How to Win the Wilberforce Award: The Problem is Overconsumption not Overpopulation

There are now many credible scientific studies establishing that the global economy is exceeding, by some way, the regenerative and absorptive capacities of Earth’s ecosystems. One way to understand this defining problem of our age, and perhaps move towards its resolution, is to look at the problem of overpopulation. The planet is in such a dire situation, it can be argued, because there are just too many people.

Dick Smith is one of those people very concerned – and quite rightly so – about population growth. In fact, last year he stated that he would be dedicating the rest of his life to fighting policy that encourages population growth. Mr Smith has even pledged $1,000,000 dollars in prize money to the young person (under thirty) who comes up with the most innovative solution to the problem of overpopulation (and related problems). This generous prize is the Wilberforce Award, and the prize money is intended to advance the innovative ideas being championed by the recipient of the award.

Without a touch irony, it can be said that nothing quite excites the soul of an advocate of voluntary simplicity, such as myself, more than the prospect of having lots of money to spend on promoting the idea that having lots of money is not so important. But alas, as I have not-so-long-ago left the category of ‘young person,’ as defined above, and now presumably fall into the category of ‘almost young person,’ I am ineligible to win the million dollars. Nevertheless, as the riddle at the heart of the Wilberforce Award has a solution, I thought it was only decent to publish the solution below in the hope that some enterprising ‘young person’ (note disparaging scare quotes) might take hold of this opportunity and win for themselves the million dollars.

To that individual, I sincerely wish you the best of luck, for the world will conspire against you; indeed, it is already conspiring against you.


Statement of the Problems and their Solution

The following argument is based on the I = PAT identity, which holds that ecological impact (I) is a function of population (P), Affluence (or consumption levels) (A), and Technology (T). Behaviour (B) could and probably should be added (I = BPAT), but for present purposes I won’t focus on that for the sake of, or perhaps at the expense of, simplicity. (Pun intended.)

The argument is as follows:

(1) The global economy is already in ecological overshoot, and by some way;

(2) The poorest individuals and nations on the planet have a right to a dignified standard of living, which means developing their economic capacities in some form and thereby almost certainly increasing their ecological impact as well;

(3) The world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, further increasing ecological impact;

(4) Science and technology (T) are leading to ‘relative decoupling’ but not ‘absolute decoupling,’ meaning that science and technology are leading to a reduction in ecological impact per unit of economic output, but not a reduction in the overall ecological impact of the global economy, due to economic growth;

(5) Reducing population (P) is an extremely important part of reducing ecological impact (I), but even if the global population were stabilised tomorrow, the problems stated above would remain and overtime intensify due to economic growth;

(6) Furthermore, since ecological problems are global in nature (e.g. climate change, species extinction, etc.), limiting population in one nation through anti-immigration laws won’t in any way address the problems stated above

(7) Therefore, if the problems stated above are to be solved, it is absolutely necessary that people in affluent societies learn how to consume not just differently and more efficiently, but less (A and B);

(8) Only when affluent societies transcend their cultures of consumerism will an economy ‘beyond growth’ become a political possibility, and not just an ecological necessity; finally, if rich nations don’t learn how to stop growing their economies in a way that is deliberate and stable (rather than through unplanned recession or ecosystemic collapse), the future of our planet and our species is destined to be very grim – grim beyond historical precedent.

(9) In short, the solution to the problem of overpopulation requires addressing the problem of overconsumption, and the only adequate solution to the problem of overconsumption is to facilitate the emergence of ‘voluntary simplicity’ lifestyles of reduced and restrained consumption in affluent societies.

(10) Fortunately, lifestyles of voluntary simplicity are in our own immediate self-interest, as well as the planets’ interest, so the problem of overconsumption – in some strange way – isn’t really a ‘problem,’ as such.


So, there we have it – a simple solution to a complex non-problem. If perchance Dick Smith were unable to find someone in the category of ‘young person’ who is prepared to spend the million dollars on promoting this solution, then I would be prepared, somewhat reluctantly, to burden myself with the responsibility.

But all jokes aside. For two heavily footnoted and more comprehensive statements of the solution outlined above, see the recent publications available at the Simplicity Institute website here.

