The cover of the Summer 2011 issue of the World Policy Journal asks plainly: How much is enough?
In one of the lead essays (link here), environmentalist William Powers — a one-time child of relative privilege from Long Island — answers the question from an environmental perspective:
This conversation is vitally important because of some bad news. Technology alone won’t save us from environmental collapse. It will take four or five generations of technological innovation to achieve carbon-free production. Alas, we don’t have that much time.
He takes aim at his own upbringing in assessing the problem:
The price of my privileged upbringing was my ignorance of the true effects of global hyper-development…. I was taught to see myself as a child of the American Dream. In reality, I am a child of the Age of Ecocide.
Powers has chosen to embrace voluntary simplicity as a response to this crisis, as well as to become socially engaged in environmental advocacy.
A dollar a day
Voluntary simplicity may sound good, but for many, simplicity is not a choice. As Mira Kamdar, examining the wide wealth gap in India, states (link here):
Voluntary simplicity can only appeal to those who have enough to choose to live with less. For those who live in a one-room shack without electricity because they have no other choice, a simple lifestyle is a life of deprivation.
Kamdar points out that, amidst brazen conspicuous consumption in India, some “800 million people still live on less than a dollar a day.”
Emerging age of scarcity
I believe that most of us will be facing this question sooner than later, if we have not already. In a 2010 piece for The Futurist (membership magazine of the World Future Society), Stephen Aguilar-Millan, Ann Feeney, Amy Oberg, and Elizabeth Rudd painted a bracing view of economic life between now and 2050:
The world economy will experience scarcities of natural resources from now until the middle of the twenty-first century, when a post-scarcity world becomes a reality….The world between 2010 and 2050 is likely to be characterized by scarcities: a scarcity of credit, a scarcity of food, a scarcity of energy, a scarcity of water, and a scarcity of mineral resources.
How much is enough?
Americans who came of age in the late 20th century are not used to acknowledging lasting, systemic downward cycles in material wealth and resources. Well, forgive me for sounding like a naysayer, but I believe that age of scarcity is upon us, even if we have yet to acknowledge it. The question of how much is enough will have increasing relevance in our lives.
For the have-nots, the question will be one of survival, as in how much do I need to sustain my life and the lives of my loved ones?
For the haves, the question will be one of personal choice and ethics, as in how much am I willing to share, donate, or be taxed in order to provide food, shelter, and clothing for others in dire need?
For the majority somewhere in the middle, the question will be fraught with insecurity and pangs of conscience, fueled by awareness that jobs and nest eggs can disappear at a moment’s notice, while recognizing that many others are much worse off.
To borrow from Thomas Paine, these will be times that try our souls.