Wealth and the Thorny Issues of Envy and Guilt

Bill Trotter’s Going Coastal blog on the most expensive home for sale in Maine got me thinking about the issue of wealth and environmental quality.  In the past I argued that we can know whether we are living sustainably if the over 7 billion people on Earth could live as we do and still leave resources from the planet for future humans to live in that same way.  Clearly, anyone who built this Islesboro property or who can afford to buy will fail that test.  The excessive consumption of resources by people living like this is just one of the problems created by the large increase in income and wealth inequality in the United States since the mid-1970s.

It is easy to blame the richest people in the world for multiple problems.  Yet our relationships with the wealthy are conflicted and part of the problem as well.  Envy and guilt in response to rich people contribute to everyone’s failure to live in a way that might meet this sustainability ideal.  We can do better.

The envy part is clear.  Marketers use images of the rich and famous to stir our desire for consumption, consumption of particular goods and services.  The classic example of this was Gatorade’s ad campaign, “I Want to Be Like Mike.”   The message was that consuming Gatorade was the path to being like Michael Jordan.  Cars, clothing, travel, jewelry, restaurants, mobile phones, and houses are sold to us using images of wealthy and famous people to urge on our consumption.  The message is, consuming like these people will make us happy.  The problem is that we can’t always afford a Rolex watch, Hugo Boss golf shirt, or a new Platinum model Cadillac Escalade.  The message is that we should want these goods.  We respond to that message with envy for those who can afford them and try to consume beyond our means and beyond what is good for the environment.

This envy is the root of the paradox of happiness uncovered by scholars like economist Richard Layard.  It is a puzzle to understand how in the post-World War II era citizens of Western nations could experience growing real consumption and no change in happiness.  More stuff was supposed to make us happier.  Since the rich grew even richer faster than everyone else, the reference point for happiness went up.  It was increasingly harder to be like Mike even as our prosperity increased in real terms.  This leaves citizens in the U.S. who experience unprecedented physical wellbeing in historical terms unhappy unless growth in consumption continues.

And growth in consumption for all of us means more matter and energy from the environment.  It means we crowd out more plant and animal species, causing increasing rates of extinction.  It means we convert more of the planet’s surface to meet human wants and needs.  The connection is direct.  Wealthy people mean more envy from the rest of us, which creates more demand for consumption, which threatens the very life systems on the planet.

To add insult to injury, the wealthy provide us moral cover even when we know deep down inside that we don’t need the watch, the car, the bigger house, the fancy vacation.  Whatever guilt we may feel from living beyond our needs and the planet’s ability to provide for 7 billion humans, at least we are not as bad as the rich.  The environmental impacts of their watches, cars, summer houses, and fancier vacations eclipse our impacts.  This helps us manage our guilt and quiets that little voice telling us that these are things we might forego.

So when it comes to the impacts of our consumption and whether we are living sustainably, rich people create a thorny problem for us.  We envy their consumption, which makes us want to consume more ourselves.  Clever marketing can use that envy to get us to make that next purchase.  At the same time the rich help us assuage our guilt.  At least our environmental impacts are not close to theirs, giving us license to consume just a little bit more.

We need to resolve these issues if we are to find a path to sustainability.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.