See also, ‘Will Science and Technology make Consumer Societies Sustainable?‘ and ‘The Scapegoat of Overpopulation

It’s probably also worth reading the clarifications to my position in the comments below.

[Futhermore, on 28 October 2011, George Monbiot just published the following article which supports my claim that consumption is a greater problem than population:]


17 Responses to “How to Win the Wilberforce Award: The Problem is Overconsumption not Overpopulation”

  1. Dryad says:

    I have to admit I respectfully and totally disagree. The Earth was never designed to support such a significant biomass of one species, regardless of individual consumption. The sooner we acknowledge this, the better quality of life will have the existing people, and their planned, chosen, and supported offspring. We need a greater proportion of our species to enjoy a higher standard of living, not ever more people each living poorer. There is no such thing as infinite growth of any population on a finite planet.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Dryad, thanks for your comment, but you seem to have missed my point. I state very clearly at point 5 that “reducing population (P) is an extremely important part of reducing ecological impact (I),” a point that is reiterated in the articles and links referred to at the end of the post. I also note that Dick Smith is “quite rightly” concerned about population. Therefore, I don’t see why what you say contradicts what I wrote, at least with respect to the importance of reducing population, a point in which we are in total agreement. My point, essentially, was and is that WHATEVER we do with respect to the population problem – even if somehow we manage to stop population growth completely over the next 40 years (which isn’t going to happen) – it will fail to solve the problems we face unless the richest societies also learn how to consume considerably less. Of course we need less people on the planet. What few people (and no governments) seem to acknowledge, however, is that we aren’t going to have a viable planet for a flourishing civilisation if rich nations keep on consuming as they are doing. Perhaps my deliberately provocative and somewhat tongue-in-cheek expression of my point led to my being unclear, in which case I hope these comments have clarified my position. Like I say in one of the links, the problem of population is too often used (consciously or unconsciously) as a ‘scapegoat’ to deflect attention away from the more pressing environmental issue, that being overconsumption in the rich nations.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment, it was well made.

  3. Dave Gardner says:

    Samuel, perhaps your headline misleads somewhat. In fact it seems to be inconsistent with your reply to Dryad above.

    Question: You wrote: “(5) Reducing population (P) is an extremely important part of reducing ecological impact (I), but even if everyone in the world stopped procreating tomorrow, the problems stated above would remain and overtime intensify due to economic growth.” Would you agree that this is also true: even if everyone in the world began living very simply tomorrow, (but population growth continued), the problems stated might briefly abate (depending on how simply everyone lived), but would overtime intensify due to population growth.?

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth
    Latest post from Dave Gardner…Exploiting People – We Are Not a Commodity

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hello Dave! Very good to hear from you and congratulations on bringing the Hooked on Growth album to fruition. Continued best wishes from Australia in these final months of the film production.

    Your comments are characteristically incisive and I am very grateful to have received them.

    With respect to the headline, I hear your point, but in my defence, I reserve the right to be provocative to make a point, even when I cannot reduce what is admittedly a complex argument to the few words available in a sub-title. If I could reduce it to a title, the text wouldn’t be necessary. Since there is a text, it follows that my argument should be judged from the text, not the title. That said, perhaps in retrospect a better title would have been “the problem that deserves more attention is overconsumption not overpopulation,” but since that’s ugly, and I can’t think of a better one right now, I’ll let the title sit. Or perhaps I just shouldn’t have had a subtitle…

    The question you pose really requires a long response but let me provide an outline for now. To my understanding, some of the complex dynamics revolving around population growth – and I’m referring essentially to population growth in the developing world – include: (1) a ‘security incentive’ to have many children (i.e. people are driven to have many children since a few are likely to die, and in poor countries without retirement pensions, people generally need several children to support them in old age); (2) a lack of education re family planning and a lack of access to contraception. My understanding is that population growth in the developing world is unlikely to abate until these issues are addressed.

    Now, if everyone started living simply tomorrow, as you pose in your hypothetical, then it seems to me that a great amount of resources would be freed up to address both these critical factors. Therefore, to respond to your question, if everyone started living simply tomorrow, I don’t see why population growth would need to continue.

