Live Small – Economic growth expands into world mess

Living small — it is the opposite of living large — the opposite of always wanting more. For people in developed countries with access to incredible material abundance, living small means using less resources, less space, and having less stuff than we perhaps could have. It can mean practicing voluntary simplicity that emphasizes free time, community, engagement, meaningfulness, stillness, beauty and love — not necessarily achievement, status and constant activity.

For me, the idea of living small in particular means figuring out what enough is and taking joy from having enough, rather than chasing my tail hoping I’ll someday be happy if I just have a little more. Enough doesn’t just refer to money or things — figuring out enough goes for everything humans do from work to play to love to stimulation. Figuring out what is enough and achieving satisfaction with it is hard but can be a key to achieving a sense of meaning on a personal level. If you’re always seeking more, you’ll never get to the pot of gold and you’ll always feel a sense of dissatisfaction.

Enough is a crucial concept not just on an individual level, but on a social, economic and environmental level. Our individual psychology and values are structured by social and economic factors, and in turn they can structure social and economic relations. Living small isn’t just about lifestyle politics isolated from the struggle to change systems that structure the world and that are beyond the control of individuals. Experiments in living small can help inform the types of psychological, social and economic transformations that are possible and necessary for our world.

Economic growth

Humans have built economic and industrial structures that depend on constant, permanent economic growth and expansion. Along with those systems and in particular capitalism go cultural norms that expect constant and permanent expansion — people expect their lives to be better than their parents lives and people expect to get more as they get older and move through life.

Increasingly, the built-in automatic expansion of our economy has begun to run up against the reality of a finite planet. There is only so much land, only so many fish, only so much forest, only so much air, only so much water.

When each individual on Earth uses more and more resources each year, eventually you run into scarcity — not just because of unequal distribution of resources which has been the main cause of scarcity in class societies, but because there aren’t sufficient ecological resources to go around. The current run-up in food prices are associated with increasing global wealth on a finite planet — more people who can afford to eat meat and drive cars burning biofuels are putting pressure on a finite supply of agricultural land, driving up prices. The rich consume as much as they like — without regard to what may be enough — and the global poor go hungry.

The term “sustainable” gets thrown around a lot these days — what does it mean? For a system to be sustainable, it must be able to continue whatever it is doing indefinitely. Forever. That means that each element in the system has to balance with all the others. In a natural system that means that precisely the amount of food or other resources needed by each creature has to be created by some other creature or by the sun or Earth each year without destroying the ecosystem’s ability to create those same resources the next season. Using a sustainable amount of a resource is like spending interest earned on a savings account — but leaving the principle in the account. If one withdraws more money than the interest earnings, one decreases the principle in the account — which decrease the next year’s interest earnings, and eventually will lead to an empty bank account.

Our current system is not sustainable because it must — by its own internal logic — grow every year. The forces of competition continuously increase efficiency and production by requiring each company to constantly grow, reduce costs, increase production, increase sales, or succumb to another firm that is more efficient at doing those things.

The system includes no mechanism for determining what is enough and thus limiting growth, and in fact many people are employed to make sure that nothing is ever enough. The advertising industry and ever evolving consumer products exist to constantly create new needs and satisfy them. Things that hadn’t even been imagined or that were considered luxuries fifty years ago are considered necessities now — bottled water, ipods, etc. There are legions of economists to calculate each year’s economic growth and figure out how the economy can continue to grow, but no profession or academic specialty or government department specifically devoted to understanding what is enough.

The world economy grows about four percent per year compounded in each future year, forming an exponential curve that gradually goes up more and more steeply. (See figure.) Generally, economic activity and thus economic growth measures the extent to which humans transform nature — by extracting raw resources like food, trees, oil and by processing those resources into manufactured goods.

Economic growth is generally considered a good thing according to a capitalist value system. When there is less economic growth (as now in the current recession) that is cause for concern.

However, in a finite ecological system, a constant exponential growth of resource use is a grave cause for concern, not a good thing at all. For example, if you have cancer, you don’t want to hear that the cancer has a constant four percent growth rate, because that means that eventually, the cancer will demand so much of your body’s resources that it will kill you.

