doimakeadifferenceAs some BTB supporters already know, I recently began a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Australian National University working in the area of cultural anthropology. The focus of the research is: How do current and historical cultures ascribe status to wildlife ‘products’ and what turns them into luxury items? The aim is to understand how this process works; of particular interest is how this knowledge may be utilised to achieve the reverse effect – turning a current luxury item (such as rhino horn) back into something no longer considered a luxury or desirable. This insight can then form the basis for creating demand reduction initiatives.

As part of the initial literature search on the nature of luxury the concept of Magnificence vs. Luxury caught my attention. In its origins, luxury was not a term to describe consumption by elites, but one used to denigrate the aspirational consumer practices of the newly emerging wealthy classes1. In contrast, magnificence is related to the positive uses of wealth, i.e. doing something valuable for the public good. This started me thinking, in recent history (post the industrial revolution), are there examples of magnificence or is all we see self-serving luxury?

Defining Magnificence (the historical words that described Magnificence)

MagnificenceHistorically, magnificence was the term used for the undertaking of great projects and actions designated to the public/greater good. It was understood as a moral framework that obliged those who were wealthy to do something that was of value to society and hence could highlight the wisdom and prestige of the person undertaking the project. The exact nature of what was valued the most at the time depended on circumstance, but it often involved public buildings (libraries, cathedrals, temples, universities and later museums or art galleries). The spirit of such magnificence was generosity, virtue, honour and a desire to leave a lasting legacy. Examples are found in all historical civilisations, but, in the main, the concept went out of fashion with the Industrial Revolution.

Defining Luxury (the historical words that described Luxury)

LuxuryIn contrast to magnificence, luxury was and remains self-serving. Seen from the beginning as the aspirational consumption of the non-elites, it was seen as a vice, not a virtue. Luxury was associated with immorality, envy and lust and hence deemed improper. A pale imitation of elite lifestyles it was seen universally as extravagant, decadent and practised by the mediocre and those with vain ambition. This overwhelmingly negative view of luxury slowly disappeared from the 16th to 18th century as a class of newly wealthy emerged (merchants, business owners) and the language of magnificence was subverted to now describe luxury.

By the 19th century magnificence was largely forgotten and confined to individual acts of greatness and luxury had, for the most part, lost its negative connotations. Today, few people will have even heard of magnificence and luxury consumptions is something most people aspire to.

Post Industrial Revolution

The number of examples of what I would term as magnificence has dwindled. Much of what is contributed feels small scale compared to the available wealth of the world’s top 1%. Similarly, too many philanthropic endeavours appear to be ‘pet projects’, serving personal desire rather than a generosity of public spirit for the public good. It is also difficult to fully respect the work of people who are making a contribution when you know that the company they own or manage is shifting money to minimise tax and/or exploiting their workforce. In addition, given the ad-hoc nature of many charitable endeavours they predominantly tackle symptoms rather than resolving the problem. All this adds up to these contributions being closer to a self-indulgent luxury rather than magnificence.

Examples of individuals whose contribution more closely demonstrates the generosity of spirit associated with magnificence may be:

  1. model-house-picPrince Albert, the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria. Albert led reforms in education, welfare, housing and slavery. The Great Exhibit, which he championed, and battled MP’s to stage, was not only a success in itself but the surplus funds it raised (£180,000) were used to purchase land in South Kensington on which to establish educational and cultural institutions—including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Imperial College London, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
  2. Prince Charles. Since the early 1980s, Charles has promoted environmental awareness. His ideas were often ridiculed in the early years; he promoted organic gardening & farming and sustainability produced products. These have now entered the mainstream and not only because of an ideology but by necessity; for example, the decline of bees forcing Asian farmers to pollinate their orchards by hand has triggered questions on global farming methods. For many years Charles has spoken out on climate change and its sceptics; in a speech to the Low Carbon Prosperity Summit in 2011, he said that climate change sceptics are playing “a reckless game of roulette” with the planet’s future.
  3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has consistently demonstrated a strategic approach to difficult public health problems. Using sustained investment and building the partnerships needed to convert independent global health projects into coordinated efforts, it has achieved great success in tackling issues such as death rates through rotavirus infections. The Gates Foundation has brought a sense of urgency, passion, and commitment that allowed it to solve some very difficult problems that only a few years ago seemed almost beyond solution.

I could add the Pankhursts, Eleonore Roosevelt to the list. So there are some individuals, but, as mentioned, relatively few compared to the amount of available wealth.

