Allan Levite is a freelance writer residing in San Francisco, California.
While surfing the Internet one day, I chanced upon an article by Jay Hanson, titled “The Woes of Modern Society.” In most respects it was standard environmentalist fare, bemoaning modern technology and the harm it has allegedly done to the earth and to humanity. Other writers have already dealt at length with the exaggerations and misstatements of the “green” movement, but Hanson has touched on a more philosophic issue that I want to address specifically—namely, the relationship between technology, affluence, and human happiness.
Technology and consumerism, he declares, have not brought greater happiness to humanity, as most people had previously believed they would. “Instead of richer and happier,” he claims, “we see that traditional economic development has actually made us poorer and un-happier. Indeed, history has shown us (very forcefully) that the pursuit of traditional economic development is actually the pursuit of un-happiness.”
An Old Story
Today’s green movement, in some respects, is a new force in political philosophy. But before we begin to think that Hanson’s anti-materialistic diatribe constitutes a new argument, we should stop to consider that few ideas have been more often encountered in literature than the notion that acquiring material possessions results in waste, greed, envy, and violence. Boredom with affluence, or the actual rejection of it, did not even begin with the hippie movement of the mid-1960s. Literary attacks on “luxury” incessantly appeared during the increasingly affluent late 1700s, coming from such well-known writers as Smollett, Pope, Swift, Rousseau, and Bolingbroke.
To this day, it is difficult to enter a bookstore without seeing yet another book from a major publisher that presents similar arguments all over again, to the accompaniment of pomp and fanfare. In 1993 alone, not counting the anti-growth primers by environmentalists, three books from major publishers trumpeted the same set of assumptions—that competition and the pursuit of material goods are destructive, and that mankind’s urge to consume is wasteful, vulgar, and self-defeating: Land of Desire by William Leach, Fool’s Gold by Andrew Schmookler, and Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. The year 1994 checked in with A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture by Earl Shorris. Going back to 1989 we find The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in An Age of Greed by Lawrence Shames and The Poverty of Affluence by Paul Wachtel—which, however, was issued by a minor publisher.
One thing to bear in mind is that the anti-materialistic theme seems to be the national anthem of writers, intellectuals, and debonair socialites, which suggests that the social guilt so typically experienced by these all-too-comfortable individuals is not unrelated to the philosophy itself. We rarely hear complaints about “excess consumption” coming from those who cannot afford luxuries, but rather from those who are jaded by them. George Lichtheim, in his not unsympathetic history of socialism, made a similar observation, but more bluntly, when he wrote that there is no need to waste time on the demand that the consumer society be abolished. “This kind of talk,” according to Lichtheim, “commonly issues from people who do not have to work for a living.”
Contentment’s Table of Contents
To bolster his argument that technological development and increased production have not increased the happiness of mankind as a whole, Hanson cites regular surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, which have indicated that the number of Americans who claim to be “very happy” (around a third of the population) is no greater now than it was in 1957, despite the fact that the gross national product and personal consumption expenditures per capita have nearly doubled since then.
But Hanson has responded to the wrong question with the wrong answer. First of all, it is fairly impressive that an entire third of the population considers itself not merely happy, but “very” happy, and perhaps this indicator has not increased because it is already as high as it can go. As he pointed out himself, the main determinants of happiness are unrelated to consumption, consisting of such things as satisfaction with family life (especially marriage), satisfaction with work, and leisure to develop talents and friendships. This hardly constitutes an argument that industrialism and affluence do not guarantee happiness, because happiness is such a subjective, personal, and fragile condition that any number of things can jeopardize it, and nothing can possibly guarantee it.
Hanson’s problem is that he confuses satisfaction, which results from specific acts or situations, with overall, general contentment. His argument against technological development along these lines is comparable to saying that baseball fans will never be truly happy unless their team wins the World Series every year. In a sense that might be true, at least for the most rabid partisans of their respective teams, but it hardly proves that the fans do not enjoy going to the stadium to watch games being played, or that this pastime is unimportant to them.