Live Small

I go through this long (and perhaps boring) exposition of the incompatibility of capitalist growth with ecological sustainability because if growth cannot continue indefinitely, then developing the concept of enough and living small is crucial in order to avoid ecological disaster. Capitalism as a system won’t impose limits on itself — only people and our values and sense of meaning can steer and limit the voracious machine.

Grappling with the concept of enough — living small rather than living large — means struggling against very powerful personal, social and economic impulses, which all tend to be intertwined and support each other to cause individuals to constantly want more.

Although as a practical matter I’ve been living small one way or another for most of my adult life — avoiding the worst of the work rat-race, having a small room in a shared house, not having a car — I’ve recently been having a mid-life crisis and feeling psychologically uncomfortable with my life. Not so much the material aspects but the choices that I’ve made that emphasize simplicity also mean that I’ve given up the potential for some types of status or achievement. I’m keenly aware that by this age, I expected to be doing more important stuff — in essence to be living larger. I’ve made my choice hoping that achieving a meaningful life would have more to do with my engagement, experiences and human connections than with money or status.

This crisis has been confusing but also has been helping me think through my own deep assumptions about what is enough and how I get meaning out of my life. Living in this society that worships unending growth, it is very hard not to internalize those goals on a personal level even if one understands that socially and ecologically, they are unsustainable and dangerous.

Life stages

Part of the feeling might be from the personal trajectory our lives take. There is an appropriate time for growth both on a personal level and for a human economic system. For an individual, when one is a child you need to grow, learn and focus on achievement. In your 20s and 30s, you have not yet achieved stability — a place to live, a way to earn a living — and you need to focus on growth to achieve these things. If you’re lucky enough not to be mired in poverty, the concept of enough becomes crucial at some point. Once you’ve achieved what you really need to live, if you’re not careful you’ll just continue growing your status, workload, and material possessions beyond what you need — beyond enough.

You’ll do so because, having struggled when you were younger, you’ll be in the habit of emphasizing further growth. And you’ll continue uncontrolled growth because the social/economic system of capitalism worships growth as its only value — no one bothers to discuss what is enough because it is assumed that growth can go on forever and that if you’re not growing, you’re irrelevant. The system assumes that what is enough now won’t be enough later.

On a personal level, you internalize this dynamic and come to expect that every year you’ll have a better job, a bigger house, more expensive vacations and recreational activities, etc. There are few role models for people who have decided to step off the growth path because they had achieved enough and found meaning from life as it is, rather than from chasing growth. These personal psychological dynamics are caused by the capitalist system but they also serve to cause it — consumers are always anxious to consume more and managers always want to grow their companies bigger so they’ll achieve more status.

A similar historical dynamic seems to apply to human societies. At a certain point in history, when a society lacks a stable source of food, adequate housing and warm clothing, economic growth makes sense because the society hasn’t achieved enough under any reasonable understanding of what enough might be. As economic growth proceeds, societies reach enough but continue growing because of the self-executing economic system they have devised. Rather, they change their definition of what is really enough, societies increase it along with economic growth.

Since humans live on a finite Earth, we have to both personally and socially grapple with the concept of enough and change our desires so we can live at a stable level once enough has been achieved. We have to figure out how to feel a sense of satisfaction and meaning from stability, rather than always seeking satisfaction and meaning from growth.

On a personal level, one may spend 10-20 years developing one’s career, fixing up housing, and developing talents only to reach mid-life and have to transition away from a growth-focused sense of meaning and over to a different kind of meaning. For me, after years of working as hard as I could and being busy most of the time, it has been jarring to realize that having achieved enough, I now get to sit back a little bit more, read a few more books, go for longer bike rides, and spend more time tending the garden, and less time building it. Or as my friend Terri noted, “maybe when you reach middle age you should be more like a plant ‘going to seed’ — not coincidentally a derogatory term in our culture. You concentrate wisdom and energy to be passed on to the next generation.”

