John de Graaf is the national coordinator of Take Back Your Time, an organization challenging time poverty and overwork in the U.S. and Canada and a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and over-consumption in America. He is also a documentary filmmaker. John is the co-author of the best-selling Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Berrett-Koehler, 2001/2005-now published in eight other languages as well.) He is interviewed by Am Johal.
De Graaf will be the keynote speaker at the De-Growth Conference this weekend in Vancouver.
Am Johal: You coined the term affluenza many years ago. What is it about contemporary neo-liberalism that we as a civilization have yet to reinvent our game? We have record personal and business bankruptcies, entire countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain teetering on economic collapse -- perhaps threatening to take other countries down with them. The US has unsustainable budgeting practises, that even in 10 years' time will be on the brink of disaster. How can consumerism be challenged as the dominant ideology of our time when all the signs of unsustainability are obvious?
John de Graaf: I actually didn't coin the term affluenza, but I did popularize it, I think. Neo-liberalism is based on a view of human nature that is hyper-competitive, greedy and self-interested. It views the good society as that in which every individual is free from government restraint and the market decides the allocation of economic resources. It's nice in theory, but like Soviet "socialism' it fails utterly in practice, leaving us a society of greater and greater inequality, long hours of work, great risk and insecurity, and increasing unhappiness and depression.
Consumerism, coupled with great inequality and flat incomes for the median worker over the past three decades, leads to overwork and debt. Workers cannot afford the myriad new products because their wages have not kept pace with productivity. They are only able to purchase them by going deeply into debt and working longer hours.
Meanwhile, the elites uses their massive new accumulations of profit to speculate wildly, and de-regulate financial transactions, the bomb that led to the financial crisis.
We must challenge consumerism and neo-liberalism by making clear what they lead to -- declining health, weakening social and community relationships and ecological catastrophe. Only a vision of a slower, less consumptive yet happier society has the potential to stop us from running over the cliff.
The news is not all bleak. The current recession has led to a huge increase in the US savings rate and improvements in health, volunteerism, diet, exercise, air quality and many other things as people have seen work hours reduced.
AJ: Even with contemporary crises like climate change, there is a profound lack of urgency displayed in government policy. Even at the cultural level, a lot of what is passed off as environmentally friendly or green is usually a marketing technique rather than a substantive intervention. How do societies move forward more rigorously on climate change?
JdG: Alternative technologies such as wind and solar are part of the answer, but technologies alone cannot prevent calamity. We must reduce our ecological footprint by trading gains in labour productivity for time instead of stuff. And we must actually begin to slowly reduce our consumption. The key is to demonstrate that such a change will not be a sacrifice but will actually increase life satisfaction. Time stress is today the biggest barrier to happiness in developed countries (see for example, the "Victoria, B.C. Happiness Index" as evidence of this).
AJ: What are the goals and the aims of the de-growth movement?
JdG: To find new ways of measuring progress to replace the notoriously unreliable GDP. To turn the political dialogue toward questions of quality of life rather than quantity of stuff. To stop unsustainable material growth and even reverse it, while increasing true human development.
AJ: What economic indicators should we be looking to rather than GDP as the sign of economic health of societies?
JdG: Health outcomes, mental health, self-reported happiness, leisure time, civic participation, artistic expression, community vitality, truly democratic governance and freedom, strong social connections, a vibrant intellectual culture and educational systems, conflict resolution and decreased military expenditures, empathy, access to nature, etc.
AJ: Economics as a profession is in a serious state of disrepute after the economic collapse of 2008. Why should we listen to these people?
JdG: We should listen to some people. Not all economists subscribe to neo-classical theory. Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, John Helliwell at UBC and many other economists understand the need for a new paradigm and a turn away from the current model. We should be careful not to lump all economists together and the same is true of business people. Many of them see the crisis clearly and want to turn things around.
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