Consumption envy and going backwards

One of my other hats is to run the youth group at church, and we’re doing a series this term on “Life in 2012”, getting them to look critically at modern culture. Environment and sustainability issues will be in there, of course!

In the first session, I did a little presentation comparing life in 2012 with life in 1982, mainly with the point of getting across to them that the way we live today isn’t the only thing possible, and things have changed quite radically in a generation. I asked them to think whether they’d rather live then or now, and got one very perceptive reply: “Do we know what today is like when we make the choice? Because going back seems like a better option, but not if you know how much you’re having to give up.” (Overall, it seemed about 50/50 in favour of each, with quite vocal opinions on both sides. We have a few definitely wedded to modern technology, but others definitely seem to find the pressure and uncertainty of their future lives an issue. Not that either issue was absent in 1982 of course.)

The other point about 1982 is that it was a time when it looked like we were moving forward, getting steadily more well off, and – important to a science-fiction and technology-obsessed eleven-year-old as I was – heading into the kind of high tech future that had been dreamed of.

When considering potential futures for the developed world, I’m not sure these kind of factors get as much weight as they might. (But for the underdeveloped they do: they can see our opulence, probably overestimated given the media they see, and want it too.)

I don’t think we’re likely to completely eliminate the human desire for progress, so the challenge is to present the kind of future we want as an improvement to what we want now, not a reversal to the way our parents or grandparents lived, which is sometimes how Transition comes across. Even if we are trying to learn from their example.


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