Dialogue on Enough

On a social or economic level, grappling with enough and then trying to stop economic growth and enjoy stability has to start with discussion. Capitalism has its own logic to supply easy, mechanical answers to what work people will do, what buildings will be built, what products will be created and what resources used — so people are let off the hook from having to engage in uncomfortable discussions. The problem is that these easy answers have no ultimate meaning — capitalism creates a world disconnected from human happiness or environmental sustainability.

In trying to answer what is enough, at least two factors can guide us. First, you have enough when people can meet basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, etc. These are relative and change based on history and culture — there is a lot of room for disagreement. What is necessary for one person or group of people is luxury for another. What is important isn’t necessarily to have a single, ultimate answer but to engage constantly and vigorously in discussion.

While developed countries need to look at what is enough, it is important to realize how many people on Earth don’t currently have enough material resources. At least billions of people lack even minimal resources such as enough food, clean water, basic health care, adequate shelter, etc. This is to say nothing of resources necessary for self expression, education, communication — all resources that every human on Earth should have access to in order to achieve enough in the first place. The developed countries need to struggle with enough in part because our over-consumption makes it impossible for many people on Earth to have enough.

Second, enough has to be linked to some sense of the resources that humans can take from the Earth in a sustainable fashion. This is also a highly debatable point. The standard capitalist response to the argument that there cannot be unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is that economic growth can solve ecological problems — as a society gets richer because of economic growth, it can adopt cleaner technologies which permit a higher standard of living while using less ecological resources and creating less ecologically damaging waste products. For instance a rich society can replace scarce resources like trees with recycled paper or hemp.

These arguments are suspect since, at least so far, more growth has caused more ecological damage, not less. Some resources actually are limited — for example, no matter how you can substitute different resources, the total acreage on Earth remains the same. But to the extent these arguments are correct for some particular examples, perhaps the best response is to embrace growth of these technologies — not all growth is bad, just unlimited, unthinking growth.

Society can incorporate technically sustainable innovations into the concept of enough. For example, if some goods can be created more sustainably, then the ever-changing idea of what is enough can reflect that. In other words, if solar or wind or other renewables turn out to permit certain standards of living, that is great — let’s see the proof first rather than hoping, in a utopian fashion, that generalized, unlimited growth in all new technology will save us some day in the future. We can be very suspicious when corporations say that by buying more — re-usable bags, hybrid cars, etc. — you are saving the planet.

For privileged people in developed countries, enough may be considerably less than the resources to which people have already become accustomed. This raises especially difficult questions — no one wants to voluntarily give up what they grew up with. Perhaps part of the answer is in shifting values and understanding the tradeoffs human beings make. Part of having material things or status above what is enough may be having less than enough of other things that are undervalued or not considered at all — time, freedom, stillness, meaning, sanity, beauty, unspoiled natural areas, engaging work, vibrant community. Capitalist value systems only take money and status seriously, but human beings have much more diverse and complex needs and aspirations. In considering enough, we are challenged to look carefully at the tradeoffs we’ve been making thoughtlessly — the ways we’ve conformed to economic value systems that may be meaningless.

This may all sound uncomfortably mushy — values and a discussion of the concept of enough seem a mighty soft counter-force to the cold hard steel of global capitalism. In a society focused on capitalism, science, and rationality, we may feel ashamed to apply values — distinguishing between “right and wrong” or “better or worse” — because these concepts seem weak and “un-scientific.” What gives anyone the right to say what is right and wrong? You can’t prove it. You risk engaging in guilt politics asserting your own values against someone else’s.

In fact, human values and judgment are more crucial now than ever before. Capitalism can create growth, but it can’t answer the question of why it is growing. Determining enough requires debate — no one gets to impose their values on others — but a discussion is vastly preferable to obeying mechanical answers spit out by a inhuman economic system. This discussion can lead to the practice of real politics — not politics as traditionally imagined — but a process whereby discussion leads to some level of collective consensus and action based on arguments that transcend purely mechanical thinking and attempt to get at what it means to live meaningfully and sustainably.