Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

Honor Study Topic 2008-2010

The Paradox of Affluence: Choices, Challenges & Consequences

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Phi Theta Kappa programs for chapter and individual participation reflect the Society Hallmarks of Scholarship, Leadership and Service, and evoke Fellowship through camaraderie and cooperation. Exploring the Honors Study Topic creates opportunities for chapters and individuals to integrate the Hallmarks in comprehensive, well-rounded initiatives effective in contributing to academic stimulation and student development. The following pages provide guidance for exploring the Honors Study Topic and incorporating additional resources such as Phi Theta Kappa’s Leadership Development Program and the 2008-2010 International Service Program, Operation Green: Improving Our Communities.

An Essay on the topic

Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford University, maintains that the “paradox of affluence” is “richer is not (much) better.” Average people living in the 14th and 16th centuries might have agreed, though they may have liked to test the theory.

The word “affluence” was first used in the 14th century, a time of unprecedented change and expansion in Europe. It was a calamitous century that included two natural disasters, the Little Ice Age and the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, Great Schism in the Roman Catholic Church, isolation of China by the Mongols, and Muslim invasions of southern Europe. The concept of affluence was fueled by the ways in which the Crusades changed Europe and the relationship between East and West. Though they had ceased by the end of the 13th century, the Crusades helped develop world trade, triggered the rise of towns and dismantling of Feudalism in Western Europe, and sparked a revival of Classical literature.

By the time the word “paradox” appeared in the English language in the mid-16th century, virtually every aspect of Europeans’ lives had changed from what they had been during the Middle Ages. This beginning of the modern era recorded changes in mechanisms of commerce, systems of finance, development of centralized nation-states, creation of ocean-ready trading fleets, and the invention of the printing press. The Black Death had largely ceased, the Renaissance expanded north beyond Italy, and Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. Christopher Columbus “discovered” a new continent, and the Age of Exploration flourished as did, by the end of the century, the African slave trade. Perhaps fueled by this tremendous change, new fortunes were made and technological and artistic innovation flourished. By the end of the century, Europe was dealing with bad weather, poor harvests, low wages, high taxes, and high prices of food, fuel, and housing. National debts had soared due to a series of wars.

It is fitting that we will spend the next two years studying the paradox of affluence. If you insert the words “21st century” for the 14th and 16th centuries, the descriptions may sound eerily familiar. Like those centuries during which the words affluence and paradox entered the English language, the 21st century is one of extraordinary change. We are witnessing an information and technology revolution, dealing with war and the ability to annihilate the world’s population. World debt is high and seen as an obstacle to human development. Advances in technology and knowledge about health and hygiene have lowered global infant mortality and raised life expectancy. More of us live away from our families than ever before. The world’s population has risen to nearly seven billion taxing some of the earth’s resources. The environment is in potential danger.

Still, middle class Americans and members of the European Union, according to author Gregg Easterbrook, live better than more than 99% of the people who have ever lived. Most people in the world live better than the average person who lived in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and better than even their grandparents lived.

Yet, relative affluence has bred discontent. Affluence and, to paraphrase Thomas Friedman, a flat world offer us more choices and more challenges. The choices we make as leaders will make all the difference in terms of consequences. Over the next two years, you will have the opportunity to study the paradox of affluence in depth and to investigate and develop those leadership skills necessary to deal with an age of change and tumult. We hope as well you will use what you learn about the paradox of affluence to examine ways you can improve the environment at your college and in your community, region, and beyond through Operation Green, our International Service Program. In the end, we hope you discover new intellectual treasures for your personal and professional growth as scholars and servant leaders and have a rich, fulfilling PTK experience.