Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Unpacking "Affluence"

Those of you who followed the whole debate about the word affluence for our APLS carnival know that I came down heavily in support of keeping the A-word. I believed that it was important for those of us in the developed world to acknowledge our affluence. At the core, I wanted to keep the word "affluence," because I want to work for a world where everyone is an affluent person living sustainably. Where everyone gets the advantages I was lucky to have.

Lately, I've been hearing a lot about 'limits to growth' and how we cannot sustain a world where everyone is affluent. But this begs the question: what is affluence?

In my field of study, we tend to talk a lot about poverty, and how one defines it. Do we define it as income, or do we also include other factors like life-expectancy, health, and happiness?

And most people in my field agree that one needs to approach poverty in a more holistic way.

Thus, it's ironic that very little conversation is had around what it means to be affluent.

What is affluence? How do we define it?

Are another ten thousand cars on the streets of Bombay a sign of affluence?

I'd argue emphatically not.

You are not affluent just because you have a car if your commute takes three hours out of your day.

You are not necessarily affluent if you have the latest tech gadgets and you also lack health care. Or if the purchase of said gadgets lead to enormous credit card debt.

If you are stuck in a job you hate in order to pay the expensive mortgate and car payments, are you affluent?

The truth is that affluence is only unsustainable if we measure it in terms of cars and plasma TVs.

But cars and plasma televisions don't necessarily make people happier or healthier.

Instead, what if we view an affluent society as a society with high quality universal health care, education, and social security? As a society with adequate soup kitchens and shelters for those who are going through tough times? As a society with excellent public transportation, so that a car is not a necessity. As a society where kids can bike up and down the street without fear of getting run over? As a society with walkable neighborhoods filled with small coffee shops, restaurants, book stores, movie theatres, parks and museums?

Is the life of the average cookie-cutter suburban McMansion living, SUV-driving, American sustainable for everyone on the planet?


But who said that that's affluence anyway?


Anonymous said...

Totally agree! I feel so much more affluent than ever before. And I have minimal savings, no stable income and no plasma tv BUT life is good. I'm happy doing what I love, living where I love, feeling very lucky.

We need to retrain ourselves not to see consumer items as the holy grail to happiness and affluence.

EcoBurban said...

I agree, and with the drastic changes to our economy, I think more and more people are realizing that "keeping up with the Joneses" is NOT affluence, it's debt!

But, I do think that having enough warming shelters (it's -15 here today!), food banks, health care, good schools and safe places for children to play would be a better indicator of affluence in a society. In that regard, we are lacking. Especially in my part of the country anyway...

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is beautiful, and true. And it's a vision of affluence that is achievable.

Hey, i wanted to ask you - will you post about TV sometime? I know you've said you work in TV, and I wonder if you have a sustainable vision for TV, or movies, or media in general that you'd like to share?

I think the "TV is bad and I only watch good TV" attitude in the comments at noimpactman yesterday are pretty typical for a wide range of people, and it would be really great if we could have a different kind of conversation about it.

ruchi said...

Mrsdirtyboots, that's great! Being happy doing what you're doing IS affluent.

EcoBurbs, yeah, and this is exactly where the massive govt injection of cash should go, in my opinion. Health care, education, shelters, food banks, etc. Let's hope....

Rosa, oh, man, I don't know. I had to stop reading the comments at NIM because they were causing my blood pressure to spike! And I admit, I'm not particularly objective about television; I adore TV, it was my livelihood for so long, it's enabled me to take a year off and go to school, and it's very, very real to me. It's easy for other people to talk about TV and how it's evil in an abstract way. For me, the TV industry is REAL people. You know, who I actually personally know. But let me see if I can come up with a reasonable way to broach the discussion.

Willo said...

I agree. For some reason affluence inspires the image of fluidity in my mind, the freedom to move through your life with ease. A lot of time I think the more stuff you have the less you are able to do that.

Anonymous said...

I liked your post. Having done some travel in South/Central America, I have often questioned whether your definition of poverty is reflected by your normal standard of living. Were the people that I saw in Guatemala truly poor? Or were they poor because the way I live is different than the way they live?

There is poverty in Central/South America. I don't doubt that at all. But I suspect that some of the people that Americans tended to see as poor were not so poor. They simply lived a different life than I was accustomed to seeing.

Anonymous said...

I understand - I used to sell advertising. Now I work at a private university, and not the presitigious kind with a big endowment. Before that, I worked in a pawn shop.

But I doubt many of those commentators have careers that protect the environment and work toward social justice. How we think about jobs is something we all need to talk about too.

Plus I think a lot of the "I don't watch TV, it's bad" people *do* watch TV, they just try to label it as not-TV. So there's a whole thing about the interaction of media & society that's worth talking about.

I try to limit my exposure because I know it's bad for my self-image and my kid is way too young to cope, but I think I limit it the way you occasionally stop eating meat - because I stray from moderation towards total over-ingestion if I don't check myself.

Ha. Maybe I should try this on my own blog. It's a lot of work, though. I'd rather if you did it ;)

EJ said...

Has there ever been an affluent society, then?

If not, why not?

If there has been, how long has this affluence lasted? I would think that it would have to be for many generations to be considered sustainable.

How can affluence be reconciled with current population and resource depletion?

Count me out of tv post- haven't watched any for years (over 20), grew up with limited tv, often don't know who/what people are talking about... All good things for me.

Green Bean said...

I like your definition of affluence. Truly fitting.

Donna said...

There's a saying over at Compassion International: The opposite of poverty is... enough.

I think it's likely that affluence is not sustainable, but maybe "enough" is. (It had better be!) I don't know exactly what "enough" is, but it's something to think about.

sunflowerchilde said...

Great post! While I'm not crazy about my job, I live in a wonderful town with excellent public transportation and bike lanes, farmer's markets, community gardens, great schools, continuing education and extra-curricular activities for all ages levels. The problem? No one can afford to live here because everyone wants to be here. Due to growth limits to keep the community small, demand far exceeds supply.

So my question is - why? If there are enough people who want this kind of lifestyle, why aren't cities and towns creating it? Or do people just want to buy in because they see the value of owning a house here is so high, and they know that the growth limits will keep it that way, and they don't care about the community?