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July 31st, 2006
Mon, Jul. 31st, 2006 12:14 pm

I'm a post-materialist. Are you? Let's look at the Wikipedia definition:

"Post-materialism is an economic philosophy that emphasizes quality of life and environmental sustainability issues instead of earning income and material possessions."

I have a slight problem with that wording; what kind of economic philosophy rejects economic criteria? Surely this is a post-economic philosophy? Anyway, let's continue:

"Post-materialists give high priority to values such as more citizen input in government decisions, the ideal of a society based on ideas instead of money, and maintaining a clean and healthy environment, rather than to values associated with the philosophy of materialism such as economic growth, a strong national defense, and "law and order"."

This brings in the idea of the "new economy" people talked about in the 90s, where attention was going to be more important than money. It brings in ecology, and it maps post-materialism to a tender-minded left wing perspective.

"The term "post-materialism" was coined by the political scientist Ronald Inglehart in 1970."

Aha, at the peak of the hippy era! So post-materialists are hippies, or their descendants, the New Agers?

"One of his main hypotheses was that people place their highest interest in things they were relatively deprived of in their youth. Therefore, Inglehart argued that people growing up after the Second World War would generally have a more post-materialist value orientation than people growing up before, because they were not raised in times of material deprivation."

Wait, so we were deprived of deprivation? That gets confusing!

"This hypothesis would imply that the whole of society should grow more post-materialist over time. This has not yet turned out to be the case; in countries with a relatively high level of post-materialism such as The Netherlands or Sweden, the proportion of post-materialists in society hasn't even grown higher than 30 percent, and during some years declined. Still, the concept of post-materialism can be usefully related to libertarianism, (anti-)authoritarianism, egalitarianism, and party preference."

I'm interested in the 30% figure. Richard Florida has estimated that his beloved "creative class" is 30% (and growing) of the US working population:

"The creative class now includes some 38.3 million Americans, roughly 30 percent of the entire U.S. workforce---up from just 10 percent at the turn of the 20th century and less than 20 percent as recently as 1980. The creative class has considerable economic power. In 1999, the average salary for a member of the creative class was nearly $50,000 ($48,752), compared to roughly $28,000 for a working-class member and $22,000 for a service-class worker. Not surprisingly, regions that have large numbers of creative class members are also some of the most affluent and growing."

An article in Metropolis (Japan) about Japan's bureoning LOHAS ("lifestyles of health and sustainability", or Slow Life) phenomenon says that surveys show 25.3% of Japanese consumers qualify as "LOHAS" types, when asked about their involvement in environmentalism, health, social issues and spirituality, with an additional 34% sympathetic to the same views, but unwilling to spend extra on fair trade or slow life products.

So, a picture is emerging of a few nations with a post-materialist class of around 30% of the population: Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, perhaps Germany. What about America? Well, according to Metropolis that's where LOHAS started:

"The LOHAS concept is the brainchild of US sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Anderson, co-authors of The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World. The popular book, first published in 2000, identified a disparate US subculture with common concerns for such issues as the environment, well-being and social justice. The authors aimed to help these so-called “cultural creatives” unite, and in doing so they pegged a consumer demographic ripe for the picking."

Two warning bells ring for me there: one, the publication date, 2000. This book might belong more to a "record surplus, dot com boom" 1990s mindset than the post-9/11 paranoia-security-war mindset we live with now. Secondly, rather than a "subculture", this might just be a "consumer demographic". But in a market-led world, consumer choices matter, right?

Let's paint a bigger picture. The human world is at a turning point. We've benefitted enormously from industrialization, but we've inflicted serious damage on the planet in the process. What's more, some of us have discovered that, although a little money makes you a lot happier, a lot of money only makes a little difference. As we've seen before on this blog, studies show that there's an optimal annual income of about $20,000 beyond which more money doesn't make anyone significantly happier.

One view of this 30%, then, is that it's an emerging post-industrial class (call it "creative class" or "cultural creatives" or "post-materialist class", or what you like), and that, as more and more people get over material values, and more and more economies switch over to information and culture rather than production, this class will grow. Another thing that will make the class grow is the increasing evidence that the world has been damaged by industrialization, and that our priorities have been wrong.

This suggests that economic developments and climate change will only make this class more powerful. And there is evidence of that; enviro-politicians like Al Gore and David Cameron are, at this moment, limbering up, convinced there are election-winning votes in sustainability. Modern national elections can be won with percentages of around 40%, so getting our 30% of post-materialists on board could be crucial.

