Society & culture

Comfortably numb

According to Prospect magazine, rising incomes are making us unhappy. Happiness is difficult to measure, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that once physical discomfort has been banished, the more we earn, the unhappier we get. For example, in the UK and the US people say that they are no happier now than they were 50 years ago. Part of the reason for this is that the price we’ve paid for increased material comfort is to sell our souls to the highest corporate bidder. Religious ideals, national solidarity and community have all but gone in most countries and all that’s left is the individual. Happiness is usually defined in terms of income, which in turn defines status. But what’s the point of earning lots of money if you’re never at home to see your kids or you’re too tired to talk to your partner? Part of the problem is that work has taken over most aspects of life. There are no longer any boundaries between home and work and earning money is everything. As a result we work longer and harder, so relationships are pushed to the margin. Communities suffer too, as public services are closed down because they are ‘uneconomic’. So if people don’t want more money, what do they want? The answer is respect. People want their existence to be recognised. They want someone, somewhere to say that they’ve achieved something. They also want job security and protection for when things go wrong. Ultimately the challenge for society is to figure out how to deliver this. The answer is probably that we need to become less self-absorbed and individualistic and more community and group-orientated. This means focusing on overall happiness rather than overall incomes. It also means delivering the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people and not forgetting about those who are least happy.

Ref: Various including Prospect (UK), May 2005, ‘Happiness is back’, R. Layard. See also, ‘Happiness: Lessons from a new science’ by Richard Layard.


A future shortage of death

If current trends continue, there will be a shortage of death in the near future. Over the past hundred years, average life expectancy has increased dramatically. In the US average life expectancy increased from 47 to 77 over the past century. By the year 2050, the average person in the developed world will live to be 87 years old and maximum longevity will increase too. This is a problem because economic growth is dependent on mortality and retirement, and on younger people replacing older people in the workplace. Thus an increase in longevity could cause a slowdown in economic growth. Moreover, because young people are generally responsible for new ideas and innovations, delaying their entry into the workforce could have profound social and economic effects. One can even imagine ‘reverse immigration’ where young people from atrophying nations in the North and West flock Southwards and Eastwards to nations where they have more chance to make an impact at a young age. Indeed, it is not completely ridiculous to imagine a future world order split between ‘old’ and ‘young’ nations. This decrease in death will largely be caused by technology. People who can afford to will bioengineer themselves, take pills to extend their lives by another 20 years or implant defibrillators. Longevity clinics will spring up as will anti-ageing insurance. This could create intergenerational conflict or extend adolescence into the early thirties. This is happening in Japan already. Up to 30% of young adults in Japan do not have a job or only work part time, while 30% of people over the age of 65 are still working. Of course this trend could reverse. Rising obesity levels might actually reduce life expectancy. As Kenneth Boulding wrote in 1965, ‘it is only the propensity of the old, rich and powerful to die that gives the young, poor and powerless hope’.

Ref: The Atlantic Monthly (US) May 2005, ‘The coming death shortage’, C. Mann.  See also McKinsey Quarterly (US) Number 2, 2005, ‘The demographic deficit’.


Responsible luxury

The latest buzzword in fashion circles is ‘ethical luxury’. This might sound like an oxymoron, but a number of high-end designers such as Rogan Gregory are flocking to organic and ethically-produced materials like models to the latest diet craze. In some respects this ‘style meets ethics’ trend is nothing new. We’re had fashion with a conscience since at least the 1980s (think of Katherine Hamnett) and sweatshop free products and organic cotton have been around for a decade. More recent examples include Veija fair trade sneakers made from organic cotton, locally produced Brazilian rubber and Project – a magazine aimed fairly and squarely at consumers with a conscience. However, what is relatively new is that this latest ethical stance is taking place at the luxury end of the market. The luxury goods company LVHM is taking more than a passing interest and has commissioned a sustainability audit to ensure that its products not only look good but do good too. It has also produced an Environmental Trendbook to see where things like materials, packaging and labelling might be heading in the future. Of course the real question is whether this is just a short-term marketing ploy or whether it’s a sustainable trend. Given the fashion industry’s hypocrisy surrounding the fur issue, we suspect it’s the former.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), magazine issue 143, July 2005, ‘Do my principles look big in this’, C. Burke.


The descent of man

You hear a lot about biodiversity and how certain species are dying out. Could the same be true with certain types of people?
Are we witnessing the end of intellectual diversity and the demise of the individual mind? We are fortunate enough to be alive during what is almost certainly a second renaissance. The first (16th century) renaissance was brought about by the clash and movement of ideas caused by the invention of moveable type and printing. This second renaissance is being caused by a clash of cultures and information, this time caused by globalisation and the Internet. But where are all the renaissance men and women? The answer, it seems, is at work. One of the key features of the first renaissance is how disciplines, experience, technology and ideas cross-fertilised each other to create new knowledge. This requires freedom and intellectual promiscuity. Crucially, it also requires men and women who know a little about a lot. But we are stuck in an educational paradigm where people are rewarded for learning a lot about a little.

Ref: Technology Review (US), May 2005, ‘Whither the renaissance man?’, M. Hawley.


1914 returning?

