In the pursuit of sustainable development, two strategies have emerged: green growth and degrowth. Green growth advocates for technological innovation to decouple economic expansion from resource consumption and environmental impact. On the other hand, degrowth proponents argue that limiting production and consumption is necessary to preserve resources for future generations. However, neither approach has yielded significant results so far. Technological advancements and energy efficiency alone are insufficient to curb environmental degradation without addressing consumption patterns.
Interestingly, a growing number of people, especially among younger generations, are deeply concerned about environmental issues. Studies reveal that awareness of environmental destruction is widespread, with a majority expressing worry about climate change and its impact on daily life. This contradicts the assumption that people are apathetic towards the future. Why do people continue to engage in unsustainable behaviors, then?
An alternative explanation of unsustainability
A less known explanation argues that anxiety about the future, distrust in others and in institutions give leeway to hopelessness and disempowerment, which can result in behaviors prioritizing personal or immediate benefits over long-term sustainability. If people trust that others will do their part in a collective effort, and that the institutions in charge of coordination are reliable, then people will likely cooperate to solving common problems, such as environmental issues. However, if trust is low, the possibilities for cooperation are scarce and people opt for private solutions to shelter themselves and their beloved ones against deteriorating environment.
This is a typical problem of collective impotence: the crisis of cooperation leads to private solutions, boosts consumption and growth, prioritizes money, introduces a trade-off between productive and unproductive activities, and worsens the ecological problem. Anxiety about the future, combined with distrust in collective action, may transform people into formidable consumers. The result is growing environmental and social degradation amidst economic growth and unhappiness.
Neo-Humanism: Liberating Well-being from Consumption
Neo-humanism offers a project to lead satisfactory lives that are socially and environmentally sustainable, and challenges the notion that economic growth is always beneficial. It proposes a redefinition of performance, corresponding to societies’ ability to transform resources into high quality of life. Neo-humanism does not advocate for degrowth, but rejects the pursuit of growth at any cost. Instead, it encourages prioritizing social and environmental sustainability.
Evidence suggests that economic growth can be compatible with subjective well-being in countries that promote full employment and social safety nets, protect social relations, and reduce income inequalities. In such countries, the economy might grow slower than elsewhere, but, according to Neo-humanism, slow or near-zero economic growth is not necessarily a bad sign. On the contrary, it may signal a system that is better organized to support quality of life.
By leveraging knowledge from quality-of-life studies, neo-humanism argues that it is possible to establish a virtuous cycle in which the explicit pursuit of well-being through policies, such as promoting social relations and cooperation, contributes to a socially and environmentally compatible economic growth. As the future is undeniably threatened (although this should not lead to despair), the solution to promote sustainable behaviors hinges on cooperation. The good news is that cooperation can be cultivated through social relations — the connections that people have with others, including family, friends, and community. Social relations promote well-being, and favor sustainable behaviors. They provide a sense of belonging and community, encouraging people to engage in pro-social behaviors such as volunteering, and participating in community activities.
Social relations allow also to establish trust and cooperation, which foster a sense of shared responsibility and a willingness to work together to address common problems, such as environmental degradation. People with rich social lives are more satisfied with their lives, tend to consume less, and to compare less with others. This, on one hand, reduces negative externalities of consumption to the benefit of the environment, and creates the conditions for cooperation and cohesiveness in happy societies. In sum, promoting social relations would favor decoupling well-being from consumption: people could lead satisfactory lives independently of what they consume, thus reducing their environmental impact.
Increased well-being, on the other hand, contributes to productivity, which is good for economic growth. Estimates suggest that increasing life satisfaction by one unit in countries like France or Germany leads to efficiency gains that are equivalent to nearly 80 working hours per year. This should not be difficult to achieve, considering the prevalent low levels of satisfaction in many workplaces. Another study at industry-level across European countries documented that one unit increase in job satisfaction is associated to nearly 6% increase in the growth rate of labour productivity. Such growth, however, is driven by creativity, not defensive consumption; it may be slow, but well suited to fit people’s needs. Most importantly, in such a future, people’s ability to enjoy life does not depend on the resources they own, and economic growth is a desirable but not necessary consequence of humans’ activity.
Times are changing
The cultural change necessary to support neo-humanist policies appears to be underway. It looks like after years of prevailing individualism, people are re-discovering the importance of the social dimension of living together, of intrinsic motivations and mutual responsibility. The Great Resignation, a phenomenon characterized by a significant and voluntary exodus of employees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, provides a good example, besides a noteworthy cultural shift in the labor market.
Aleksandra Kuzior and her colleagues link resignation to generational cultural traits. They observe that millennials (1980-1996) and Gen Z (1997 – 2010) make up a large proportion of the current labor force, and of those who have prevalently resigned according to LinkedIn data. Why? These generations prioritize self-fulfillment, satisfaction, respect, recognition, continuous development, fairness, tolerance and equity. When given a choice between a dull, well-paid job and one with less pay but more interesting tasks, 50% of Zoomers chose the latter. A 2021 study by McKinsey found that relational factors, such as not feeling valued and a lack of sense of belonging, play a predominant role in pushing workers out of the workplace in Australia, Canada, Singapore, UK and US.
Kuzior and colleagues trace the Great Resignation back to the divide between what modern employers offer, which reflects the established business schools’ culture, and what young employees truly care about. This argument is relevant irrespective of the size and scope of the Great Resignation. It highlights a significant portion of the current working-age population shares cultural traits that align with Neo-humanism, such as valuing intrinsic motivations, social relations, making a difference, caring for the environment and the future.
The overemphasis on GDP as a measure of success has diverted attention from crucial aspects of people’s lives, such as their relationships with others and the environment. The erosion of the social and natural environments results from such myopic thinking, and highlights the need for a paradigm shift. Prioritizing well-being through the promotion of social relations and cooperation can bring far-reaching social and environmental benefits without economic sacrifices.
On the contrary, it may contribute to starting a virtuous cycle whereby investments in social relations promote well-being and contribute to economic growth thanks to efficiency gains: a creativity-led growth liberated from defensive consumption. Likely a slower or near-zero growth, but one signaling an economic organization that is compatible with the social and environmental needs of modern societies.
Moreover, prioritizing well-being would also benefit the economy by reducing healthcare costs, as people satisfied with their lives tend to live longer and healthier lives. This is especially important for countries with aging populations, in which the number of healthy life years is reducing – an alarming figure revealing the regress of modern societies. Ultimately, promoting well-being and social relations empowers people and enables cooperation to address collective issues by strengthening social cohesion. All these elements will likely reduce consumption while delivering satisfactory lives.