COVID-19 remains a global public health emergency, the planet is on fire, and democracy is at serious risk. Faced with these immense political challenges, why talk about pleasure?

Philosopher Kate Soper has been grappling with this question for decades. As an environmentalist and denuclearization activist, she noticed a worrisome pattern: efforts to green the economy and distribute wealth more equitably often sound like a program for joyless living. Tighten your belt, make do with less, give up your pleasures.

To Soper, this gets it exactly wrong. Leading this issue’s forum, she urges that we see “post-growth living” as an opportunity for greater pleasure, not less. Modern life is immiserating, sickening, isolating, and exhausting, creating desires that consumption can never fulfill. Designing simpler ways of living—built around local community and abundant free time—could make us happier and healthier while giving our overextended planet a new lease on life.

This note is featured in The Politics of Pleasure.

Forum respondents, including Green New Deal economist Robert Pollin and Kenyan activist Nanjala Nyabola, embrace Soper’s call to remake society but question her prescription. The result is a wide-ranging debate about the limitations of lifestyle critique, the value of economic growth, and the kinds of alternatives that are possible.

Among those convinced that pleasure is political was British designer William Morris, a committed socialist and leading figure in the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement. Morris was—as E. P. Thompson once put it—“our greatest diagnostician of alienation.” In his essay for this volume, Ben Schacht explores Morris’s distinctive vision of a society that prioritizes pleasure and beauty for all.

Other contributions focus on the connections between pleasure and gender, including the joys of collective action and care work, the ordinary pleasures of Black motherhood, and the links between good sex and democracy. Together they imagine what it will take to make a pleasurable life possible for everyone.