consumerism democracy

What is public affluence, and why does it matter?

How can we improve people’s lives without increasing consumption? That’s a question for those of us that want to challenge consumerism and economic growth. People want to feel that life is getting better, if not for themselves then for future generations. I believe the key lies in pursuing quality rather than quantity, an economy that is better, not necessarily larger. (That’s what my book is about, which you’ll be able to read next year.)

Among many other things, you can pursue quality by making the economy more inclusive, by improving democratic participation and active citizenship. You can take the rewards of growth as extra leisure time rather than extra consumption. You can aim for life-long learning, access to arts and culture and sport. And you can focus on public rather than private affluence.

Private affluence is individuals gaining things for themselves – possessions, nice homes and experiences. Public affluence is money spent lavishly on things that are shared.

“There is no planetary shortage of ‘carrying capacity’ if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality” writes urbanist Mike Davis. “Public affluence – represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction – represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality.”

Let me give you an example. Last week Britain had the hottest April weather since the 1940s. I was in town and I wanted to work outside, so I went looking for somewhere with outdoor tables. This would not be difficult in many cities, but Luton has very little by way of cafe culture. There are no leafy squares or shady courtyards, or at least not the kind that I could work in. There are plenty of places where those things could be created, but it would need money and time to get them established. I even know of a spot in the High Town area where there are plans for a little square and cafe tables. The designs have been drawn up, but the funding has not been delivered. It’s been on the drawing board for around five years now. We don’t have much public affluence in Luton.

Great public spaces are an example of a shared resource, where money is spent on things that everyone can enjoy. They improve wellbeing, which is ultimately the point of the economy, and they do so in a way that is democratic and inclusive.

Public affluence doesn’t necessarily mean it’s paid for by taxes and is under government ownership and control, by the way. If I was looking for an outdoor spot to work in London, perhaps I would head to the railway arches near Waterloo. There are tables set out in a leafy avenue of shrubs and ornamental plants, all maintained by the row of cafes and restaurants there. Or if I was in North London, I could mooch over to Culpepper Gardens. It’s run and cultivated by local people, many of whom don’t have a garden of their own.

Public spaces could be cared for by local councils, or by community groups, charities or businesses. Luton’s Business Improvement District sponsors benches and bins around the town, and funds arts and festivals in the town centre. A friend from Hungary told me that in the town he came from, each shop keeper took care of the pavement and street outside their own shop. This was good for business of course, and there’s no need to draw black and white lines between public goods and the market. Hybrid forms abound. Neither does the idea need to be politicised – as George Monbiot noted at the last election, no political party in Britain has a vision for public affluence.

Of course, some forms of public affluence will be funded through taxation. Britain’s NHS is a fine example. Good health is one of the most important factors in human happiness, so spending on healthcare has a direct effect on our wellbeing. Quality healthcare, accessible to all at the point of need, is one of the best value forms of public spending.

We could also think about trams, trains and buses, stations and bus stops, sports grounds, parks, libraries and museums, youth centres and playgrounds, art galleries, swimming pools, skate parks, nurseries and schools, street trees, public toilets, rubbish collection and recycling facilities, and much more besides. These are all forms of wealth that benefit everybody, rich and poor alike. They benefit the environment by cutting out waste and replication, and providing experience rather than material goods. They do not drive inequality, but create a sense of shared belonging and ownership. In developing countries, investing in public affluence is a way to include people in the benefits of growth.

In short, the more public affluence we can create, the better.

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