Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Spirit Level - book review and an epiphany

This is an amazing book and it blew my mind. Not in a 'Wow this is such a beautiful and well written piece of art' way, because it is as dry as old chips and it took me about three months to read it but it blew my mind because it turns out there actually is a silver bullet to the worlds woes. True.

So I'll tell you about it and you will shrug and go, 'hu, well that's logical', like you always knew it. And yes, it is intuitive to agree that 'equality is better for everyone' but the really fascinating bits are in the details.

First bit of the book is about how the authors are proper type academics. They are don't use tricks with stats and are well clever. By the end of the book I totally agree (Though someone has written a book disputing the facts, which in turn has been disputed). Then they explained that they are looking at OECD countries only, ie only the rich ones. The idea here is that a country needs a certain level of overall wealth to provide basics such as clean water, education etc. But there comes a point when more overall wealth does not continue to provide the overall gains in living standards/health/social wellbeing - there are 'diminishing returns' on overall wealth.. One striking example of this is how now obesity is now generally an illness of the poor. It used to be that rich people were fat and poor people were skinny and malnourished, but now the reverse is true (although fat people can also be malnourished - but you get my drift).

The second bit of the book was all about the graphs (for me, anyway). They looked at a 170 different bits of research on:
  • levels of trust
  • mental illness (including substance abuse)
  • life expectancy and infant mortality
  • obesity
  • educational outcomes
  • teenage births
  • homicides
  • incarceration rates
  • social mobility
and basically came up with the same conclusion: the bigger the disparity in income the more problems exist across society. And so all the graphs looked similar to this:

And then to prove its not a fluke, they repeat it for states in America. 

In relation to, for example death rates for working men, infant mortality and literacy they say that you are better off being poor in a country with lower income disparity than you are being rich in a country with high income disparity. Read that last sentence a few times because its mind boggling!

Then they started going on about how closely class and income disparity are related. I found the bit about violence really interesting. They say that acts of violence are 'attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation - a feeling that is painful and can even be intolerable and overwhelming - and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride'. So people with less cash and of lower class feel shame and therefore react accordingly.

They also talk about how in working classes people tend to make poor decisions about what to do with their limited income. Its not that people in OECD countries don't have enough money to purchase food (though definitely some don't), its that they are so pissed off with being poor they want to purchase stuff which they think will improve their social status, like the typical example of people on the dole getting the latest iphones. The book goes on quite a bit about consumerism and how people buy crap to attempt to increase their general happiness and keep up with the Joneses. I can see that this is true. You only have to go to a shopping centre to see it in action (and to a landfill site to see the ugly, hidden end of the journey of unnecessarily purchased crap). But it got me thinking, why are we, Ads and I, different? We aren't rich, we might be a little bit middle class, but we are not upper middle class, and that's only because we went to uni. My parents didn't go to uni, Ads' parents did. But we don't purchase crap because it's stupid. I can, hand on my heart, say that I hate shopping. It makes me feel sick. Stuff is revolting and we avoid it as much as possible. 


Then I had the epiphany.

Are we really different? No. It's the reno, isn't it? That's us keeping up with the Joneses. We are no different to every other well educated, middle aged, middle class, gentrifying, bleeding heart lefty. There are lots of us around these parts. Not all of us have iphones but most of us renovate. 'Hm, how wide are your decking boards?', 'Oh yes, ours are recycled'. Our renos are nearly all finished, complete with recycled decking and a water feature. Even including the new room our house is still tiny compared to most but it was adequate before the renos. We didn't really need to renovate. And geez, it made a heck of a lot of waste (which has been sent to be recycled and salvaged as much as possible, but still). And I had to go to Ikea, the arch nemisis of any good Earth Carers type. Actually I had to go twice because I got the wrong cupboard door or something the first time. Actually I made Ads go the second time for fear I might completely lose my grip on reality if I had to go twice in one week.

It's easy to justify our renovation. We now have a spare third bedroom/sewing room, we used recycled timber, we've added to the passive solar elements in the house, we removed asbestos, we've made frog habitat with the pond and we've made a beautiful space. And yes, I'm sure it will be the subject of our next blog post. But the cost, the waste (two skip bins so far), supporting Ikea, the air miles for the materials, the concrete, the emotional investment... Anyway I'm rambling now and have totally hijacked this book review into a navel gazing post. So to round it all out, The Spirit Level is a super interesting book and made me reflect on many assumptions about society and also my own behaviors. If you are a politician or policy maker in any level this is a must read!

Look out for the posts on our renos! :)


  1. Wow.Thanks for this post. I'm bothered ,though,by the fact that it took you three months to read this book.Dry? or just too late at night? Either way, not sure if I can invest 3 months as I'm a slow reader as well.



    1. Hi Ian, Invest, it really is worth it! I think someone used to reading academic stuff would munch this book up in a week, but I took my time and re read bits to make sure I understood it. I put it down for weeks here and there when life got busy. Its not too dry, but its no novel :) go on...

  2. I hate stuff too! But even so, its impossible to not consume some stuff. I notice a lot of waste in our current building project and we recycled an entire house! Everything comes in plastic bags! It sounds like an interesting book anyway, I enjoyed your review.

  3. Thanks Liz, don't worry I'm not beating myself up too much about our renos! The book just gave me a new perspective on it all - you know, that our wants are all relative to our place in our society. So compared to Johannesburg our pre-renos house is a mansion. But we live in Australia where our pre-renos house was titchy teeny weeny winy small (now it's just regular old small). I'm usually very content in life and I consider that we are truly rich because we have a loving family, food, work, a house etc and that is totally enough, but of course, to be brutally honest, I still want stuff sometimes, just like everyone. The book just gave me a new insight. So I hope you get a chance to read it!

    And I hope your house recycling project is working out well. You guys must be handy alright! We had a builder on our job and luckily he was fantastic!

  4. You went to Ikea?! Shame on you! : p Just kidding. Interestingly, I was reading a blog post today about renting vs homeowning, and the lady was debating whether to rent, or whether to buy. In the end she found what she wanted as a rental. But she pointed out - and it hadn't occurred to me before - that when you rent you accept, and you put up with stuff because you know you can't change it. And it doesn't matter. Whereas when you own a home, you want to improve, to renovate, to change... and so you do, and it costs money and generates waste.

    The flat I've just moved into needs repainting and the kitchen would benefit from replacing - but it's not going to happen, and our lives won't be any worse off. It's interesting, because if we'd bought the flat rather than rented it, we'd be drawing up plans and scheming right now!

    So my conclusion...renting makes you greener!

  5. I think your conclusion is so true! I remember moving in to our house (12 years ago!) and thinking 'oh yes, just knock that wall down, retile the kitchen, rip out the bathroom, open it up a bit here, let the light in there...' AND all our friends and family going 'oh yes'. It is hard to resist the lure of 'Better homes and gardens'. Lucky we know the truth, Lindsay!

    1. Of course, whilst I can be smug about how green I am by renting, I would love the opportunity to build a solar pagoda and use recycled timber to make decking in my own home...

      Hang on...did I just read that you have a water feature?!?!?!?

    2. water feature/frog habitat. More habitat than feature, you'll be happy to know :)