Saturday, 11 December 2010

More, more, more

The Friday Essay from The Independent by John Lanchester and entitled 'More, more, more' is well worth a read, partly because it critiques our overconsumption in the light of the world's dwindling resources and also because it highlights the value of relationships in providing real richness for our lives. Here are some highlights from Lanchester's essay:

"... "Richness is a relationship between two people." This observation, by the Italian economist Ferdinando Galiani, was first brought to my attention by James Buchan, and it seems to me that it is one of the truest things ever said about money ...

much of the discourse about money is in some sense abstract, i.e. it is self-referential and circular – people talking about money in terms of its effects within the world of money. When we think about it in the non-abstract, i.e. the effects of money in the wider world, the one idea we need to hold in our minds is that richness is a relationship. Richness, the idea of having plenty of money, is not an inherent state, nor is it an absolute state. Richness is about the amount of money you have compared with the people you see around you. It's about where you are in relation to others, and where they are in relation to you, and whether you can have the things you want and other people have ...

We are a desiring species. We want. It goes very deep in us. Perhaps we should just accept that we want, and we particularly want what we can see that other people have but we don't.

Unfortunately, we can't do that, for two reasons. First, the incitement of envy is built into the mechanics of capitalism and advertising. We are made to want more and more, not just as an accidental feature of modern life but as a fundamental principle of the modern economy ...

At the moment, we are stuck on what is called the "hedonic treadmill": as you have more and more, your idea of what it would be to be happy keeps receding just out of reach. It's always the next pay rise, the next purchase, the next place you move to or where you go on holiday, which will make you happy. We in the West can do something that no people in history have done: we can show the world that we know when we have enough. As the planet runs out of resources, due mainly to the fact that everyone on it wants to live an equivalent lifestyle to those of us in the West, this lesson would have the potential to offer a new model for how we should live. If the people who have everything are content to live with less, maybe the whole world will consider the virtues of knowing when to stop. We have no choice other than to learn this at some point, because the planet is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. It's going to run out.

We are either going to be saved from the problem of over-consumption by some magic technological fix, or we are going to face planetary crisis, or we are going to learn to consume less. We have to start thinking about when we have sufficient – sufficient money, sufficient stuff – and whether we really need the things we think we do, beyond what we already have. "La ricchezza รจ una ragione." We are richer and more fortunate than most of the people who have ever lived. We should look less at what our next-door neighbours have, and more at what the rest of the planet dreams of having. Then, we should try to learn to be content where we are. In a world running out of resources, the most important ethical and political and ecological idea can be summed up in one simple word: "enough"."

John Lanchester will be delivering a sermon for the School of Life on 'Enough' this Sunday - see  

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