How Much Is Enough

Live more simply so other may simple live

Live more simply so others may simply live

To sustain a livable environment, all basic human needs must be met as sufficient steady state stocks of natural capital are maintained. Guaranteeing a basic income as the greed of the billionaire class is tamed are keys to avoiding biosphere collapse and the end of being.

Conspicuous over-consumption by some as others fester in abject poverty is killing us all as we liquidate our shared biological inheritance for throw-away consumer crap… This perilous state of global inequity begs the question how much is enough? – Dr. Glen Barry

Despite being more aware than many of the perilous ecological condition of the planet, like most I am drawn by the siren call of affluenza. The variety of consumer goods and their marketing are so pervasive that it is hard to not succumb to the illusion that material items equate with happiness and well-being.

And while I try hard to weigh the impacts of personal expenditures on the planet and its life, and whether the purchase of a particular item is necessary, it is just so damn difficult to resist the desire to meet everyday whims and consume more, and not feel somehow disadvantaged if more stuff cannot be had.

My unmet desires for electronics, a new wardrobe, and travel of course pale in importance to the billions who struggle to meet basic needs. The fact that one billion people live in abject poverty on less than $1.50 a day continues to stun me. Given the networked nature of the world it is very unlikely that a just, sustainable and livable Earth can long persist with such imbalances.

Being married to a Papua New Guinean, and having lived in this Pacific Island’s villages for many years, I understand that exclusion from the money economy does not mean that existence cannot be rich in community, experience, leisure and the wealth found in a well tilled garden. It is important to differentiate between self-sufficiency and dispossession in those that are materially poor.

But the truth remains that billions of people’s basic needs for medicine, food, comfort, and a few select luxuries continue to go unmet; as others slovenly conspicuously over-consume. Jet set celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio warn us climate is real as they gallivant around the world with pals in private yachts and jets spewing emissions for leisure, setting a bad example. Many of us in the developed world’s middle class live lives of consumption beyond the kings and queens of yesteryear, yet rarely is our desire for more satiated.

Conspicuous over-consumption by some as others fester in abject poverty is killing us all as we liquidate our shared biological inheritance  for throw-away consumer crap.

Earth is a finite place. There are only so many resources to be derived from the harvest of natural ecosystems. As natural capital has and continues to be drawn down by exponentially growing populations all wanting to consume more; a state of ecological overshoot has resulted whereby consumption is occurring at a rate well beyond Earth’s ability to regenerate. We have gone from one to seven billion super-consumers in 130 years and we are liquidating Earth’s natural ecosystems to make consumer products that mostly end up in the landfill.

Bioregional scale ecological depletion is becoming the norm as arable land, fresh water, and clear skies have become scarce. Throughout the world, suffering from emergent diseases, hunger, and a state of resource driven perma-war escalates as ecosystems collapse. Soon our one shared biosphere will collapse too if the status quo of inequity, war, and ecocide continue.

This environmental decline often impacts the poor more deeply who depend upon local resources for livelihoods. Yet middle-class opportunities for employment and consumption are also in decline. As I have noted on many occasion, natural ecosystem loss and abrupt climate change threaten to collapse our one shared biosphere in what can only be described as the end of being. Then even the rich will feel the pain of consumption of Earth’s life-support systems.

This perilous state of global inequity begs the question how much is enough?

A few hundred people have half the Earth’s wealth. Historically a CEO of a business would make a few dozen times as much as their workers. Now it is often several hundred times.

In a world that is collapsing into a state of perma-war and abject poverty, can we not pursue any limits at all upon personal wealth? No one is speaking of communism or even socialism here – those that work hard and are smarter deserve to have more. But at what point is it enough? And when do societal requirements for meeting basic human needs, while maintaining a habitable planet for all species, take precedence? We engage with these questions of justice and equity or we die.

One of the more interesting ideas gaining support across the political spectrum is replacing virtually all government programs with a guaranteed basic income sufficient to cover sustenance needs for every human being simply by virtue of their being alive. Thus every human being’s basic human needs for shelter, food, clothing, and medicine would be realized.