In claiming that technology and affluence do not prevent unhappiness, Hanson might just as well have said that if a person lives long enough, he or she will almost certainly experience the death of both parents, perhaps some other relatives as well, and perhaps even some close friends. Whether we speak of this occurring during the Dark Ages or today, such personal tragedies produce grief and unhappiness, so happiness will always be something that has definite limits. No matter what state current technology has reached, the transitory existence of happiness is likely to be interrupted by episodes of grief and loss. (Thomas Jefferson was astute enough, when writing the Declaration of Independence, to speak of the pursuit of happiness, not its attainment, which he realized was rare and fleeting.)
Therefore, Hanson would be right if he claimed that material possessions cannot substitute for family pleasures, and that riches cannot compensate for the loss of loved ones. But this is not their purpose. Technology does not exist to affect human happiness in the overall sense, but to increase specific satisfactions. Satisfaction and happiness are not the same thing, nor does one necessarily follow from the other. Technology may or may not increase overall happiness, but it can make specific tasks easier so that individuals can do more, make more things, and—yes—have more things.
To Do Is Better Than To Make Do
Since Hanson’s article appeared on the Internet, it is safe to assume that he composed it on a computer equipped with word-processing software. Using the technology of thirty years ago, he would have had to write it on a typewriter. Since writers tend to make corrections to their work (the real secret of good writing is rewriting), this would have taken much longer, robbing him of leisure time. Using the technology of Jefferson’s era, Hanson would have had to write with a quill pen and an inkpot, robbing himself of even more leisure time—which, as he points out, is one of the main components of happiness. This is not to say that he is a hypocrite, but only to point out that his anti-technological perspective blinds him from seeing how beneficial technology has been, even to him, and how it has enabled him to increase his satisfaction.
Even so, we cannot say that being able to write articles more quickly and more easily would make a major contribution to a writer’s overall happiness. As Hanson himself pointed out, our sense of contentment and satisfaction is not a mere function of what we achieve; it depends on our frame of reference—on how “what we attain compares to what we expected.” Indeed, every age has its own expectations, and there were certainly happy people during the pre-technological Dark Ages (such as Robin Hood and his “Merry Men”), just as there are today.
Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet would not be unhappy simply because they did not possess radios, televisions, or sports cars. They had no conception of such things. Moreover, their band of outlaws provided them with a network of close friends on whom they could depend for good humor, camaraderie, and moral support. But just because they were capable of happiness without such modern conveniences, it does not mean that they would have rejected them if they had learned of their existence; nor does it mean that they would derive no satisfaction from these devices had they had them. If Robin Hood could warn Little John of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s approach by radio or telephone, it could result in saving the lives of many of his Merry Men. It would be hard to imagine him thinking that such a device was anything but a great boon. And if his men had been equipped with motorcycles instead of horses. . . .
To Live Is to Achieve
Hanson has implied that mankind could be content with less technology than it now possesses and less production than it now generates. But man is an inquisitive and striving animal, who thrives on challenge. Hanson says that we could be satisfied with lesser abundance if we lowered our expectations. But the very fact that people have expectations means there will always be something that a person wants but does not have, or that some kind of dissatisfaction will exist because we can never, in any age, attain all we might expect or hope to attain. Without this perpetual (and perfectly normal) dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, there would have been no reason for technology to have developed. That’s the key element Hanson has missed. When there is dissatisfaction or an unfulfilled need, entrepreneurs appear. Their usefulness lies in their ability to innovate and to offer solutions that people are willing to buy because these solutions increase specific satisfactions or reduce some specific dissatisfactions.