    Of course, if the question is whether a growing population of ‘simple livers’ will eventually come up against resource limits, then obviously they will do so at some point (I = BPAT).

    A second response is possible, although I pose it merely as a musing and not something I’ve thought sufficiently about: I wonder how many people could survive on this planet if humans learned to live simply and in harmony with nature? Perhaps 10 billion people living simply mightn’t be unsustainable? I’m sure that would be pushing the limits, but I find it’s an interesting question to think about.

    Finally, the comments from you and Dryad both suggest to me that I was insufficiently careful in the expression of my argument, or rather, that any attempt to deconstruct growth capitalism in 800 words is inevitably going to allow for various interpretations, not all of which I intended. I clarified my position to population in my response to Dryad, and hope that I have done so further here. I remain committed to the view, however, that the consumption problem deserves more attention than the population problem, at least in the affluent nations. This is primarily because the consumption problem is directly in our own hands, while the population problem relates to the procreation habits of people living overseas. Secondly, as I noted in one of the links to this post, it strikes me as highly problematic for affluent nations to lament the destructive ecological impact of population growth in the developing nations while at the same time indulging themselves in ever-higher levels of consumption. Before the affluent nations look overseas, they should show the world that they are prepared to step more lightly themselves. As this isn’t happening, I feel the problem we in the affluent nations need to focus more attention on is overconsumption not overpopulation, hence my argument (and my title).

  5. Ralph says:


    I would like to add an idea to the I=BPAT formula. It seems that economic growth is one of the unnegotiable factors in the present Western economy system. It is therefore not a linear system, but it has a feedback loop built into it that will strive to maintain a certain rate of economic growth independent of population levels. In simple terms, this evens out the infuence of the factor P (population) to a large degree.

    Mathematically this can be represented by changing the formula to I=BAT(1+kP) in which k is a constant significantly smaller than one, which is inversely proportional to the degree by which Western economy strives to maintain its economic growth factor.

    I have worked in electronics for many years and this is how systems with feedback loops operate.

    An added factor to be considered is that the smallest part of the world’s population, ie the Western world, cause by far the greatest strain on its ecology.

    This changes the formula to I=BAT(1+rkP), in which r is a constant smaller than one which represents something like the ratio of the population who are causing the problem over the total population.

    Note also that the largest population growth occurs in parts of the world that typically cause the lesser strain on the ecology, so it could be argued that limiting population growth in the Western world could be the answer. The economic feedback loop applies however to this part of the system and therefore renders this solution ineffective.

    I have been told that the present population of the earth could be fed by a piece of land the size of South Australia, if it was properly irrigated. That tells me that if we cared enough to make it work, this globe could house a lot more people than 10 billion yet.

    The above consideration argues that Samuel’s title for his article is indeed correct and that we would achieve much more by returning to simpler life styles and a different economic model, than by limiting or reducing the population, in order to achieve sustainability.

  6. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Ralph,

    Thanks for your comment. My maths knowledge is too dodgy to be a competent judge of your new formula, but I would tentatively suggest that your addition r is unnecessary. You include this as an added factor on the basis that the western world has the largest impact on ecological systems, but that seems to be already taken into account by the A factor (i.e. affluence / consumption levels) in the I = BPAT equation. In other words, the I = BPAT equation already shows that the western nations will have a greater impact on the environment than poorer nations, since impact is in part a function of affluence. I wonder whether your first addition is unnecessary on the same basis, as A can also be understood to reflect economic growth (i.e. when economies grow, consumption grows). But perhaps I’ve missed the point.

    As for your final comment, I don’t think the earlier critical comments implied that population was the only path to sustainability, just that I underemphasised, perhaps, its importance. I know that Dave, at least, is certainly in favour of a different economic model ‘beyond growth.’ I’m not sure about Dryad. But I hear your point, Ralph, that simplicity and a different economic model are arguably as important for sustainability, and probably more important, than focusing on population.

    At the end of the day, they are all critically important issues on the path to sustainability. My argument, however, once again, is simply that overconsumption is an issue sorely neglected, and neglected at our own peril.

