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Progress, sustainability and human wellbeing: Is a new worldview emerging? Richard Eckersley National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU.

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Presentation on theme: "Progress, sustainability and human wellbeing: Is a new worldview emerging? Richard Eckersley National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU."— Presentation transcript:

1 Progress, sustainability and human wellbeing: Is a new worldview emerging? Richard Eckersley National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU nceph.anu.edu.au Australia 21 fellow and director

2 Linear vs systemic optimism  Linear optimism: humanity ‘on track’ to a better future; problems are mere ‘glitches’ we can iron out of system.  Systemic optimism: humanity straying ever further off the track; problems are symptoms of deeper level condition; need whole-system change.

3 Two views of progress  Material progress: Economic growth is paramount. Greater wealth increases freedom and choice, creates resources to meet social and environmental goals.  Sustainable development: Seeks balance and integration of social, economic and environmental goals. To create high, equitable, durable quality of life.

4 Going for Growth ‘The overriding aim of our agenda is to deliver Australia an annual (economic) growth rate of over four per cent on average during the decade to 2010.’ John Howard World Economic Forum Dinner, Melbourne, 16 March 1998

5 ‘If we can sustain our overall growth rates…we will be a $1 trillion economy in around seven years time [compared to more than ten years at previous rates]…By 2015, the difference in national income would be about $135 billion a year in today’s dollars. That’s a difference of an extra $12 billion a year for health and more than $8 billion for education at current spending patterns…’ John Howard ‘Getting the big things right’ 8 July 2004

6 The human condition: then and now  Many more people are living much richer, longer lives than ever before: 1000 years ago: 270 million people could expect, on average, to live about 24 years and earn about US$400 a year. Today: 6.3 billion people can expect, on average, to live about 67 years and earn almost US$6,000.  Gains in human and civil rights.

7 Progress and health: some qualifications  Gains unevenly distributed Widening gap between rich and poor nations. Recent reversals in some nations.  Diminishing returns with rising income Thresholds beyond which benefits cease.  Health gains due to more than growth Increasing knowledge, education, institutional reforms. Biomedical advances, changed behaviour.

8 Progress and health: costs of growth  Environment: disruption on planetary scale. Questions of sustainability.  Social costs: increased inequality and deeper divisions within society. Questions of opportunity.  Psychic losses: identity, belonging, purpose, certainty. Questions of meaning.

9 Life expectancy by income Source: Inglehart, 2000

10 Subjective wellbeing by income Source: Inglehart, 2000

11 Income and happiness USA, Source: Myers and Diener, 1996

12 Lifetime prevalence of depression, by birth cohort, USA Source: Kessler et al 2003

13 Growing generation gap in malaise USA, Source: Putnam 2000

14 Perceptions of QoL - 1 ‘Against (a) background of general anxiety about ‘the state of the world’ and the relentlessness of ‘bad news’…we are disturbed by the many signs of ‘degeneration’ in the Australian way of life.’ ‘…We are “tending our own patch” and becoming absorbed in our own concerns….our focus has narrowed to an extent that allows us to exclude some of the “nasty stuff” which has become too unpalatable to think about.’ Hugh Mackay Mind & Mood, 1998, 2003

15 Perceptions of QoL - 2 ‘Personal aspirations and aspirations for the nation appeared to be largely unrelated….Few participants believed that Australia would become their ideal society (and) they had distanced themselves from this goal….they manage, or control, their reactions to social issues so they can maintain a comfortable and self-focused life.’ Values and Civic Behaviour in Australia Brotherhood of St Laurence, 2002.

16 Declining quality of life  In surveys, twice as many think QoL is getting worse as think it is getting better.  Reasons for decline (in order): Too much greed and consumerism Breakdown in community and social life Too much pressure on families, parents and marriages Falling living standards Employers demanding too much Source: Eckersley, 2000; Pusey, 1998

17 Materialism and wellbeing  Materialism: correlated with dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, social alienation and poorer personal relationships. ‘extrinsic goals’ such as fame, fortune and glamour associated with lower overall wellbeing, compared to ‘intrinsic goals’ of intimacy, self-acceptance and understanding, contributing to community. The more materialistic our values, the poorer our quality of life.

18 Individualism and wellbeing  Individualism: Increased risk, uncertainty, insecurity. Lack of clear frames of reference. Higher expectations. Onus of success rests with individual. ‘Tyranny’ of excessive choice. Reduced social support and personal control

19 Virtues and vices  Virtues : encourage strong, harmonious personal relationships and social attachments. and the strength to endure adversity.  Vices : Are about unrestrained satisfaction of individual wants and desires. and the capitulation to human weaknesses.

20 St Thomas Aquinas 13th century The Virtues Faith Charity Hope Prudence Religion Fortitude Temperance The Capital Sins Pride Gluttony Lust Avarice Sloth Envy Anger The Virtues The Consumer Society 20th Century Source: Funkhouser

21 The power of the market ‘Big businesses in the United States now spend well over a trillion dollars a year on marketing. This is double Americans’ spending on all public and private education, from kindergartens through graduate schools.’ Michael Dawson The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life, 2003

22 The problem with material progress …if, in creating wealth, we do more damage to the fabric of society and the state of the natural environment than we can repair with the extra wealth, it means we are going backwards in terms of quality of life, even while we grow richer… … material progress depends on the pursuit of individual and material self-interest that, morally, cannot be quarantined from other areas of our personal and social lives.

23 Sustainability and health: a new bottom line? …understanding the social basis of health and wellbeing contributes to working towards sustainability. It allows us to integrate different priorities by measuring them against a common goal or benchmark – improving human health and wellbeing. …making health, not wealth, the bottom line of progress takes us deeper into questions of quality of life: how well societies provide the conditions that are conducive to total wellbeing – physical, mental, social, spiritual.

24 Winds of change? ‘The gap between “what I believe in” and “how I live” is uncomfortably wide for many of us and we are looking for ways to narrow it….We want to express our values more clearly and live in ways that make us feel better about ourselves….to feel that our lives express who we are and that we are living in harmony with the values we claim to espouse.’ Hugh Mackay The Wrap: Understanding where we are now and where we’ve come from, 2003

25 Moral autonomy ‘The denizens of the postmodern era are, so to speak, forced to stand face-to-face with their moral autonomy, and so also with their moral responsibility. This is the cause of moral agony. This is also the chance the moral selves never confronted before.’ Zygmunt Bauman Life in Fragments: Essays in postmodern morality, 1995

26 Altruistic individualism ‘…these new orientations towards the “we” create something like a cooperative or altruistic individualism. Thinking of oneself and living for others at the same time, once considered a contradiction in terms, is revealed as an internal, substantive connection. Living alone means living socially.’ Ulrich & Elizabeth Beck Individualization, 2002

27 Redirecting choice to improve health and wellbeing – from this: Weak families, communities Self-interested, competitive individualism Shallow democracy Material progress Illbeing A vicious cycle

28 – to this: Strong families, communities Altruistic, cooperative individualism Deep democracy Sustainable development Wellbeing A virtuous cycle

29 Beyond being a bystander  Fairshare’s formula for taking actions that matter: Give 5 per cent of gross income to charities, environmental groups etc. Reduce resource use to 10 per cent below national averages. Spend 5 per cent of leisure time in voluntary work. Take democratic action 10 times a year. Source:


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