When the country went into lockdown last year and the schools closed, I made a parenting decision. I overturned my previous objections and ordered the kids a trampoline. It has been the source of more joy than possibly anything else I have done as a parent. In the sunny days that followed, the children were on it for hours. Work was done uninterrupted as they disappeared into the garden and amused themselves.
However, there are reasons why I didn’t buy them a trampoline the first time they asked. Or the second, or the 34th. There is something that makes me a little uncomfortable about it, and it’s more than the aesthetics or the safety.
Looking out my daughter’s bedroom window, I can see a grand total of seven different trampolines in back gardens. Almost every family with children has one, of varying sizes and quality. Some are used all the time, some rarely. But it seems to be almost universal now. Every family has its own trampoline.
Meanwhile, the playground round the corner falls apart quietly. It’s usually empty when we go there. When the swings broke years ago, the council took the frame down rather than replace them.
There a number of issues in play here, including the loneliness of childhood during a pandemic. But the thing I wanted to highlight is the difference between private and public affluence. Private affluence is individuals gaining things for themselves – possessions, nice homes and experiences, trampolines. Public affluence is money spent lavishly on things that are shared – libraries, parks, buses, playgrounds.
Capitalism pushes us towards private affluence. We aspire to acquire our own things. Shared things are seen as second best, something of an inconvenience. Politics responds accordingly, prioritising economic growth and ‘more money in your pocket’, rather than shared goods and services. So everyone has their own lawnmower while the grass grows long in the park. People get their own exercise bikes or rowing machines, and the gym at the local leisure centre starts to look tired and under-funded. The wealthy pay for childcare or hire a nanny, but the early years nursery closes down.
Having access to your own things looks like progress, but there is a cost. Community is one of the victims. Shared spaces are places where community happens, where people mix and meet. Nobody makes new friends on their own rowing machine, in front of the TV. Inequality is another. Those who can afford their own won’t notice, but those on lower incomes rely much more on shared resources. When a library closes, it’s those on the margins of society who lose access to books, internet access, or a warm place to sit and do their homework. There is also an environmental cost, as private ownership means endlessly duplicated goods, many underused objects across many owners rather than a few well used objects that are shared.
There’s a balance to strike here of course. Not everything should be shared, and there is a dignity in having your own toothbrush. Ownership can be a sign of belonging and inclusion, that you have a stake in the prosperity of the land. There is a vision of prosperity in the Bible, for example, where “everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree”. It is a vision of peace rather than of private property, but ownership is part of it. It’s the dream of exiles longing for somewhere to call their own.
In our own culture, I wonder if the balance has tipped much too far towards private consumption. What if all the thousands of pounds locked up in private trampolines on my street were spent on the playground instead? What if, instead of aspiring to create our own safe spaces at home, we demanded safer streets and crossing places for children? What if we turned away from ourselves and our own possessions, and rebuilt the community that would look out for our children as they played out by themselves?
Public affluence builds community, saves resources and reduces inequality. In an advanced economy such as Britain’s, public affluence is one of the best ways to increase quality of life without increasing environmental damage. “Public affluence”, writes urbanist Mike Davis, “represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction – represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality.”
I won’t begrudge my children their trampoline. But perhaps their own children will in time benefit from a world with less traffic and more trust, high quality public spaces and greater freedom, less private consumption and more public affluence.