Imagine if we all wore the same clothes, lived in the same sort of house and drove the same sort of car. Social scientists ponder this at length. Our deep-seated need for recognition, our vanity and pride – how would it be satisfied? Would we try to stand out from the pack through our eloquence and knowledge, or would we command respect by what we contributed, rather than by what we extracted?

Our consumer culture makes it easy to gain recognition from others through the symbolism of goods. It means we funnel our energy towards working hard so we can pay for the goods that broadcast our hoped-for position or rank within society. Our work may involve long hours commuting in dense traffic, high levels of stress, mind-numbing computer work, health risks, time scarcity, and few home cooked meals. We may be forced to pay for primary needs like childcare, housekeeping, home shopping and cooking, even paying someone to walk our dog. While the work-to-spend dynamic is good for the growth of the economy, is it equally good for the growth of the individual?

Philosopher Kate Soper argues that if humans had an innate drive to consume, then grooming children for a life of consumption and the billions spent on advertising wouldn’t be necessary. We do, however, have an innate drive to connect, to relate to one another, to be creative and productive, to be idle at times, to take long breaks from work, but many of these pleasures have been lost in the pursuit of the symbolic ‘good life’.

There’s widespread and growing regret for what has been sacrificed, believes Soper. We’re harried, stressed, many of us are over-weight or obese, and our growth economies generate more noise, stench, pollution and waste each year. Many of us yearn for a richer standard of living, an alternative hedonism where we appreciate the rarity of life on Earth; with more time spent on hobbies, more time devoted to activities that make us healthier and happier.

Soper likes to quote Adorno’s metaphor: our growth economy offers a society in which “everyone lives in aeroplanes” but remains obedient to the edict “Thou shalt not fly.”

First published in New Philosopher magazine, Australia’s new magazine for thinkers.