Those living on just such a basic income would not live a luxurious life, but abject human suffering would be banished. Huge government bureaucracies could be dismantled. Some could choose to live simple lives as students, artists, and musicians; while other work for extra consumption – but not without limit. And those working harder would have more, but not endless amounts that threaten the environment and others’ ability to persist.

So how much is enough? How about top executives making 40 times the amount of their average employee instead of 400 times, like they used to – if workers make $50,000 this still provides the boss with $2,000,000, more than enough to reward hard work. And every human being could have their average needs met with a basic income. This would be a start towards ending gluttony as a source of abrupt climate change and ecosystem collapse.

We have been conditioned since birth to consume at all costs, often haphazardly at the expense of the natural capital that sustains us. It will be very difficult to overcome the lure of mammon yet try we must.

And how many people are enough? Indications are a population of one billion human beings could all live the lifestyle of the average European. If the population can be stabilized and begin to be reduced, there is enough natural wealth for all to live decent lives with basic needs met and a variety of some, but not all, luxuries to match every taste. They keys to population reduction are educating girls, free birth control, and subsidies for small families.

Imagine a world where community, experience, regional travel, knowledge, and a life well lived are desired as much as ever more wealth at the expense of others and the Earth. The political will must be found to strongly tax the wealth of the billionaire class to meet the needs of the poor and our shared environment.

There are other ways to live than a hell-bent rush to ecocide. We can each choose to disavow personal automobiles, have fewer children, travel by air only rarely, eat less or no meat, and many other ways of reducing our personal consumption relatively easily and without much impact at all upon our well-being. It may even make your life better as you commit to community, experience, and education. That has been my experience.

Until such time as all those in the middle and upper classes learn to live with a bit less, and to share with others, there is virtually no chance of a peaceful, sustainable, and just Earth continuing forever, or even much longer.

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5 Responses

  1. Emily Dale says:

    Thank you for your insightful article, Dr. Barry. I agree with you, and yet find myself feeling helpless in the ocean of greed and perpetual warfare. The presidential candidates of the two major parties are the worst in our nation’s history. I’d like to see Dr. Stein lead our nation, but the mainstram media will never let it happen.

    I will be 91 in October, and still helping in the organic community garden I founded 4 years ago, until this heat record-breaking summer and droves of mosquitoes who love my Type O-neg blood , which is their preference. And of course we now have Zika mosquitos here in Florida (a boon for our Governor’s wife, who owns a pest control company).

    May you enjoy your life in the South Pacific-on high ground, I presume.
    Best wishes,
    Emily Dale

    • Chris says:

      Emily – kudos to you. I also agree with you. Our choices are the worst. I, too, would hope to see Dr. Stein in office. It’s a sad place we live in today.

  2. You are so true, Dr. Barry. Our world is being destroyed by human greed and human numbers. I have not figured out how to convince people to be less greedy, but (as an OB-GYN) I have encountered many, many women who wish to have control over their fertility.
    It is frustrating to me that most biologists (at least conservation biologists, the group that I know best) have not made the connection in a practical way between human population growth and ecological destruction. Can you help me understand that disconnect?

  3. Bill Boteler says:

    I think much of this waste and injustice is built into the system. In the past, communists and socialists tried to create alternatives. I don’t think we should stop trying to build alternatives. The pragmatic reality is we are destroying species and ecosystems that are 10s of millions of years in the making. We are rapidly altering the atmosphere and climate. We have to act on these issues as well as the pain that the system is causing to humanity as it consumes resources desperately needed by those who have little. We have to act now while realizing that the system is horrible and needs and alternative. We have to save forests and soils and living resources where we can and stop polluters where we can while pledging to ourselves to replace this death-based, archaic system with one that meets human needs. Look to the Asian nation of Bhutan as one alternative. Read their plan of replacing Gross National Product with national happiness.

  4. Rudy Haugeneder says:

    It appears that it is part of human nature to consume and destroy. Hopefully natural Nature will fight back in time to save itself or, more likely, simply wait for another epoch.

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