The Nature of Prosperity

Posted on April 11, 2018

It was Oscar Wilde who said that ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.’ It was in this spirit that Surrey University’s Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) and the William Morris  Society convened a symposium in London in February entitled ‘The nature of prosperity: ethics and utopias.’ The event, attended by over 250 people was to discuss the way in which a truly prosperous society is concerned nor only with income and financial wealth but also with the health and wellbeing of its citizens, with their access to good quality education, and with their prospects for decent and rewarding work. Part of this process was in commissioning and launching at the event, a series of essays on aspects of this project, ranging from a critique of ‘natural capital’ challenging the view that nature should simply be seen as capital (1), to the role of professionals in considering their responsibilities to initiate, re-shape and rethink the actions within their powers, so as far as possible to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem (2) .  While some of the essays, there were five in all, focussed on quite specific aspects of what the nature of prosperity might look like (or what it shouldn’t) and how it might be brought about, others ranged more widely across philosophy and sociology and across time. This is where the examination of utopias came in. The Utopian approach Ruth Levitas argued, allows us not only to imagine what an alternative society  could look like but enables us to  imagine what it might feel like to inhabit it, thus giving a greater potential depth to our judgements about the good (3). Sustainable prosperity is one way of thinking about a potentially better society on a global scale.  And prosperity should be understood not as prosperousness in the economic sense of economically wealthy, but in the wider and deeper sense of prospering or thriving; the relationships between material and immaterial satisfactions such as health, social relations or meaningful activities.

Topping off the discussions was former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose interest in William Morris’s utopia ‘News from Nowhere’ has led him to write an introduction to a new edition (4). His starting point was to argue that we need to change the myths we live by. In his introduction   Williams observed that ‘The industrial capitalism of Morris’s age has changed radically, but the mythology remains in many ways more stubbornly anchored than ever in our habits, local and international. Environmental philosophies have gradually and patchily made us aware of some of what we need to confront and to dethrone; massive pollution and what may be irreversible environmental degradation reflected in the rate of climate change have made Morris’s vision seem both more desirable and more remote.’ He characterised ‘News from Nowhere’ as ‘a book about happiness’ and the unselfconscious delight that comes from making and sharing. In this context prosperity is either a shared goal where we imagine the future wellbeing of others as well as ourselves, or a poisonous one. Morris’s insight Williams contended is that ‘Radical change does not come unless we have a positive sense of what as human beings we most lastingly need in order to flourish. And that positive sense requires a new acknowledgement of our materiality as the condition of our spirituality. Our contemporary culture in the ‘developed’ world is disturbingly illiterate in respect of both of these things’.  As Melissa Lane put it in her essay, ‘Only a fundamental reimagining of our roles and ourselves of our professions and our identities as citizens and how they fit together can generate the initiatives needed to achieve a sufficiently sustainable society sufficiently soon lest we suffer the fate described by Martin Luther King Jr, ‘Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the words ‘too late’…’.

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Town & Country Planning


1. John O’Neill:  Life beyond capital

2. Melissa Lane:  A new professional ethics for sustainable prosperity

3. Ruth Levitas: Where there is no vision the people perish: a utopian ethic for a transformed future

4.  William Morris: News from Nowhere, introduction by Rowan Williams. Thames & Hudson 2017

For further information on the William Morris Society see:

For Further information on CUSP and for downloadable copies of all the essays see: