During the financial crisis, it actually felt good to slow our lives down a little. But how easily we forget that spending more doesn’t make us happier and, all too soon, we’re back to wanting everything to be newer and bigger. Journalist Jocelyn de Kwant looks into why we put so much value on growth.
During the economic crisis, my husband and I were financially unable to move to a bigger house. And as it simply wasn’t possible, we made necessity a virtue and decided that our little house was actually good enough. I looked into the Tiny House Movement and found lots of great tips in video clips and blogs, and my husband enjoyed getting rid of as much of our stuff as he could.
We also started sharing items instead of buying them: we shared an electric drill with one neighbor, a cat carrier with another. It was pretty snug, living with our two children, but when we stopped acquiring so many possessions, it continued to be livable. It even gave us a certain sense of peace, and was also better for the environment to be less consumerist. And it fit perfectly in the ‘simplify movement’ that I noticed happening around me.
Renewed purchasing power
And now, a few years on, the crisis is over. We were able to sell our house profitably and move to a big home (by Amsterdam standards, where we live) with our own drill and own cat carrier. But when my husband started waxing poetic about the latest iPhone, which had just been released to great fanfare, I suddenly got a weird feeling in my stomach — a feeling of disgust. Are we back to square one?
The government constantly talks about ‘purchasing power’, and on TV the generation after mine is bragging about their new Rolexes and the money they’re earning. It felt so good to tighten our belts during the crisis, so why do we seem to be chasing what’s bigger, better and newer again? While reading the book Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Israeli historian, philosopher and author Yuval Noah Harari, the penny dropped. In one of the final chapters, Harari explains that growth is simply one of the foundations on which Western civilization is built.
In a nutshell, before modern times, profit was suspicious; it was even considered sinful. The thinking was that there is one cake and it doesn’t get any bigger. So if I get a big piece of the cake, it means that I’ve taken some from someone else. People didn’t give each other things on credit, because there was no expectation of growth. Without credit no new businesses arose, so for a long period of humankind’s history there was virtually no economic growth.
That is, until about five hundred years ago, at the start of the Scientific Revolution. As new inventions appeared and new fields of knowledge were being discovered, people found out that the cake could actually become bigger. For the first time, people started issuing loans, because they had the confidence that a company could make a profit and the borrowed money would be repaid — with interest.
This confidence in the future generated real economic growth and that growth opened the door to even greater credit. Countries that understood this well grew at lightning speed. Profit was not evil; on the contrary, profit brought prosperity.
- In the rest of the article you can read about how this new perception on profit and economic growth has influenced our need for always wanting more. And how we can also make do with less every now and then. The rest of the article can be found in Issue 26.
Text Jocelyn de Kwant Photography ©Aleksandar Novoselski/Stocksy United