In a provocative interview, Harvard historian Nial Ferguson says that we are making some fundamental mistakes when we think of globalisation as a permanent feature of society. For example, during the period 1880-1914 people were probably thinking exactly the same way. Or at least they were before an over-extended superpower created a rise in terrorism, which led to the First World War. The current economic context is similar to 90 years ago. Ferguson dates the first period of globalisation as being from 1866 (when the first cable was laid across the Atlantic) to 7 May 1915 when Germany literally cut it in half. To be fair, Ferguson is not saying that globalisation will end, simply that it could. To illustrate his point consider the following key causes of the 1914 crisis:

  1. A hegemonic British Empire over-stretches itself
  2. The escalation of rivalry between the superpowers (especially Britain and Germany)
  3. Distrust between Britain and France and between Germany and Austria
  4. Terrorism supported by a rogue state (Serbia)
  5. A revolutionary organisation hostile to the capitalist system (Bolshevism)

Now think about the current situation and make the following changes:
  1. Think US instead of Britain
  2. Swap US and China for Britain and Germany
  3. Think Islam and Christianity, the US and Europe or the US and Asia
  4. Exchange Syria or Iran for Serbia
  5. Think Al Qaeda
Ref: Harvard Business School: Working Knowledge (US), 23 May 2005. ‘What could bring globalisation down?’, C. Churchwell. See also Foreign Affairs (US) March/April 2005.


We the media

The recent terrorist attacks in London had at least one unforeseen consequence. People who were trapped in trains or close to the bus that was attacked starting taking pictures. The BBC received over 300 emails each with an average of three pictures within 12 hours of the incidents. Many were sent within 45 minutes. Moreover, most of the pictures were taken by ordinary people, not reporters or photojournalists. To some extent this is simply the effect of camera phones becoming ubiquitous. By then why send the images to the media? Perhaps it is a ghoulish and morbid voyeurism caused by reality TV. Maybe. A more likely explanation is that people have lost trust in traditional news organisations (and government spin) and now prefer to make their own news. Such ‘citizen reporters’ are perhaps the vanguard of media democratisation. But there is a problem. In the rush to ‘publish’, accuracy and analysis have gone out of the window.

Ref: Spikedonline (UK), 12 July 2005, ‘Moving images’, J. Bristow.


A European century?

Fifty years ago America’s GDP was twice the size of Europe’s. Now it is roughly the same size and, by some measures, Europe is the largest economy in the world. Does this mean that European power is growing at the expense of the US? Perhaps, although it depends on how you define power. US power is largely the sum of military force (the ability to fight conventional wars) and cultural ubiquity – sometimes referred to as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. According to Mark Leonard (Centre for European Reform) ‘hard’ power is an outdated concept. Europe is in the ascendant because it has ‘soft’ power – its influence is subtle – which is possibly why European foreign policy has been so successful. Another reason for Europe’s success is that the region operates as a network. On the face of it Europe’s lack of a leader (or as Henry Kissinger once said lack of a ‘single telephone number’) would hold the region back, but the opposite seems to be happening. When necessary Europe can act with a single voice, at other times it reverts to a plethora of local identities. There is of course also the argument that Europe is actually disintegrating – witness the recent ‘no’ votes on the EU constitution by two founding members – but the growing power of regional federations such as the Arab League and the African Union suggest that this is a short-term blip and such networks are the shape of things to come. Ironic given that this, historically, is precisely how the US came into being.

Ref: Prospect (UK), March 2005. Ascent of Europe’, M. Leonard. Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 28-29 May 2005, ‘The future is European’, L. Williams. See also The Economist (UK) 4 June 2005, ‘The Europe that died’ and ‘Why Europe will run the 21st Century’, by Robert Cooper.


A walk on the mild side

Is conservatism the new rebellion? A study of 18 to 30-year olds in Australia has found that there is a rightward (or at least ‘traditional’) shift in the attitudes of many younger people (no real surprise there). This is a trend echoed by anecdotal evidence including the fact that New York magazine Vice recently proclaimed that it was cool to be a ‘Hipublican’ and to like Ronald Reagan. Likewise, fashion is becoming more conservative and role models like Jessica Simpson (the new Doris Day?) are taking over from the likes of Christina Aguilera. Meanwhile, another Australian study says that teenagers are not as ‘green’ or environmentally concerned as their parents.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 14-15 May 2005, ‘Straight shooters’, S. Selinger-Morris.; The Australian (Aus) 18 May 2005, ‘The blissful generation that just does not care’, K. Legge.


China’s economic rise

Last year the Chinese economy grew by 9.5% and over the past 25 years Chinese GDP has risen from US $20 billion to US $250 billion. If this growth continues, China will be the largest economy on Earth by around 2020. But while most people still think of China as a source of low-cost production for foreign-owned brands, China is slowly acquiring an increasing number of foreign-owned brands. Recent examples include Lenovo’s purchase of IBM’s personal computer business, Haier’s acquisition of the Maytag corporation, Nanjing Automobile Corporation’s bid for MG Rover and TCL’s bid for France’s Thompson company. However, while the IBM purchase raised a few eyebrows it was not until CNOOC made a bid for US-owned Unocal that people really woke up. To some extent this is a re-run of previous foreign incursions into the European and US economies (remember the Japanese buying up Hollywood?) but this time it is different. China wants to build economic power fast. China also has a huge appetite for energy and, like the US, will go to almost any lengths to maintain control over supplies. In China’s case this also means wooing other countries with economic deals, even when the price is the removal of human rights from trade discussions.

Ref: Various including: New York Times (US) 29 June 2005, ‘Name goods in China but brand X elsewhere’, D. Barboza; New York Times 23 December 2005, ‘China emerging as US rival for Canada’s oil’, S. Romero; New York Times 23 June 2005, ‘Chinese oil giant in take-over bid for US corporation’, D. Barboza & A. Ross-Sorkin. Also see Prospect (UK) May 2005, ‘China’s chance’, J. Kurlantzick and ‘How ageing will reduce global wealth’, D. Farrell, S. Ghai and T. Shavers.