Public Spirited Magnificence or Self Serving Luxury

A recent visit back to Blighty enabled me to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Exhibition: What is Luxury? Given my schedule, I had time to wander around the affluent suburbs of Kensington and Knightsbridge, something I had done on many occasions over the years, on my visits to the many museums. On this particular walk I contemplated what the current generation of wealthy are doing that could be termed magnificence. I was left with a sense of disappointment at what, on reflection, looked like a pleasant but bland lifestyle. A generation of people who have the resources to be magnificent and, while I am sure many are philanthropic, they give the appearance of living small, tick box lives.

I decided to create a lifestyle check list for the Knightsbridge/Kensington rich set based on my observations and here it is:

Item Tick Box (√)  Kensington summary
White terraced house
Ideally with balcony

Key pieces – quirky artworks
Key Pieces – antiques
Inoffensive floor covering
Inoffensive ceramic tiles
Pretty designer textiles
Bentley parked & waiting at the back of Harrods
Ideally with bored looking chauffeur

I have made it – I am now part of the tribe!

One thing that is very apparent is that there is plenty of money around, should the magnificence mindset be re-invented. Money is spent on multi-million-dollar houses, while at the same time questions are being asked about Britain’s public parks: 175 years old, but will they survive? Tragic.

This self-serving mindset is not new but it was further bedded down in an era when Margaret Thatcher famously (and stupidly) proclaimed in 1987 ‘… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families‘. We have been brainwashed by neoliberal ideology into believing that society doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. The only things that supposedly matter are the economy and the market, and by extension, money. If society is seen as no more than ‘the economy’, small wonder that people are reduced to ‘resources’, ‘consumers’ or even more derogatory, ‘labour’. In the same way free-market ideology has commoditised people, it has also commoditised nature. We now speak of ‘natural resources’, ‘game’ and ‘land’, a vernacular that doesn’t instil magnificence and as a result we see the ongoing plunder of the natural world.

environment damage collage

Re-inventing Magnificence – Conservation is the New Black

As I continue my research in cultural anthropology, the primary focus will be to investigate how current and historical cultures ascribe status to wildlife ‘products’ and what turns them into luxury items. Understanding this process should assist with creating demand reduction initiatives, as luxury consumption is notoriously difficult to tackle.

At the same time, I will continue to explore the Magnificence vs. Luxury question and how Magnificence can re-emerge on a wider scale. Diverting people away from luxury consumption and toward a generosity of spirt and a desire to leave a lasting legacy would be a fantastic change. Given the population size in Asia, the rapidly growing wealth and desire for luxury goods, reconnecting people in this region of the world with magnificence before they get entrenched in the desire to buy luxury ‘stuff’ is critical.

As highlighted, historically people have focused on buildings (museums, cathedrals, art galleries etc.) in urban areas. One reason for this was, given the number of people in cities and towns their legacy would be seen by many and they would be remembered long into the future. Yet we don’t need any more buildings, the most pressing need today is to reconnect society with nature and establish a better balance between human needs and the needs of the planetary eco-systems.

Giving USACurrently, relatively little is donated to nature, amounting to just 3% of charitable donations in the US in 2014.

At the same time, there is much to do:

  • Reducing the human footprint on eco-systems
  • Conserving the flora and fauna that has been around for millions of years
  • Re-planting ancient forests and re-wilding
  • Cleaning up plastic from the oceans
  • And so on

In recent history, the world’s elites have developed a stranglehold on our democracies for their own benefit and enrichment. This has been detrimental for society and nature, as they have used every opportunity to undermine regulations and externalise costs. It is time for them to give back in a much greater way to help fix the mess.

Of course this is not just about individual philanthropic acts that help fix some of the messes of the past. This also requires a new socio-economic paradigm that has sustainability (not growth) as the maxim that drives all decision making. But we are probably still decades away from a widespread acceptance of this new maxim. So in the meantime we need trailblazers, people with the resources to set examples and demonstrate that we can engage with nature on a balanced footing and that we can undo some of the damage we have already done. This would be magnificent!

natural beautyFor instance, these trailblazers may decide to stay in their 3 bedroomed apartment in Knightsbridge and not upgrade to the 5 bedroomed house. With the £10Million saved by foregoing this move they could contribute to a well-designed and targeted demand reduction campaign that could break the back of the demand for rhino horn. In essence one man, woman or family could decide to save the rhino from extinction in the wild!

Gionvanni Pontano, an Italian humanist and poet, called magnificence the “fruit” of wealth4. Go on – Be Magnificent!

These are the views of the author: Dr. Lynn Johnson, Founder, Breaking the Brand

Literature Review – key papers

  1. What is Luxury?: The Rebirth of a Concept in the Early Modern World – Catherine Kovesi
  2. Luxury – Elisabeth Wilson
  3. From Misery to Luxury – Jack Goody
  4. Magnificence and Splendour: Definitions of Wealth in Fifteenth Century Florence
  5. Global Luxury Trends – Jonas Hoffmann & Ivan Coste-Manière