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Neo-humanism: to grow a sustainable economy we must prioritize well-being

Francesco Sarracino, STATEC

Neo-humanism offers an alternative, empowering way toward a sustainable world.

We are anxious about the future. Why? Because the elite sells us the bunkum idea that unfettered economic growth is an unquestionable good.  They try to convince us that, somehow, having more makes for better lives.

And yet, for over two decades, trust in institutions – and in our fellow human beings – has declined. Our consumption-crazed, low-trust society is unsustainable.

The prevalent explanations of this unsustainability – that people are greedy or don’t care about others and the future – are disempowering and grim.  

The solution is Neo-humanism

Neo-humanism offers an alternative, empowering way toward a sustainable world. Neo-humanism traces the origins of unsustainability in people’s private efforts to address public problems. According to this explanation, the solution to society’s ills is to focus policy efforts, social discourse, and the media on the important and long-lasting aspects of people’s lives: namely, relations with others. This solution would deprioritize economic growth in people’s lives – we would live in a post-growth society, in which our ability to enjoy life is decoupled from consumption.

Common misperceptions

A common misconception of Neo-humanism is that, by giving up consumption and the comfort of modern lives, we would doom current generations to live a lifetime of sacrifices for the sake of future generations. Research belies this misconception: it shows that consumption contributes to well-being only at early stages of economic development. Beyond a certain threshold, its contribution to additional well-being is negligible.

Another misconception is that people are greedy, self-interested and competitive. However, research on subjective well-being clarified that people care for future generations, and suggests that over-consumption and unsustainability originate in people’s anxiety[1] about the future.

These subjective well-being studies provide numerous insights into what matters for well-being, and, especially about the role of consumption and the importance of social relations. This knowledge provides valuable insights on how to promote a socially and environmentally sustainable future. The key point is to expand the conditions that lead to satisfactory lives now and in the future.

Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

The origins of unsustainability  

One of the main explanations for unsustainability is that important actions for sustainable development are postponed for the sake of today’s urgent issues. Another, related argument is that people do not care for the well-being of future generations[2]. There are two major policy conclusions of this reasoning.

  • One: if people prioritize the present over the future, then they have to be nudged or coerced to adopt sustainable behaviors.
  • Two: green growth – i.e. boosting renewable and efficient technologies — has been designed to safeguard people’s current lifestyles while protecting and conserving the environment.

Both strategies, so far, have not been effective. Why? Because technological change and energy efficiency alone are insufficient to reduce environmental impact without limiting consumption[3]. According to the United Nations[4], worldwide, there has been no appreciable improvement in the three Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to environmental protection.

And yet, more and more people believe that the environment should be a top priority! To show this trend, let’s look at some recent survey data. In 2019, the Eurobarometer indicated that climate change and the environment scored second and third in the ranking of the most important issues facing the EU. They came after immigration, and were followed by terrorism, the economic situation, and unemployment. In July 2021, the European Commission released the results of a survey on climate change. Figures indicated that climate change is the single most serious problem societies need to deal with. Another international survey administered in 2021 on 10,000 children and young people in ten countries worldwide revealed that awareness of environmental wreckage is widespread. For instance, 59% of respondents declared to be very or extremely worried about climate change; the share of those at least moderately worried reached 84%. Nearly half of the respondents declared that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and 75% consider the future as frightening. According to an international survey conducted in 2022 by the European Investment Bank, 41% of European Union residents think that climate change is one of the three biggest challenges of today. Moreover, 66% of respondents indicated that the war in Ukraine and its consequences on the prices of oil and gas should lead the EU to speed up the transition to green energy technologies[5]. In sum, people are aware and care about the future.

Not even the “everyone is greedy” assumption holds. Most people are capable of making sacrifices for the benefit of others or the society as a whole.

Then, why do people adopt unsustainable behaviors?

A lesser known explanation for why people adopt unsustainable behaviors argues that anxiety about the future, and distrust in others and in institutions, lead to hopelessness and disempowerment. As a result, people prioritize personal or immediate benefits over long-term sustainability. If people trust that others will do their part in a collective effort, and that the institutions in charge of coordination are reliable, then people will likely cooperate to solving common problems (e.g. environmental issues). However, if trust is low, the possibilities for cooperation are scarce and people opt for private solutions to shelter themselves and their loved ones against a deteriorating environment.