In my Wired article Japan Grows a Beard I wrote:

"Perhaps Japan's young "free spirits," together with the older, more affluent Slow Lifers, have something in common with the "tree-huggers, organic fructarians, solar-powered scooter riders, water-birth enthusiasts, Tantric-sex practitioners, world-music listeners, teepee dwellers, hemp-trouser wearers and Ayurvedic massage addicts" described in "A Brief History of Cranks," an excellent essay by Paul Laity in the current issue of Cabinet magazine. But, as Laity says, "Environmentalism is increasingly the cause rather than an eccentric distraction from it ... we are all sandal wearers now."

But are we all sandal-wearers now? Or only 30% of us? And what if we lose this battle to bring the world, presumably following us admiringly, into a post-materialist garden of Eden? What, in other words, if climate change produces nightmarish resource war, or what if post-materialism is simply an illusory consolation for outmoded Westerners as actual production shifts to China?

There are attacks on the post-materialist mindset from all directions.

"A century ago," writes James Woudhuysen, "Britain had ‘gas-and-water’ municipal socialists, whose most radical gesture was to take the supply of local household utilities into public ownership. Today we have spatial-cultural determinists, who believe that giving a spatial twist to artistic, recreational and educational pursuits is the key to urban regeneration and, more than that, economic revival. They miss the point. In 2005 you cannot, as economic professor Richard Florida famously has suggested, squeeze urban competitive advantage on the world economy through getting a diverse ‘creative class' to dynamise a city through its ideas. This gets the direction of causality entirely wrong. A city becomes prosperous because of the size and productivity of all its economic sectors. A city's fate depends also, quite obviously, on the performance of the national economy that surrounds it. To devote so much effort to one rather small and indistinct sector – creative and cultural industries – is to push water uphill. It is a habit that does little for local living standards, and instead only flatters urban planners. Do we really believe that a museum district will shower riches on local inhabitants? Or is what happens in workplaces the more central determinant of urban regeneration?"

There you go: the argument that there's no post-industrial economy on the way. That only old-fashioned industry (or financial services) can regenerate cities, and that old-fashioned gas-and-water socialism is needed to offset its excesses, rather than green and cultural politics.

It's often this development argument, coupled with rhetorical appeals to industrial era socialist concepts, which people make when they want to hit the 30% where it hurts. Why should people in developing countries listen to you, hippies, when you say that a wealth you've already attained isn't the right goal? Why kick away the ladder?

To answer this sort of argument, ambitious schemes have been devised. Carbon trading or offsetting and energy rationing schemes, for instance, reward the poor by imposing energy taxes on those whose eco-footprint over-reaches. The other side rejects these as "middle class guilt":

"I'm really unsure about these schemes," says Grimly Fiendish in an I Love Everything thread about enviro-guilt. "I mean, they're a good idea at heart, but the whole thing seems in danger of becoming a dreadful middle-class get-out clause: "Oh, I can afford to drive to work now without any guilt because someone somewhere is planting a tree."

This guilt-by-association reaction is a major problem; it seems the conscientious 30% are very unpopular with everyone else, partly, no doubt, because they're more affluent, but also because they occupy high moral ground. A BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze debate about climate change, for instance, saw Easyjet corporate affairs director Toby Nichol saying:

"There's been a fairly fundamental swing, it could co-incide with David Cameron talking about green issues more than they were talked about before. I think it could co-incide with a slightly middle class, post-materialist world. We don't see this debate in Germany, where unemployment is five million, we certainly don't see this debate in the accession European countries, Poland etc, where people have seen the benefits of aviation. In that sense it's a post-materialist, slightly guilty middle class perspective." (He was later corrected on the point about Germany, where of course there's a significant and influential Green movement, though it only gets 8.1% of the national vote. It has, though, been quite successful in pushing the essentially post-materialist argument that what has traditionally been called industrial policy should instead be renamed and pursued as environmental policy.)

Both sides of this argument use the poor to justify their positions. The industrial developers say we should learn from what the poor want to become (as rich as us... so doesn't that just mean "We should learn from us"?), whereas the post-industrial deconstructionists (they want to dismantle the system from within, using their middle-class guilt) say we should learn from what the poor actually are right now (model low-to-no consumers with slim environmental footprints).

But, as Jonathan Porritt, Chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, says in the Moral Maze programme, it won't do to assume that the future belongs to those who don't give a damn about the environment, or that the nation currently growing fastest in material production is disregarding the environment (Bush's argument for not ratifying Kyoto): "The political class in China," Porritt says, "is much more focused on issues of climate change than most governments in Western Europe."

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