Below is the introduction to Mark A. Burch’s final Simplicity Institute Report for the year, ending what has been a wonderfully prolific few months. The essay is called “Sufficiency: Enough, For Everyone, Forever,” and it is freely available in full here. I’d like to extend my gratitude to Mark for all his hard work, over many years, advancing the cause of mindful simplicity with such depth and eloquence.
Consciousness blossoms forth from mindfulness. We feel growing within us a great peace and sense of security. We thrill as we recognize how little indeed is needful and from this recognition we claim our freedom. We no longer subject ourselves to overwork to acquire the merely perishable things that offer only perishable pleasures. Our homes are modest and easily cared for. This has removed from our lives all manner of hurry and unwanted stress. Our possessions are well-made, beautiful, and capable of being remade when necessary. Everywhere there is light and all this world now consciously runs on light—the light of the sun. The grimy, smoking machines of consumer culture have passed away along with the fear and drudgery they demanded. No one slaves for more when all know how much is enough. In the practice of moderation we discover security and justice because scarcity disappears along with mindless craving and the forces that drive mindless craving. We learned that security cannot be found by hoarding up material things, but only in peaceable relationships with each other and with the Earth. We’re secure when Gaia is well. We trust Gaia now to provide for us as she has for four billion years and we help her do so; but we no longer torment her for her riches. Her riches are safest when in safe keeping by her. The most admired among us is the one capable of the greatest happiness on the slenderest material means. We no longer ask our Elders the secret of a long life, or of how to procure affluence. We ask them: “How did it come to pass that you were so very happy and left so much love, but such a small mark on the world? Teach us how to be remembered.”
Ever since the Sophists of ancient Greece started teaching their followers how language could be skillfully manipulated to persuade their listeners, the meanings of words have been molded to serve the agendas of their speakers. George Orwell’s political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four imagined a world in which the meanings of words had been turned inside out to buttress a totalitarian state. In modern times, this practice has evolved into a science used by both propagandists and advertisers—the latter merely being the propagandists of consumption. One effect of this take-over of language in service of the consumerist agenda is that it makes any proposals in favor of reducing consumption sound negative by comparison.
For example, the word “frugal” means “careful, sparing, economical, avoiding excess.” These seem sensible enough practices, but in consumer culture frugality mostly denotes a sort of stingy selfishness, a lack of generosity. “Austerity” means “sternness of manner, severity of judgment, severe self-discipline, and severe simplicity” but is commonly used today to refer to any measure of self-discipline that a government or public authority might impose on itself to avoid operating deficits and debt. The implication is clearly that any gesture of self-control is an exercise in “severity.” “Prudence” is scarcely ever used today, probably because it sounds too close to “prude” or “prudish,” but it means “sound judgment, circumspection, sensibleness, wisdom, discernment, knowledgeable and skillful.” “Temperance” which today implies a joyless, rigid self-denial actually means “rational self-restraint, self-control, moderation, due proportion, mildness, forbearance, dispassion.” But what is wrong with such values apart from their potential to moderate consumption and hence profits? If we had all learned to practice these a little more, would we have had to endure the far harsher medicine of the economic train wreck of 2008? Yet in consumer culture, people who pay their entire credit card balance every month are known in the industry not as frugal or temperate, but rather as “deadbeats”—a term formerly applied to those who were “worthless, sponging idlers; loafers”. One CNN economic commentator referred to people trying to save more and reduce their debts as “misers” the actual definition of which is “a person who hoards wealth and lives miserably in order to do so.” (All definitions from Brown, 2007)Yet it has been widely recognized that consumption enabled by excessive spending and easy credit was a major factor contributing to economic hardship following the 2008 financial collapse.
What we might call “definition creep” also afflicts the voluntary simplicity movement as it strives to help its various audiences understand the paradox that “less can be more.” Centuries ago the wisdom of moderation was expressed in phrases like “holy poverty,” “austerity” and “asceticism.” In later centuries, these words were softened to “frugality”, “temperance” and “prudence” until lately we prefer “balance,” “simplicity” and “sufficiency.” Since consumer culture has had a century in which to reframe public narratives about the good life, and these have all been cast in terms that make ever increasing consumption sound like something wired into the human genome, any other point of view must make way against stiff headwinds. Education consultant Alan AtKisson (in Andrews & Urbanska, 2010: 101-106) has even proposed the Swedish word “lagom” which he defines as “somewhere north of sufficiency but still south of excess” because any other synonym for moderation, e.g. “enough,” “sufficiency,” etc., still just sounds too dirge-like when compared to all the peppy tunes churned out by consumer culture. Lagom is preferable, AtKisson argues, “…because it speaks more to what people actually want.” And what people actually want is more.
Note the trend line revealed by the changes in these words. It’s the trend that is our challenge, not the specific words. Every attempt to soften the language of moderation in order to increase one’s audience ratings seems to ratchet in the direction of “just a little more.” But it’s precisely this incessant desire for just a little more that forms the pivot upon which our survival now turns. We lose sight of this as individuals and as a society especially when the progression from less to more happens gradually over several generations. But Earth’s memory is long and every one of our excesses leaves a mark in her body, some of them indelible. Neither the importance nor the magnitude of this challenge can be underestimated. Somewhere it is written that toward the end of his life Mahatma Gandhi observed that of all the vows he took the most demanding was that of “voluntary meagre eating.” Self-control is the most extreme of all sports.
It’s only fair then to unpack some of consumer culture’s own claims about itself. Today, consumption is considered an economic virtue if not a public duty. Former President of the United States, George W. Bush, urged us all to go shopping to fight terrorism. But only a century ago, “consumption” was a synonym for tuberculosis, not a national security strategy. Our modern term “credit” came into vogue when consumer culture just couldn’t shake the negative connotations of “debt.” People, it seems, enjoy being given credit more than they do being plunged into debt. The very goal of consumer culture, which is universal affluence, ignores the definition of affluence which is “more than enough; abundance; excess beyond need.” If we think about it, that which is beyond what is needed can only be one thing: waste. So to the extent that our governments and corporations turn all their thought toward the one goal of promoting an affluent society, they promote a society of profligate wastrels, of which we have abundant evidence.
Only for a society afflicted with affluence does the question of how much is enough become urgent. Once we evolve past the boundaries of bare subsistence, we come upon a much broader territory haunted everywhere by another threat to our survival just as lethal as poverty. Our most pressing challenge is no longer how to alleviate poverty, but rather how to consume appropriately so as to conserve our humanity and the ecosphere. So unlike the challenge of privation is the challenge of affluence, it catches us unawares. We are ill-equipped to meet it because our economy was developed initially to resolve the problem of poverty, and then later to generate wealth for its own sake. No one worried about addictive consumerism. We can scarcely perceive what is happening. Our traditional discourses are useless. The times require that we see and respond differently.
This need is especially acute in the field of politics where nearly all the debates, and all the reportage, continues to be mired in language and worldviews that are no longer relevant. From the perspective of mindfulness, simplicity and sustainability, the traditional divide between right and left politics mostly misses the point. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, political debate turned on whether a laissez-faire market capitalist or centrally managed economy was the best means to a goal both sides shared—an affluent society—whether called “democratic consumerism” or a “workers’ paradise” makes no difference. Today, it happens that the laissez-faire capitalist system made a large number of us affluent before the centrally managed economies did, but both were blind to the disutilities of over-consumption. Now the debate should not continue to be about the best means to achieve the goal of affluence, but rather about the wisdom and sustainability of affluence itself.
If we are not aiming to build an affluent society, what are we aiming to build? I propose that we want an off-ramp that takes us to a different road than the one we are currently traveling. Consumer culture frightens people into thinking that life is a highway with only one lane and no off-ramps. Behind us lies poverty, primitivity, superstition and suffering. Ahead of us lies the promised land of—well, of what? More of what we already have. More affluence; more things; more speed and power and noise; more competition and overwork; more pollution and more conflict; more booms and recessions and depressions. What consumer culture cannot imagine is that there might be an off-ramp leading neither back to poverty nor onward to more of this. Such thoughts would come from a different paradigm, a different consciousness, something that consumer culture doesn’t understand and can’t control. But the truth we have discovered is that neither poverty nor affluence is sustainable. We need an alternative to both.
The full essay is freely available here.