economy should be growing every year – that this is a desirable objective. It is not.

Earlier in the year an English engineer, Peter Head, gave the Brunel lecture. In it he synthesises much of what is known about climate change and gives his innovative engineering perspective on what might be done to save the planet. Head begins by pointing out how much the earth has shrunk in the past century. In 1900 there were 7.91 hectares of land for every individual on the planet. Now there is only 2.02 and by 2050 this will have dropped to 1.44. Human survival will depend on how well we can use this land sustainably. The current consumer economy founded on imported goods which people don’t really need simply isn’t part of the sustainable economy we must begin to embrace if our children are going to survive in this shrinking world.

In 1993 a PhD student in Canada developed the concept of ‘ecological footprint’. This calculates how much of planet earth’s surface is needed to support the population’s current lifestyle. Ecological footprint takes into account water, energy, food and resources as well as waste absorption. On the current consumption patterns in the UK we would need at least three planets if everyone in the world were to live like us. If everyone lived as they do in urban centres in the USA 8 to 15 planets would be needed because of their gas guzzling culture and urban sprawl.  It is important to realise that the ecological footprint measure is only quantitative – it does not assess the quality of the environment and how the use of resources may undermine the soil, for example. In other words, it does not alert us to the full problem we are facing with our profligate use of resources.  

It is estimated that the UK’s ecological footprint is increasing at the rate of 1.17 per cent per annum. That might not seem much but this means it has increased by almost 40 per cent since 1975. We need to start hearing these figures in the current coverage of the economic crisis so that we can begin to put it in perspective and realise that long time survival of the human species is much more important than an erosion in our standards of living.

We also need people to keep pointing out that we don’t need all that economic growth to make us happy. The evidence shows that money is important for happiness when people are poor but once basic economic needs are met, more money does not  mean more happiness. This is why happiness has been almost flat in  western countries despite the growing economy and rise in incomes.

One of the good things about Peter Head’s lecture is that he made reference to the happiness literature as well as pointing out the cultural costs of economic growth. He states:

We believed that increasing our material wealth or consumption would increase our happiness and satisfy our needs and that economic growth could go on forever. The dual goals of taming nature and increasing our wealth actually led us to a cultural disconnect and environmental devastation. The resources we are using up are finite and cannot last for ever. An opportunity right now is to draw on the deep roots of different cultures, established over thousands of years before industrialisation, which espouse the principles of sustainable development and to use the teachings from these philosophies to help to accelerate change. The industrial development model drives growing social inequality because of the market driven scramble for increasingly limited resources including land. Not only have we widened our social inequality, our increased material wealth has not made us happier.

Peter Head is an engineer who has been involved in projects such as Dongtan Eco-city in China, so he has first hand experience of how we can develop and ‘retrofit’ urban centres to improve resource efficiency while still maintaining or improving quality of life. It’s worth reading his lecture as it fosters hope that somewhere there are people coming up with solutions to some of the big challenges facing us - and I don't mean the impending economic recession.
Comment By Comment
Alan Coady
Joined: 30/04/2008

Comment Posted: 25/10/2008 19:18
I agree with your 'bigger picture' view. Perpetual expansion cannot be fuelled by finite resources. The sad thing is that many of those on the brink of losing jobs and homes will feel that they have never been in a sufficiently influential position to shape the future and now cannot take much comfort in the present either.
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