This is a typical problem of collective impotence: the crisis of cooperation leads to private solutions, boosts consumption and growth, prioritizes money, introduces a trade-off between productive and unproductive activities, and worsens the ecological problem.

Anxiety about the future, combined with distrust in collective action, transform people into exceptional/insatiable/voracious people addicted to consumption. The result is growing environmental and social degradation amidst soaring economic growth and rampant unhappiness.

A good example is the recent increase in the demand for bunkers and shelter houses, also known as “doomsday prepping”[6]. This trend is a result of people’s efforts to find private solutions to the public problems of natural disasters, pandemics, and political instability, and is a physical manifestation of their distrust in the possibility to adopt solutions that benefit everyone. Bunkers provide protection and security for individuals or small groups, but do not solve the larger problems that they face.

Insights from Neo-humanism

Neo-humanism provides useful insights to promote sustainability. From numerous empirical studies on well-being, happiness, and the quality of life, neo-humanism argues that it is possible to establish a virtuous circle in which the explicit pursuit of well-being through policies, such as those for social relations, contributes to a socially and environmentally compatible economic growth.

Prioritize community and social relations

The solution to our grim collective future is to promote positive sustainable behaviors via collective action.

Collective action is difficult to harness. But, the good news is that it can be cultivated through social relations, i.e. the connections that people have with others, including family, friends, and community. Social relations promote well-being, and, as such, tilt the scales toward sustainable behaviors. They provide a sense of belonging and community, encouraging people to engage in pro-social behaviors such as volunteering and participating in community activities. Social relations establish trust and cooperation, which foster a sense of shared responsibility and a willingness to work together to address common problems.

In sum, promoting social relations would decouple well-being from consumption: people could lead satisfactory lives independently from what they consume, thus reducing their negative environmental impact. 

Photo by leah hetteberg on Unsplash

Neo-humanism is a social movement to put humankind and the environment at the center of attention

Neo-humanism re-discovers the foundations of what makes a life worth living. It is possible to establish a virtuous cycle by promoting well-being through policies that develop social capital. People with deep social lives are more satisfied, tend to consume less, and are less likely to engage in “keeping up with the Joneses” behaviors. This reduces the negative externalities of consumption to the benefit of the environment and creates the conditions for cooperation and cohesiveness in sustainable, happy societies.

Increased well-being contributes to productivity, which is good for economic growth. Economic growth is not bad, in and of itself. Creativity must drive economic growth. What economists call “defensive consumption” – the purchase of private solutions to public problems, such as buying bunkers instead of investing in society – is a real problem. Economic growth is a means to satisfy people’s needs: a slow or near-zero growth is the natural condition of a society in which needs are met, and new ones emerge slowly. Most importantly, people’s ability to enjoy life should not depend on the resources they own. Economic growth is a desirable, but not necessary, consequence of human activity[7].

The cultural shift

Implementing a neo-humanist approach may require a cultural shift. This can seem daunting because culture is usually seen as a constant and unchangeable force. However, the idea that culture is immutable is too simplistic. While some components of culture, such as religiosity and ethnicity, may change slowly, others, such as preferences, attitudes, and social norms, can change quickly. Cultural change reflects the intellectual and material achievements of generations. It can be gradual, like steam building up in a pressure cooker, or sudden, due to shocks like wars, natural disasters, or economic crises.

Technological advances are another powerful engine of cultural change. For example, the widespread adoption of digital technologies in the late 20th century has significantly transformed the way we communicate, access information, and conduct business. This has had a profound impact on the way we live, work, and interact with one another, and has profoundly shaped the economy, society, and politics.

Cartoons as a cultural window into a changing society

Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of both large and small cultural changes that occur at varying speeds. Gender roles are a prime example of a long-term cultural shift. In 1995, Thompson and Zerbinos published a study on gender roles in 175 episodes of 41 different cartoons in America. The study showed that, while stereotypes still persisted, cartoons produced after 1980 contained less stereotypical gender behavior than those produced before. Similarly, a subsequent study applied coded content analysis to the entire series of Disney cartoons featuring princesses from the 1930s onward and documented how traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics exhibited by prince and princess characters through their behaviors and actions changed over time. Princesses’ “feminine” behaviors reduced from 86% in the early cartoons to 53% in the most recent ones, while princesses’ “masculine: behaviors increased from 14% to 47%.

