Thesis 2: The next several decades will be ones of austerity, limits, and belt-tightening. Gigantic levels of government debt in the US, Great Britain, and Japan will lead to either anemic, tepid economic growth of only 1% or 2% per year, or frequent recessions in which Gross Domestic Product declines. Growing wealth inequality, rising oil prices, the specter of Peak Oil, and the need to reduce carbon dioxide outputs (because of global warming) will all lead to a landscape in which people have smaller houses and cars, spend less money, and take fewer trips.
Strangely enough, Thesis 1 and Thesis 2 are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there's a good chance that both will come to pass.
If you think that these two propositions are mutually exclusive, you may have given too much credence to some of the tenets of the Religion of Consumerism which almost all of us have been indoctrinated in since birth. You may have been indoctrinated in a monotheistic religion every Sunday, but the average American has also been indoctrinated in the Religion of Consumerism seven days a week, through media such as television and the internet. The high priests of the Religion of Consumerism work on Madison Avenue, and are abetted by leaders in Washington D.C, who foolishly regard Gross Domestic Product as if it were a good measure of national happiness.
Below are some of the hallowed tenets of the Religion of Consumerism:
- The way to become happy is to accumulate material possessions
and consume goods and services.
- The larger and more expensive the material possessions you
acquire, and the more goods and services you consume, the happier
you will be.
- The way in which you obtain status in life is by
conspicuously consuming and acquiring goods, possessions, and
services, so that you provoke envy from your fellow consumers.
If these tenets were true, then there would be no hope that we might be happy in a future of stagnant or slightly declining Gross Domestic Product. But luckily these tenets are not true. The Religion of Consumerism is a false creed.
Let me cite a few quick facts to support this claim. A study has shown that lottery winners are not happier than non-winners. Another study shows that having an income over 75,000 dollars a year does nothing to increase your happiness. Apparently multi-millionaires aren't happier than a person who makes merely 75,000 a year. Another very revealing study examined the effects on happiness of eight types of consumption (leisure, durables, charity, personal care, food, health care, vehicles, and housing), and found that only one of them (leisure) produced an increase in happiness.
Based on these findings, let us construct a counter-creed to the Religion of Consumerism, which we may call the doctrine of frugal happiness. It might go something like this:
- The main way to be happy is to engage in activities that you
enjoy, either at work or at home (or ideally both).
- If you have lots of activities that provide pleasure to you,
you can be happy while spending relatively little money, and without
having much wealth.
- You should pay no attention to what others think about the
quality or cost of goods and services that you consume, and should
never pay more or buy more to impress other people.
Because this doctrine is valid, there is a large chance that you will be very happy in the future, even if future decades are ones of frugality, belt-tightening, and austerity.
Let's take a look at a plausible scenario for what life might be like for you in the future.
You and your friends don't drive much, because gas has gotten very expensive. You don't go on many vacations to places far away, because plane tickets have become very expensive. You haven't got as much money as you used to have, because the government has raised taxes to help cover the interest payments on the many trillions of dollars it borrowed. With the economy being weak, you don't work as many hours as you would like. But nonetheless you sure as heck aren't spending any time sadly staring into space. That's because you have countless low-cost opportunities for enjoyment and pleasure. You have a little gadget with the power of a 2013 supercomputer, which you bought without paying much money. You can download countless hour-long videos for free from many different web sites such as www.youtube.com, and you can read any of thousands of free illustrated e-books. You can video chat with your friends all over the world for free, or almost nothing. You have a choice of hundreds of insanely entertaining video games you can play on your video console using your wide-screen TV. The games have 3D graphics so realistic it's like watching a movie, and the artificial intelligence is so good that it's hard to believe you're not dealing with a human when you match wits with a computer character. You can go on interactive virtual tours of thousands of spots in the world, allowing you to do things like virtually walk along the rim of an active volcano, or virtually canoe down the Amazon river. If you ever want to talk with someone, and your friends are busy, you can talk with any of numerous software chatbots which look just like real people, and give answers and responses so realistic you can't believe that they're not humans. If you get tired of using your brain, you can try some marijuana, which was effectively decriminalized a few years back. Plus there are numerous opportunities for altered consciousness experiences, given a huge number of designer drugs, and electrode head caps providing various types of electrical brain stimulation. There are also countless opportunities for web-based erotic entertainment, which is becoming increasingly interactive.
Now in such a world, are you going to look back with envy at the people in 1985 who had more car trips, plane trips, and bigger houses?
No, you will not.
Remember, the study cited above concluded that the only type of spending that increases happiness is leisure spending. So if the future gives us an ocean of super-entertaining leisure available for relatively little cost, the American of the future is likely to be a happy one, even if he drives less, flies less, shops less, and has a smaller car and house.