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The democratization of envy

Man's desires are infinite.

The amount of household wealth which suffices for a good life is not unlimited.


Envy is an emotion which seems to make no special claim on a particular epoch. Humans everywhere and in every time have experienced it or at least admit to knowing someone who is filled with it. But, longing for the fame, abilities or possessions of others is only useful in the long run if a person has the means to attain them or, at least, believes he or she may someday come by those means.

This explains why for most of history envy has simply taken its place alongside the list of perennial sins that have occupied human beings from the dawn of the species. For most of history most humans either had little to be envious of (as in hunting and gathering societies) or little prospect of obtaining that which they envied (as in feudal societies with their low social mobility).

But, all of that changed with the emergence of industrial society and the concomitant discovery of large quantities of fossil fuels, particularly oil and natural gas. These seemingly endless stores of concentrated power allowed humankind to create previously unimaginable wealth and social mobility. And, with these developments came a society whose central emotion is envy.

Competitive enterprise is at the heart of industrial capitalism. The presumed motive for success is profit. And, the presumed benefit of profit is the ability to afford more goods and services. There is, of course, a benefit to material comfort. But beyond a certain point wealth goes into displays of social status. At the height of ancient Rome, we are told by Thorstein Veblen in his classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class, powerful and well-to-do Romans exhibited their status through displays of vicarious leisure. They hired attendants or kept slaves who did nothing but follow them around. The size of a retinue was a measure of a man's influence and resources. Anyone who could hire others to do nothing, that is to enjoy their master's leisure vicariously, surely must be a person of some station.

In today's mass society status is now routinely communicated through the display of possessions, the sight of which can reach so many more people. (Veblen coined the popular term for this kind of behavior: conspicuous consumption.) How many times have you passed lavish homes of wealthy heirs or successful entrepreneurs whose names you know, but whom you've never met? Cars, boats, even entire islands can serve the same purpose of display.

With the advent of worldwide telecommunications the whole pageant can now be put on television and beamed to every hamlet which has a solar panel and a TV set. This development more than any other has democratized envy, a particular type of envy that is very closely tied to modern consumerism and thus to the energy-intensive infrastructure which makes that consumerism possible.

Of course, the poor inhabitants of the earth only want what we who live in industrialized countries take for granted: easy travel; large, well-furnished living spaces with central heating and air-conditioning; diets high in animal products; modern medical care; labor saving devices; consumer gadgets of all kinds and the vast array of urban distractions which we call entertainment.

But the point of television-induced consumerist envy is that it can never be satisfied. The newest fashions in housewares, automobiles, electronic wonders, vacation destinations, and megahomes are designed to stimulate ever greater competitiveness among the envious masses (and thus drive up consumption). And, it is the role of modern advertising to encourage that competitiveness.

This is what drives economic growth in industrialized countries, and it will soon be the basis for growth in the so-called developing world. Certainly, there are advancements in medicine, diet and educational opportunity which are important to the well-being of the world's many poor. But, once they pass beyond the stage of want, they move directly into the whirlwind of ever-expanding, unquenchable consumer desire born of envy.

The rich, of course, continue to pursue their larger yachts, grander homes and expensive galas. But, the rich have always done this because it has always been within their means. And, so the wealthy live under the perpetual sway of envy. But, now the world's masses seek to put envy at the center of their lives as their new-found wealth--courtesy of the ongoing fossil-fueled transformation of the planet--makes it possible.

The gap between rich and poor, far from being the curse of modern industrial society, is its very engine. The resulting endless striving which capitalism's defenders say is its cardinal virtue has become the road to ecological overshoot.

The question then for a future with ecological limits becomes: What shall we do with this powerful force of envy which has been awakened across the globe? How will people, both the rich and those aspiring to greater wealth, come to grips with limits which will undermine the consumer society within which that envy flourishes?

At a conference on peak oil and the environment that I attended not too long along, one of the organizers explained that he used to work as a broker on Wall Street servicing wealthy individuals, many worth $50 million or more. By the time he moved on to his next job, the bull market had made most of them much richer. But, he observed, they seemed no happier.

Ultimately, he left Wall Street altogether to begin work on a doctorate in ecological economics. He explained it this way: He said he knows his "relative fitness drives" (which lurk behind the culture of envy) can't be extinguished. Such drives are a part of every human. But he has decided to redirect those drives toward making his mark as someone who helps human societies become more sustainable.

When it comes to redirecting the culture of competitiveness and envy, his path seems like a good place start.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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