Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Pseudo satisfiers and Sustainability Non-sense

Reflections on: ‘Sustainability Sense: Creating value in an economic downturn’ PP4SD conference, 23rd February 2010, Thistle Hotel, Victoria, London.

Responding to our values: Pseudo satisfiers and Sustainability Non-sense

Morgan Phillips

When talking about values, the things we as social actors place a value on, love, status, trust, fast cars, fun, houses, education, compassion and so on, we must also talk about emotions and the power of them. When does a human being have emotional wellbeing, when are they emotionally stable or high? I would argue that it is when they are able to live their lives in ways that allow them to have, protect or feel the benefit of the things they value. So if someone wants status symbols, enjoys regular big nights out, likes smoking cigarettes, cherishes Costa coffee mornings, loves clothes from Primark and a dozen other 'unsustainable' things and is able to get/experience them, they will have emotional wellbeing. It may not be continuous but they are able, thanks to credit cards, stable employment, overdrafts and so on, to sustain frequent enough waves of hedonistic highs to make the lows or boredom in between bearable. They're on the hedonic treadmill1.

The argument from many environmentalists, myself included2, is that we need to understand better what brings us stable sustained emotional wellbeing, which has occasional highs, but does not collapse into painful lows of confusion, regret, shame and anger. The New Economics Foundation3 ask in their edited book 'Do Good Lives Have To Cost The Earth?' Most of the chapters in that book argue 'no' and this is crucially important to sustainability.

Often the reasons we behave in unsustainable ways are more to do with our misunderstandings about how to protect, have or enjoy the things we value and there seems to be a hierarchy of values. We value one thing because we value another and we value that because we value something else; something more profound. It is not a simple linear thing however. We may value something like a bicycle for many different reasons, health benefits, time saving, exhilaration, etc, which all align, eventually, with our deeper values. We might however, place high value on an expensive gift from our partner as we see it as a measure of how much we are loved (valued) by them. The expensive gift may or may not have a large environmental or social justice impact, but its impact is likely to be more than something less tangible and arguably more loving: a hug, a kiss, a sacrifice, a poem etc. Loving someone means spending time with them, taking a selfless act to make their day a bit nicer, being loyal and understanding when and when not to bring up sensitive issues. Buying expensive gifts to compensate for not being able to do these things because of other commitments (work, leisure, etc) is not, in my opinion, the wisest way to show someone that you value them.

So, if emotional wellbeing is indeed linked to how congruent our values are with our lives, we are likely to get upset/ angry/ dissatisfied/ jealous when they are not. For example we might experience status anxiety4 if we feel our neighbours house, car, holiday, sofa, partner even, is more glamorous than our own. Emotions like anger, frustration and jealousy, when stirred up, are powerful drivers of behaviour change. The urge we get to 'kick out' at others or ourselves to try to change the conditions that are disrupting our emotional wellbeing intensifies as we get more angry, upset etc, so the more fierce the emotion, the more likely the change is. On a more positive note, we are also likely to modify our behaviour in ways that we believe will enhance our wellbeing. We shape our lives in ways that are likely to increase our chances of having and protecting the things we value, whatever they may be. We may not always change our behaviour in the right ways, we may fall back on old habits and lead ourselves back into the frustration we’re trying to escape and this is where education can help.


Discussions of values and proxy values are therefore very important. If after a discussion about status symbols an individual begins to get frustrated with the false promises of advertising and then, because of a realisation, or perhaps an admission, that material wealth does not guarantee happiness, they may get sufficiently emotional to strive for change. This change could be personal or at the sub - systemic level of an organisation they are a stakeholder in, or at the systemic level of a consumerism based economy. The vast majority of people, if you ask them, will value core things like love, happiness, friendship, tolerance, equality, health, compassion, openness, liberty, respect, generosity, empathy and kindness, among other things as Paul Murray showed us yesterday. Given this, a discussion of how we seek to observe these in, or have them facilitated by, other social actors is as important, if not more important than a discussion about how we can be kind, tolerant, etc to others and not impinge on their freedom, health etc. When we feel we need to change, we need to learn how to change.

I value nature, I get upset, angry and frustrated when I learn about the innumerable ways in which it is exploited by business, individuals and governments. I feel uncomfortable when I engage with social actors who are not doing their upmost to lessen their unsustainable behaviours. Ideally I support more sustainable competitors to send out market signals and fill out feedback forms like this one (http://www.thistlefeedback.com/) with constructive criticism and offers of help and advice. Beyond that, there is not much else I can do as an individual; it is out of my sphere of control. But these actions are enough for me to maintain my emotional wellbeing.

Paul Maiteny taught us yesterday about the importance of emotion; our emotional drives as educators and the importance of exploring, even challenging the emotions of others. An exploration of our emotional wellbeing and the reasons why we value the things we do is very important. When the things we value appear under threat we get emotional and feel moved to act. It is a crude thing to say but a lot of people still believe (or at least behave as if they do) that material wealth = happiness, they therefore value the ‘wrong’ things environmentally and, if you agree with the Affluenza5,6,7,8 hypothesis, the ‘wrong’ things emotionally. The consequence is a ‘take, make, waste’ economy with an infantalised9 population that is constantly in need of external stimulation and consequent gradual but persistent environmental degradation. As educators, in whatever capacity, we need to help people unpick the material wealth = happiness paradigm at personal, sub-systemic and systemic levels. And, importantly, we need to help them to truly connect with the values that are inherent within us all. We need to help them discover true satisfiers and protectors of the things they value to replace their cravings for the pseudo-satisfiers, which keep them locked on the hedonic treadmill1.

What does this do at the systemic level, within business? I don’t know. If a business recognises that its future success is tied up in some direct or indirect way with the persistence of the material wealth = happiness paradigm, they may be resistant to ‘training’ that encourages its employees and customers to question it. If it truly wants to be sustainable, it may recognise the long term benefits of a wellbeing based economy and seek to change itself to be at the forefront of making it happen. To do this it will need an employee base that understands and values this approach; workers who feel proud to be an employee, customer and advocate.

People value ‘unsustainable’ things not because they hate the environment, but because they believe that these things will protect or enhance the deeper things they value like love, happiness and respect. It is the value we place on pseudo-satisfiers that needs to be explored, not our underlying, core values. Is it possible to find and access the people we need to explore it with?

  1. Easterlin, R.A. (1974) Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence, In: David, R. and Reder, R. (Eds.), Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramovitz. New York, USA, Academic Press
  2. Phillips, M. (2009) Emotional Wellbeing In: Stibbe, A. (Ed), The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, UK, Green Books
  3. Simms, A. & Smith, J. (eds.) Do good lives have to cost the earth? UK, Constable and Robinson Ltd.
  4. De Botton, A. (2004) Status Anxiety, UK, Penguin
  5. De Graff, J., Wann, D., and Naylor, T.H. (2002) Affluenza. The all consuming epidemic, USA, Berret-Koehler Publishers
  6. Hamilton, C. and Denniss, R. (2005) Affluenza. When too much is never enough, Australia, Allen and Unwin
  7. James, O. (2007) Affluenza, UK, Vermilion
  8. James, O. (2008) The Selfish Capitalist, UK, Vermilion
  9. Barber, B.R. (2007) Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, New York, W.W. Norton and Company

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