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Professor of History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
What Is A Good Life?

The 2013 Edge question invites us to identify issues that are not on the public radar but should be, questions that ought to be hot topics in schools, homes, Parliaments, in the media, in the UN.

Here's an old, old question that has dropped off the radar: what is a 'good life'. Providing everyone with the foundations for a good life is a basic goal of public policy. Yet how little public debate there is about the real meaning of 'a good life'!

Perhaps we resist these questions because they conjure images of male Greek philosophers drinking watered-down wine at symposia. Can their answers offer us anything useful today?

Or perhaps we think we already know the answer. And indeed we do have an easy, plausible, and powerful answer that was not available to the Greeks: modern technologies let us imagine a world of ever-increasing material abundance for everyone. Standard indices of material wealth such as GDP or GNP (Gross Domestic/National Product) suggest that we live much better than the Greeks. Between 1500 and 2000 (according to the widely used estimates of  Angus Maddison) global GDP multiplied by almost 150 times, and per capita GDP by about 10 times. This is what we call 'growth'. And most of us most of the time are happy to take 'growth' as a surrogate for 'the good life', which is why most politicians, economists and entrepreneurs spend most of their time working to sustain growth.

The story of 'growth' dominates thinking about the good life partly because, as the Chinese say of Mao Zedong, it is 70% (well perhaps 50%) true. To enjoy a good life we need food, security, and protection from the elements and we must use energy and resources to provide these goods. Attempts by psychologists to measure 'subjective well-being' support the obvious conclusion that raising consumption levels above the poverty line is fundamental to our sense of well-being and contentment. A basic minimum of material consumption really is the indispensable foundation for a good life.

Yet the story of 'growth' is also at least 50% wrong. It is wrong in two important ways: it offers an impoverished understanding of the good life and it is steering us towards ecological chaos.

We all know that beyond a certain level (and that level may not be very high), well-being depends less and less on material consumption. If you've just had a great meal, you won't increase your well-being by immediately eating five more; restraint is a source of well-being as well as consumption. Indeed, many components of the good life do not require more consumption because they are renewable resources. They include: friendship, empathy, kindness and generosity, good conversation, a sense of beauty, a sense of physical well-being and security, a sense of contentment, a sense of intimacy, a sense of humour, and (the Edge's forte) a delight in good ideas.

Measures of increasing consumption cannot capture these psychic 'goods'. In March 1968, Just before he was assassinated, Robert Kennedy said in a speech at the University of Kansas: "The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. […] it counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl […] Yet the GNP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play It does not include the beauty of our poetry or … the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials […] it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

Even worse, the story of growth is steering us towards ecological chaos. The biosphere is rich in resources and extraordinarily resilient. But there are limits. And what 'growth' really means is ever increasing consumption of the energy and resources of the biosphere by one species, our own. Today, we are learning that 'growth' is pushing the biosphere to its limits. There is a real danger that biospheric systems will start breaking down, perhaps violently and fast, because we are messing with ancient, complex, unpredictable and global metabolic pathways, such as the Carbon and Nitrogen cycles.

If the resources of the biosphere are limited, then 'growth' cannot continue indefinitely. So we have to start imagining what a good life will look like in a world of limited resources. 

A basic level of material abundance is indeed the foundation. A good society will be one in which everyone enjoys the material foundations for a good life. But beyond that level, we will need to distinguish more clearly between the renewable and the non-renewable components of a good life. Can we learn better how to appreciate and enjoy the renewable resources of a good life?

Developing a more realistic story about the good life will be an essential step towards a better life and a more sustainable society. These conversations will be complex and difficult. They will engage educators, scientists, economists, politicians, artists, entrepreneurs and citizens as well as philosophers. But we desperately need the debate as we try to imagine a better future for our children and their children.