After posting my previous entry, wondering if anyone would admit to a desire for unlimited wealth, I realised that at least some people probably would admit to unlimited desires of another sort: scientists and artists. Scientists have their own form of “hedonic treadmill” in which satisfying curiosity about one topic leads to curiosity about the next one, and I’ve never heard anyone seriously engaged with art suggest that there might ever be time when there is no more art to create (grumpy old non-artists complaining about the Good Old Days aside).
I myself previously supposed that pursuing art, science, and craft could provide satisfying work for everyone even in a world in which all material needs had been met. While the endless pursuit of art and science might sound like something only an academic would think of, I know plenty of non-academics who pursue crafts, families, community organisations, and so on, in the same way. Who am I (or economists) to say that everyone else’s desires are limited to buying slightly bigger televisions and slightly faster cars?
Continuing to do art and science will surely consume some resources, unless maybe we take up purely theoretical pursuits like abstract mathematics or comparative literature. But the point of both Jackson’s and McAfee’s arguments is that non-material pursuits require many fewer resources than churning out cars, buildings, and so on. (One can imagine exceptions: large-scale projects like space exploration and feature films can consume quite a lot of resources.)
Another way of interpreting the hedonic treadmill is that it’s the journey not the destination. The point is not so much to arrive at a certain level of knowledge and art, or for that matter a certain number of cars and televisions, but to progress from one level to the next. From this point of view, what Jackson and McAfee want is a way of progressing without consuming ever more resources.