What can prosperity possibly mean in a world of environmental and social limits? This question lies at the heart of CUSP’s five year research programme on sustainable prosperity. We wanted to know how ordinary people in different contexts might answer this question, so we set out to ask them. We used a very simple device: a small postcard with the words “Prosperity is…” inscribed on it. We took these postcards to various meetings and events and asked people to ‘complete the sentence’.
What we found was fascinating. In this short blog we present some of the ideas which emerged from the 152 responses we’ve analysed so far. The project itself is ongoing, and we would love to receive more responses. But our initial findings can be summarised in terms of seven key themes:
Prosperity is… about security
There is clearly an element of prosperity that is about security – for oneself, for one’s family, for the community. Living well entails being free from worries or threats to a secure existence, now and in the future: “not needing to worry about food, housing, crime or violence ..”, “knowing they will be there in the future”. Respondents mentioned access to basic needs such as “healthcare, food” and “clean water” as well as those things which enhance life such as “access to parks and commons” and even “nature, arts”.
Prosperity is… accepting the moment
This need for security doesn’t immediately translate into a desire for more. In fact, there was a significant attention to concepts like sufficiency, enough, moderation and fulfilment: “’Lagom’ In Swedish: just enough for comfort and enjoyment”. Prosperity is to be experienced in the here and now, in order to provide a sense of peace and “calm in a frenetic world”. It is concerned with “having the time to stop and stare” and is perhaps something we are innately able to access: “prosperity is a disposition of the heart,” wrote one of our respondents.
Prosperity is… being on a journey
A related response sees prosperity as a “philosophical journey, not a place”, variously undertaken through thriving, striving, flourishing, which requires some proactive engagement “to be an agent for change, to live not exist, to thrive not subsist”. For some, this journey has no particular end state but is an end in itself. For others “betterment…improvement” was the end game. Crucially though, the journey is “not about money or stuff”. Nor does it mean setting individual goals to the detriment of others, “living well without harming others”. Rather it is about working “towards an economy based on sustainable value creation as nature intended”.
Prosperity is… about freedom and voice
Along the way, it is clear that freedom matters. Having the freedom to choose the kind of life we want to live was frequently mentioned, as was having the capacity and power to act on those dreams “to be effective”. Somewhat problematically, it is clear that, for some, this freedom of choice should be unbounded. Prosperity is about being able to “live as you choose”, perhaps failing to acknowledge the impact such freedom may have on finite planetary resources. Utopian ideals emerged, as though constraints on assets did not exist, with aspirations for an “abundance of resources”, even allowing for the possibility of having “more than you need”.
Prosperity is…. social
But not all of these aspirations are individualistic. Relationships and social connections lie at the heart of prosperity. There is a spectrum of ‘sociality’ starting with children and close family members, through communities, and neighbourhoods to an acknowledgement of our place within a global society. Having significant relationships is seen as essential: “Prosperity is… having family and friends to share it with”. Some also reflected on how an individual’s prosperity is intrinsically linked to that of the rest of society, so that each person has a responsibility to ensure everyone else has a reasonable chance of achieving prosperity, “knowing that everybody is important” and that “we share in a collective narrative, we know our part, and each one of us knows that we means me”
Prosperity is… fair
This sense of prosperity extended to a desire for it to be “a communal experience, shared widely without exclusions”. Several responses spoke of prosperity in terms of: “happiness for everyone”, “equality for all” and “a communal experience, shared widely without exclusions”. Here too, there were suggestions that equality and equal access should have no limits, regardless of the implications, “abundance enough for all”. But this shared prosperity must above all be fair.
Prosperity is… imbued with meaning
Finally, some of our respondents alluded to the significance of meaning in achieving prosperity, often as part of a good or happy life, “lead a good and meaningful life”, “living a life of meaning”, “imbued with integrity and meaning”. It was not always clear how ‘a meaningful life’ should be defined or what that might constitute. But the idea that prosperity consists in living a meaningful life is clearly worthy of more exploration.
Almost certainly these seven findings don’t exhaust the many meanings that people attribute to prosperity. Nor are they entirely unproblematical. In a finite world, the idea of unbounded freedoms may ultimately be inimical to a lasting prosperity. But these responses already tell us massively interesting things about prosperity. Perhaps the most striking finding of all was that prosperity is not simply about being rich or having material possessions. On the contrary, as one of our respondents suggested, prosperity is in part about “being grateful for the things you have” and “not always aspiring to have more!”