Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being"

Sylvia Lorek

In Christopher Barrington-Leigh's sharp piece, he articulates much of what I am thinking and working upon as well. There is only one main difference: what he calls “well-being,” “life satisfaction,” or “happiness,” I tend to call the “good life.”

Let me explain. The “good life” for me is not having a position at the top of the hierarchy (or the ladder in Barrington-Leigh’s article). It does not mean being the Joneses. As I have worked in the field of sustainable consumption all my life, the “good life” for me first of all contrasts with the “better life” constantly referred to in scientific and political documents since the Brundlandt definition of sustainable development. Unfortunately, the term “better life” inherently transports a constant notion of dis-satisfaction, of not enough, of need for improvement even for those already on a level where well-being and material possession are not really linked anymore. The “good life” instead is something that can and should last, without a permanent more, better, higher, wider. It contains a relaxing notion of contentedness.

I have been convinced for a long time that sustainability and a good life go hand in hand. What Barrington-Leigh, however, helped me to see more clearly than before is that approaching sustainability from the good life perspective is the more useful and convincing way. Let me briefly sketch out the difference. If I take the need for reduced (resource) consumption as a starting point to induce change, I will most likely have to prove to my audience that this is nothing people have to worry about because the material losses they might have will be (over)compensated through social/societal improvements. I am in a defensive position. If I instead argue for a good life highlighting all the benefit of intrinsic values an orientation towards such a life will bring a reduced consumption somehow as a side effect according to our assumptions, it becomes easier. Working and arguing for human agency, trust between humans, faith in the future, cultural wealth, community wealth, and public wealth is so much more appealing to neighbors, colleagues, and policy makers than arguing for the need for reduction.

That said, there was one aspect in the article which very much irritated me: the technological description of a sustainable society. Yes, I agree on sharing. Yes, I believe in commons. But what is this technological fix about? 3D printers to solve environmental problems? What exactly is the “ink” in such printers? If simple plastic, then we would only produce waste again, and not long-lasting products. If it is some serious material, where does it come from? Will it really reduce resource consumption? Or would we produce similar volumes of products as we do now and in addition have to serve the 3D printers and the logistics to bring the raw material to the printers?

The EU SPREAD project has elaborated on four sustainability scenarios, having 3D printer technology in one of them. Barrington-Leigh and all the other readers and commenters may like to consider the differences between them. For me, a collaborative and sharing society (different from the market- and money-focused “sharing economy”) based much more on crafts then on high-tech promises would be a more preferable future.

Sylvia Lorek
Sylvia Lorek is a researcher and policy consultant for sustainable consumption governance at the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI) in Germany. Her work focuses on the intersection between microeconomics and macroeconomics in charting a path toward a good life for all.

Cite as Sylvia Lorek, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Sustainability and Well-Being," Great Transition Initiative (April 2017)

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