The linguistic turn

Despite persistent gender role differences and stereotypes in modern cultures, societies evolve. Speech characteristics of cartoon characters provide consistent evidence of this. Linguistics, the discipline that studies language and its structure, established that it is possible to recognize stereotypical gender-role qualities, such as aggressiveness, emotionality, dominance, and self-confidence, through speech and conversation. In a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, researchers found that male characters in the movie Frozen used elements typical of female speech in their dialogues. Additionally, there was an overall balance of female speech elements used by both male and female characters. This suggests that cultural attitudes towards gender roles are gradually becoming more balanced and equitable.

Zoomers and the Great Resignation

The Great Resignation, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, was a phenomenon characterized by a significant and voluntary exodus of employees and represents a noteworthy cultural shift in the labor market. While the full extent of the Great Resignation is still unclear, some case studies have sought to uncover its possible reasons.

A significant portion of the current working-age population shares cultural traits that align with Neo-humanism, such as valuing intrinsic motivations, investing in social relationships, making a difference, and caring for the environment and the future.

Kuzior and colleagues proposed an explanation that links resignations to generational cultural traits. They observed that millennials, born between 1980 and 1996, and Generation Z, born between 1997 and the early 2010s, also known as “zoomers,” make up a large proportion of the current labor force. These generations prioritize self-fulfillment, satisfaction, respect, recognition, continuous development, fairness, tolerance, and equity. According to Inglehart’s theory of values change, this is because millennials and zoomers take for granted the degree of economic and physical security in which they were born, and focus on being self-fulfilled and living up to their values.

These values may explain why a healthy working atmosphere, respect, opportunities for development, self-realization, and trust are among the factors that best predict zoomers’ job engagement and retention. An experiment showed that, when given a choice between a dull, well-paid job and one with less pay but more interesting tasks, 50% of zoomers chose the latter. Furthermore, a 2021 study by McKinsey found that, in a large sample of workers from Australia, Canada, Singapore, the UK, and the US, relational factors, such as not feeling valued and a lack of sense of belonging, play a predominant role in pushing workers out of the workplace.

Kuzior and colleagues trace the Great Resignation back to the discrepancy between what modern employers offer, which reflects the established business schools’ culture, and what young employees truly care about. In other words, the pandemic triggered the appearance of latent cultural traits and the Great Resignation is just the tip of the iceberg.

A significant portion of the current working-age population shares cultural traits that align with Neo-humanism, such as valuing intrinsic motivations, investing in social relationships, making a difference, and caring for the environment and the future. In essence, after years of policies and cultural expectations that societies are mere collections of individuals, new generations are rediscovering the importance of communal living, intrinsic motivations, and mutual responsibility. These are promising developments for the prospects of socially and environmentally sustainable societies, as the cultural shift necessary for Neo-humanism appears to be underway.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Conclusion: We must prioritize well-being

Myopic thinking erodes the social and natural environments. The dominance of consumerism and economic growth in guiding policy and social discourse has diverted attention from what is really important in life – each other.

Policies for positive social relations can have far-reaching benefits that help the economy. By promoting well-being, investments in social relations can contribute to economic growth thanks to efficiency gains. Given current low levels of satisfaction in many workplaces, improving the work environment shouldn’t be too difficult. When we prioritize well-being, we reduce healthcare costs because people are more satisfied with how they live and tend to live longer and healthier lives. This is especially important for countries with aging populations, such as in Europe.

Neo-humanism promotes well-being and social relations. It empowers people and enables positive collective action to address collective issues.

Give happiness a chance: a more equitable and resilient future for all is possible.

[1] There are many explanations for over-consumption, from positional competition to the search for identity. These explanations coexist and can be a consequence of the mechanism summarized here.

[2] A variant of this explanation maintains that people adopt unsustainable behaviors because they are not aware of the consequences of their actions and of the true state of the environment.

[3] Haberl, H., Wiedenhofer, D., Virág, et al. (2020). A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights. Environmental Research Letters, 15(6), 065003. Available here: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a

[4] https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/progress-chart/ , pag. 4.

[5] https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/polls-reveal-citizens-support-energiewende

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/news/2022/sep/04/super-rich-prepper-bunkers-apocalypse-survival-richest-rushkoff

[7] Sarracino, Francesco, and Kelsey J. O’Connor. “Neo-humanism and COVID-19: Opportunities for a socially and environmentally sustainable world.” Applied Research in Quality of Life (2022): 1-33.

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