Overall wellbeing, an extravagant lifestyle, and wealth all come to mind when I ponder the good life but what does the good life actually cost? At first glance, this seems like a loaded question that requires multiple dissertations in order to answer. I even contemplated whether or not the good life had a cost at all. Breaking the good life into separate topics relieves much of the stress when it comes to giving an answer. In terms of consumerism, the good life is damaging to the environment, places too much emphasis on money, and it dwindles the importance of non-market values.
According to Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff”, our current materials economy is a commodity chain in which goods go from extraction, to production, to distribution, to consumption, and finally to disposal.
The system sounds stable but it is actually in crisis. Anyone with a simple understanding of mathematics can tell you that you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet in the real world. In order for us, the consumers, to get all of our fancy products and up-to-date technologies, a process that we turn a blind eye to takes place. At the source of the process, there is natural resource exploitation. “We chop down the trees, blow up mountains to get the metals inside, use up all the water, and wipe out all the animals.” As consumers, we are running out of resources because we have too much stuff! In the past three decades alone, one third of the planet’s natural resource space has been consumed.
We are undermining the planets very ability for people to live here. In the United States, less than four percent of our original forests are left and forty percent of the waterways have become unsanitary. When the resources start to deplete, we do the same thing to third world or lesser developed nations. The erosion of the local environments of these nations and economies ensures a constant flow of natives that rely on the little money they can earn while working in factories.
We have become a nation of consumers largely due to planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the art of designing products that don’t last a long time but last long enough for someone to buy the product again. Perceived obsolescence is changing the design of things to follow trends and keep up with the times. The number one example that people can relate to is the iPhone. If you don’t have the newest and greatest iPhone, you are a social outcast. While this might be a tad over exaggerated, it’s not too far from the truth.
In all actuality, polls show that our national happiness is declining even though we have more stuff than ever before. This is because we have less time for the things that truly make us happy like friends, family, and leisure time. At the cost of our planet and environment, are we really even living the good life?
Fritjof Capra of “Qualitative Growth” said that “human needs are finite, but human greed is not. The major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation; they are all interconnected and interdependent.” In our current economy, we have put currency on a pedestal that is far too high for us to reach anymore. Most of the goods that are produced and sold are often unneeded and therefore are essentially waste. Even still, demographic pressure and poverty form a vicious circle that lead to fewer jobs and wider poverty gaps.
These are the costs of the good life. Our current global economy is a system striving for unlimited quantitative growth and is manifestly unsustainable as previously stated. Looking again from an ecological standpoint, the bad growth resulting from this system leads to externalizing social and environmental costs, is based on fossil fuels, involves toxic substances, depletes our natural resources, and degrades the Earth’s ecosystems.
Harvard professor Michael Sandel adds what I believe to be the most interesting cost of the good life when it comes to affluenza. He argues that over the last three decades, we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. Although these two seem to be synonymous, they are actually quite different. A market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity while a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. By doing this, we have created a way of life in which market values “seep into almost every sphere of life and sometimes crowd out or corrode important, non-market values.”
One of the examples that professor Sandel uses is congressional hearings in Washington D.C.. Lobbyists want to attend these hearings and because the seats are limited, line-standing companies have arisen. Line-standing companies hire homeless people and pay them an hourly rate in order to wait in line just before the hearing. According to the professor, this is wrong for two reasons. “In a democratic society, everyone should have equal access to representative government. The other reason it’s wrong is that it demeans representative government.” When it comes to the point where almost everything in our public life is sold off to the highest bidder, something is lost.
Money matters more and more in our society. And against the background of rising inequality, money takes a toll on the commonality of our civic life. In other words, we lose a part of ourselves. Do we go so far that we are cheapening important social goods and civic goods that are worth caring about? Society will eventually become a place of narcissistic opportunism where people will be buying their way into and out of positive and negative situations.
What is the good life worth? I’ve been struggling with this question a great deal lately. You may or may not be familiar with the term first world problems. They are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals, typically used as a comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences. Not having the latest gadget and the newest clothes from a particular store are just a few examples. When I bought something, I failed to realize what I was actually paying. I now know that these consumer goods cost natural resources, valuable money, and so much more. The simplest way I can put it is that the cost of the good life: priceless.