Private hubris and public pessimism

In: Uncategorized

5 Jan 2008

Matthew Taylor, a former senior adviser to Tony Blair and now chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, has an astute although ultimately misplaced article on the happiness debate in the New Statesman (3 January). His starting point is the widening gap between the private and public spheres:

“Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase ‘private affluence and public squalor’; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.”

Taylor’s solution to this problem is what he calls a “new collectivism”. However, what he misses is the need to challenge the low horizons of contemporary social debates. Missing out this stage in the process means that any new collective enterprise will simply be one of individuals with an exaggerated sense of vulnerability.

For example, Taylor ends his piece with a call to use the issue of climate change to help build a new collectivism (the first time he mentions global warming in the article):

“Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.”

Yet the mainstream discussion of climate change if a perfect example of low horizons in relation to what humans can achieve. It assumes we must limit the human impact on the environment and act primarily as individuals to reduce our consumption. The idea of boldly acting to develop technology and increase human control over nature is alien to the mainstream debate.

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