Welcome to the first in a series of six blog posts from me, Anne Ryan, under the general theme Enough is Plenty, hosted by Feasta.
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This blog is for readers who are becoming increasingly concerned about climate breakdown, ecological destruction, injustice, and animal and human suffering. There is a huge range of awareness in society about these issues. Many people have been aware and active for two or three decades and are far ahead in their thinking and activism, with little to learn here, but more and more people are coming new to the issues in recent months, following high-profile campaigns from Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, school strikers or having seen the TV programmes of David Attenborough. In 2009 I published a book called Enough is Plenty and some readers of the book have suggested that the time may be ripe to re-consider the value of enough and related ways of being in the world, as a response to the interrelated crises of our time.
So the blog has two aims: first, to explore the philosophy and practice of enough, using material from the book. Second, the posts will also reflect on things I am learning at this time and I will connect the concept of enough with some more recent developments in thinking, writing or activism.
In this post, I reproduce some of the introduction to the book and the philosophy of enough (thanks to publishers John Hunt for permission). In the next post, I will point to some of the connections between enough and degrowth and examine the question of terminology and language around these approaches.
Introduction: Enough is Plenty
Enough is Plenty is a contribution to a big worldwide movement which involves many people and groups. We are posing serious questions about the future and devising solutions to problems of ecology and social justice. The questions include:
How can we live in harmony with nature? How do we stop global warming, associated climate change and the destruction of ecosystems?
How can we eliminate poverty, provide security and create sufficiency for all the people of the earth?
How do we restore an ethic of care for people for the earth?
In short, how can we put human and planetary well being at the centre of all our decision-making?
The book explores how we can all participate in this movement by cultivating a philosophy and practice of enough in public and private life. Enough applies insights from flourishing ecosystems and from moral thinking to these big philosophical questions about how we should live. Given the crises of ecology and social justice that we currently face, the need for a new worldview is as crucial as new technology. We are all born with the capacity for enough and everybody has a part to play in the creation of new ways to understand the world and live in it.
The concept of enough is developed throughout this book. I begin here in this introduction, continue in a chapter of reflection, and then move on to chapters showing how enough is relevant to public policies and personal resources. The approach I take recognises that the practice of enough is not uniform throughout the world; it can take different forms and expressions for individuals and cultures.
Thinking about enough highlights how misery, sufficiency and excess differ from each other. Our current economic and social systems discourage thinking about these distinctions. It is usually assumed that we should not put any brakes on accumulation, even if that sometimes means having far in excess of what we need. This kind of indiscriminate growth shows up as an increase in goods or services traded for cash, also known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Many economists equate increase in GDP with progress for the human race, even as the great contradictions of global growth politics are becoming more and more clear: the economic systems that provide indiscriminate increase in GDP are harming the resources that sustain us. Economic growth has brought about benefits but its downsides are considerable. The general impulse of growth economics as currently practiced is to exploit resources such as people, land, animals and ecosystems. It is not about serving, fostering, caring for or conserving them.
In the worldview that favours this kind of easily measurable growth, rising levels of consumption, production and cash wealth are all considered to automatically bring about improved human well being. Markets, money, trade, science, technology, competition and profit are good, creative activities in themselves. But with the current emphasis on growth at all costs, they are conducted in ways that are ecologically destructive and morally unacceptable. The world does not have enough resources for everyone to live a consumerist lifestyle. It is also untrue that as ‘standards of living’ rise for the materially wealthy, they also rise for the less well off. And the means by which we create material wealth and consumer goods often destroy the features of life that make life enjoyable and worthwhile in the first place, such as time for self, family, friends, community, civil society and nature.
Enough has an immediate value in this culture of untrammelled growth. It can help us cope with the personal and social effects of what can sometimes seem like a runaway world. Working out what is enough in one’s life is a way to get some peace of mind and capacity to deal with hectic daily activities. It is a way to be content, not in the sense of tolerating poor quality, but in the sense of knowing what is valuable and what is not, and relishing the good things we have already. It provides security in times of boom and recession.
But another spin-off of enough is that what helps us cope well with the world is also good for us morally and ecologically. If we apply enough to our health, finances and personal energy, we automatically restrict the kinds of damage we might be unwittingly doing in the wider world. Enough is a concept that is intrinsically moral, intrinsically ecological and intrinsically healthy. Practising enough allows us to get what is needed from the world to sustain human flourishing, but without taking too much from individuals, or from social and natural systems. It is also about how to give adequately to the world around us. So it is about the relationship between humans and the world, how we get and how we give. In our modern worldview, we have limited our understanding of how everything is connected to everything else. The emphasis on economic growth at all costs has encouraged us to deny the consequences of always using resources from communities and eco-systems, but never giving to them.
This book shows that the problems are all connected with each other. But just as important, the solutions are also interconnected. A sense of enough creates the conditions that will allow a critique of growth. It can also nourish a culture of adapted human behaviour, which will give at least some of the earth’s ecosystems a chance to renew themselves and at the same time allow social justice to emerge.
In the past, we did not need to make a big deal of enough; it was built into our lives in many ways. Our language recognised it in phrases like ‘enough is as good as a feast’, and ‘waste not, want not’. But in modern life the sense of enough is badly underdeveloped; in affluent societies we have largely forgotten the wisdom captured in the old sayings. Enough is as different as it is possible to get, from our current affluent western obsession with expansion and accumulation. We would benefit from naming enough again and exploring its value for us in the future. It is knowledge recognized by earlier generations; its value has become obscured in the world of more, but it can be very useful to us at this time. Knowledge takes many forms, including practical skills, interpersonal skills and critical thinking. All forms are essential, and of equal importance.
In future posts I will look at the concepts of growth and arrival as more recent expressions of the philosophy and practice of enough.
Anne B. Ryan is a coordinator of Basic Income Ireland and a former chairperson of the Feasta board of directors.