'Rethinking Prosperity' is topic for panel at United Nations

May 12, 2010

NEW YORK, United States — Professor Tim Jackson doesn't hold back when describing today's consumer culture:

"We are encouraged to spend money we don't have, on things we don't need, to create impressions that don't last, on people we don't care about."

Professor Jackson, a member of the Sustainable Development Commission of the United Kingdom, made his comments at a panel discussion held this week in conjunction with the current session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

The Baha'i International Community cosponsored the discussion, titled "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism."

Countries are being driven further into debt – not to mention potential environmental catastrophe – by levels of consumerism that do not contribute to sustainability, Professor Jackson said.

The answer, the panelists proposed, is to reconsider the nature of the consumer culture that relentlessly urges people to adopt a lifestyle based on the acquisition of new and more material goods.

A representative of Consumers International, Luis Flores Mimica of Chile, observed that there are many people in the "developing world" who have not yet taken up the consumer-based lifestyle, which he said was largely filled with "empty aspirations."

"There is no way they can continue to follow the path of 'development' as labeled that way in the 1950s," he said.

'Redefining progress'

Jeff Barber, executive director of Integrative Strategies Forum in the United States, said one place to start "redefining progress" would be to consider the vast research about what really makes people happy. Much of that shows that material consumption does not necessarily lead to a feeling of well-being.

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Cover of the Baha'i statement issued for the 2010 session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

Victoria Thoresen, of the Norwegian Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living, suggested that a way to help humanity make the shift to a system of sustainable values is to recognize our essential oneness – and to consider that humanity is now collectively moving from an adolescent stage towards maturity.

"Constructive change depends upon individuals being able to recognize spiritual principles and to identify patterns and processes of development in society," said Ms. Thoresen, who is a Baha'i.

Duncan Hanks, a representative of the Baha'i International Community to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, announced the publication of the new Baha'i statement, also titled "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism."

"At a time when oil spews forth uncontrolled in the Gulf of Mexico, we feel both the immediacy and urgency to rethink what fair and just progress is," he said. "We have been rethinking what true prosperity looks like."

What is needed first, Mr. Hanks said, is public discourse on the nature and purpose of human development, along with the recognition that each individual has a contribution to make in building a more just and peaceful social order.

Professor Jackson agreed. "We need a better concept of prosperity, a shared prosperity, a lasting prosperity, a prosperity built around the concept of people's capacity to flourish, within the confines of a finite planet," he said.

The discussion, held on 10 May at the New York offices of the Baha'i International Community, was cosponsored by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization - and the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations. The 2010 session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development runs through 14 May.

Read more about the statement, "Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism" here.