The world we want must begin with actually defining what sort of world we want. We can't rely only on the bureaucracies of governments to address the problems facing our planet. We must start doing it for ourselves. We cannot rely on politicians to get this done.
The docility of working people has contributed to keeping intact the increasingly unequal, barbaric and rapacious society that is capitalism. Because people believe there is no alternative to capitalism, it keeps on existing. The idea of a zero growth, sustainable society is not new and in recent years has been put forward by the Green movement. But whilst many of the declared aims of the Greens appear to be desirable these are contradicted by a fatal flaw in all green policies. They stand for the continuation of the market system. This must mean the continuation of the capitalist system which is the cause of the problems of pollution in the first place. The problem for so many in the environmentalist movement is that they want to retain the market system in which goods are distributed through sales at a profit and people’s access to goods depends upon their incomes. The market, however, can only function with a constant pressure to renew its capacity for sales and if it fails to do this production breaks down, people are out of employment and suffer a reduced income. It is a fundamental flaw and an insoluble contradiction in the greens’ argument that they want to retain the market system, which can only be sustained by continuous sales and continuous incomes, and at the same time they want a conservation society with reduced productive activity. These aims are totally incompatible with each other.
If the environmental crisis is to be solved, this system must go. What is required is political action - political action aimed at replacing this system by a new and different one. There can be no justification, on any grounds whatsoever, for wanting to retain an exploitative system which robs workers of the products of their labour, which puts privileged class interests and profit before the needs of the community, which robs the soil of its fertility, plunders nature of its resources and destroys the natural systems on which all our lives depend.
The rise in living standards required for the majority of the world’s population which is entailed by the establishment of socialism cannot avoid an increase in resource and energy consumption, even if socialism is far less wasteful than capitalism. The capitalist system creates vast amounts of energy waste in the military and its socially useless jobs such as marketing, finance and banking which are part of its profit making machine. This waste would not happen in socialism which would be solely concerned to provide for real needs.
We can set out a possible way of achieving an eventual zero growth society operating in a stable and ecologically benign way. This could be achieved in three main phases. First, there would have to be emergency action to relieve the worst problems of food shortages, health care and housing which affect billions of people throughout the world.
Secondly, longer term action to construct means of production and infrastructures such as transport systems for the supply of permanent housing and durable consumption goods. These could be designed in line with conservation principles, which means they would be made to last for a long time, using materials that where possible could be re-cycled and would require minimum maintenance.
Thirdly, with these objectives achieved there could be an eventual fall in production, and society could move into a stable mode. This would achieve a rhythm of daily production in line with daily needs with no significant growth. On this basis, the world community could reconcile two great needs, the need to live in material well being whilst looking after the planet which is our shared home in space.
Why do we have this high level of conspicuous consumption to make us supposedly "happier" people? Erich Fromm seems to have sought a psychological explanation. Fromm suggests that “…the pursuit of happiness does not produce well-being”.
We are a society of unhappy people, lonely, anxious, depressed, self-destructive, full of dependency whether on others or chemical substances.
The psychological premise of capitalism, that the pursuit of individual egoism leads to harmony and peace, is rejected by Fromm. To be an egoist, he says, means:
“I want everything to myself, that possessing, not sharing, gives me pleasure; that I must become greedy because if my aim is having, I am more the more I have. I can never be satisfied, because there is no end to my wishes: I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less.”
Fromm, therefore, concludes that the character traits engendered by or socio-economic system are pathogenic , and produce sick people and a sick society. Given that fact, we are headed for an economic catastrophe unless we change our social system, not just the ecological basis of it. The physical survival of the human race depends on it.
Under capitalism it is through one's possessions that one attains the power and freedom to be oneself; one's sense of self-identity and self-worth -in short, one's social status -is tied up with, and expressed through, one's possessions. This is what Fromm means by a "having" mode of existence as opposed to a "being" mode.
So it does not matter how modest one's real needs may be or how easily they may be met; capitalism's "consumer culture" leads us to want more than we may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this hierarchal culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation.
What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy and that will be unsustainable as more peoples are drawn into alienated capitalism.