Reversal of Fortune
By Bill McKibben
| Thu March 1, 2007 12:00 AM PST
The formula for human well-being used to be simple: Make money, get happy. So why is the old axiom suddenly turning on
For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss
one stone and hope to hit them both. That's why the centuries since Adam Smith launched modern
economics with his book
The Wealth of Nations
have been so single-mindedly devoted to the dogged
pursuit of maximum economic production. Smith's core ideas—that individuals pursuing their own
interests in a market society end up making each other richer; and that increasing efficiency, usually by
increasing scale, is the key to increasing wealth—have indisputably worked. They've produced more
More than he could ever have imagined. They've built the unprecedented prosperity and ease that
distinguish the lives of most of the people reading these words. It is no wonder and no accident that
Smith's ideas still dominate our politics, our outlook, even our personalities.
But the distinguishing feature of our moment is this: Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest.
And that changes everything. Now, with the stone of your life or your society gripped in your hand, you
have to choose. It's More
Which means, according to new research emerging from many quarters, that our continued devotion to
growth above all is, on balance, making our lives worse, both collectively and individually. Growth no
longer makes most people wealthier, but instead generates inequality and insecurity. Growth is bumping
up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding
the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous. And perhaps most surprisingly,
longer makes us happier
. Given our current dogma, that's as bizarre an idea as proposing that gravity
pushes apples skyward. But then, even Newtonian physics eventually shifted to acknowledge Einstein's
more complicated universe.
"We can do it if we believe it": FDR, LBJ, and the invention of growth
it was the great economist John Maynard Keynes who pointed out that until very recently, "there was no
very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilized centers of the earth." At
the utmost, Keynes calculated, the standard of living roughly doubled between 2000 B.C. and the dawn
of the 18th century—four millennia during which we basically didn't learn to do much of anything new.
Before history began, we had already figured out fire, language, cattle, the wheel, the plow, the sail, the