Iron is too brittle, so steel was invented. Horses are slow and litter the streets with disease-generating droppings, so steam and then gasoline engines were invented. Telegraphed messages gave way to telephone calls. Index-card files are cumbersome, so computers were invented. Thus, the fact that the percentage of Americans who claim to be very happy is no larger now than it was decades ago is not a valid argument against technology and material abundance, which exist to meet specific needs, not to produce general happiness. One question that the polltakers mentioned by Hanson apparently did not ask, but perhaps should have asked (at least, for Hanson’s own enlightenment) is: “Would you be happier or sadder if you had to live without modern conveniences?”
Technology and Leisure
Since Hanson was careful to point out that satisfaction with family life (especially marriage) is a key component of happiness, those of us who support technological growth should also be careful to point out the beneficial role that technology has played in preserving this happiness. Before modern technology arrived, a woman would typically have eight or ten children, for two reasons: first, so that two or three of them, with luck, would actually survive past childhood; second, because no effective birth-control method existed. Progress in medicine and disease-prevention—made possible by technological advancements—changed all this. Technology also made mom’s life easier by producing dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, clothes washers and dryers, microwave ovens, and many other household gadgets. If these things did not necessarily ensure her happiness, they at least did not make her any sadder. In fact, since Hanson clearly states that leisure time is a prime component of happiness, we can assume that by his own definition, such labor-saving devices must have made mom happier.
Similarly, the unhappiness a husband would experience from watching his wife die in childbirth is a less-frequent occurrence now because of technological and medical advances. The same can be said for the death of a parent, which is now delayed by many years due to the same scientific attainments. Perhaps losing relatives to fire is even more terrifying and grief-generating than losing them to natural causes. Before technology gave us electric lighting, house fires were a constant danger because at first interiors were lit with candles and then by oil or kerosene lamps, which were always fire hazards. History books do not tell us that half of Chicago was burned to a crisp in 1871, with great loss of life, because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked an electric light bulb out of its socket.
Discovery Is Destiny
Hanson is probably aware of such facts, but his perspective drives him to reject production and technology because happiness, he claims, does not consist of “having.” But he should ask himself if any happiness is derived from knowing, or if ignorance is bliss instead. The human species is a curious one, always asking questions, wondering “why,” and speculating about the unknown. Consequently, science developed and made slow progress, and from it grew the technology that Hanson so deplores. Do not scientists, inventors, and philosophers obtain happiness from gaining knowledge and making discoveries? Are not others made happier when they hear that this has occurred, and that mankind’s knowledge and understanding of the universe have been increased? Certainly this is so. We will probably never understand the universe completely, but each step in that direction is a triumph that all can share. It may not make a sad person happy, but mankind does not pursue knowledge to make sad people happy. The pursuit of knowledge is itself a source of satisfaction, if not of happiness, and that is sufficient.
Hanson’s chief error is to ascribe to technology and affluence an exclusive moral responsibility for producing general happiness that they simply do not bear. To draw a parallel, suppose a cultural Philistine had examined the same opinion polls that Hanson had seen, and concluded that even though the world possesses many more books and works of art now than it did fifty or a hundred years ago, people are neither more happy nor more aesthetically advanced now than they were then. So it must have been art and literature that have failed us! Should this inspire us to say that writers, playwrights, and artists should restrict their output?
Hanson should restrict his efforts to cultivating his own happiness, and stop trying to decide—based on mere circumstantial evidence—what makes others happy. As implied by the old adage, “What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” this is for each individual to decide.
- Web address: http://www.livelinks.com/sumeria/politics/enviro.html. (Accessed March 6, 1998.)
- I particularly recommend Eco-Sanity by Joseph L. Bast, et al. (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1994); Environmental Overkill: Whatever Happened to Common Sense? by Dixy Lee Ray (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993); Green Delusions by Martin W. Lewis (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992); No Turning Back by Wallace Kaufman (New York: Basic Books, 1994); and Science Under Siege by Michael Fumento (New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1993).
- Albert O. Hirschman, Shifting Involvements (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 50–53.
- George Lichtheim, A Short History of Socialism (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), p. 327.