  7. Are you serious?

    The “solution” you’ve presented here is akin to stating that solving the “riddle” of conflict in the middle east is as “simple” as getting the warring factions to “transcend their cultures” – and that to achieve this, all we need to do is facilitate the emergence of “voluntary” peacefulness and cooperation. If only reality was really that “simple”.

    But, assuming that you are serious, the most obvious question is: How do you propose to actually achieve point 9?

    Also, your proposed solution fails to address the fact that a significant percentage of the women who already embrace voluntary simplicity are highly-educated Earth Mother, homeschooling types who actively choose to have more than the replacement number of children. From my first-hand observations, this seems to be because, when people leave the rat race, and leave a lifestyle of overt consumerism behind, their thoughts and desires typically turn to family – including the nurturing of children, for whom they now have abundant time, energy, and other resources.

    Many women feel a call to motherhood that is effectively irresistible, and the number of babies they want (and therefore have) has nothing to do with what is in the planet’s best interests – nor the species’ best interests, for that matter. When it comes right down to it, most of us humans are fundamentally animals, rooting and consuming for survival. Just look at Sharon Astyk, who is one of the voluntary simplicity movement’s highest profile leaders: for all that she implies she’d have fewer children if she had her time over again, the simple fact is that she (and her brainy husband) chose to have four. And many of my university-educated friends have chosen a similar path. These frugal families may consume a lot less than the average Aussie or American, but they still consume a heck of a lot more than, say, the average Bangladeshi. And their infant mortality rates are very close to zero.

    Finally, on the small matter of winning the Wilberforce award: coming up with “an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy” is just the *first* step. The winner will be the person that Dick identifies as “not only making a significant contribution to this important issue, but who also becomes *famous* through his or her contribution to the debate.”

    I think the prize is un-winnable, because it is, by definition, impossible to become “famous” by promoting an idea that the vast majority of people (not to mention the commercial media outlets) don’t want to hear about.

    A serious contender would have a far better chance of becoming INfamous – but I’m not convinced that Dick would want to pay out for (say) a Derrick Jensen-inspired act of eco-terrorism.

  8. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Samantha,

    Thanks for your comments; you raise some very interesting points.

    With respect to your first point, I never said that getting people to embrace voluntary simplicity would be simple. I argued that if we are going to address the social and ecological problems posed by overpopulation, we had best start by paying a lot more attention to overconsumption in the affluent nations, and that the most coherent response to overconsumption is lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. If you are going to launch an attack on someone’s argument, it would be wise to check you are attacking what was argued. Otherwise your efforts will be to no end.

    As for your analogy between my answer and the middle east “be peaceful and cooperative” response, I find that the analogy misses my point. There are many, many nations around the planet saying “be peaceful and cooperative” in response to the middle east problem. Where is the nation that is saying “reduce consumption” in response to the population / ecological problem? To the best of my knowledge, there is no such nation. Hence why I am trying to bring attention to the “reduce consumption” response.

    You ask: “How do you actually achieve point 9?” In response, all I can say is that I’ve spent the last four years trying offer a reasoned, evidence-based answer to that question in my doctoral thesis, which I attached to this post and which I summarized in the last post. There are no short answers to that question, I’m afraid.

    I have also been exploring the question personally in my own life, and have written about it in my essay, “Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For,” which will be published in the Concord Saunterer: The Journal of Thoreau Studies, in a few weeks. Furthermore, every post on this website is an attempt to engage that question in one way or another. You may criticise me for not answering the question adequately, but you can’t fault me for not trying.

    All that aside, the question you pose is THE question of our times, in my opinion, so good on you for asking it. I dedicate most of my time and energy to answering it as best as I can, and will continue to do so. I don’t claim to have all the answers to the problems of our times, but I’m convinced this is a very important question to be struggling with.

    Your comments on motherhood are very interesting; they don’t detract from my argument, however, but rather support it. So far as the population problem really is intractable, the consumption problem becomes even more important.

    Finally, your comment about the fact that the Wilberforce Award is potentially unwinnable is extremely well made and insightful. Becoming famous for promoting something nobody wants to hear about! How to do that! And your reference to Derrick Jensen is right on target. Perhaps eco-terrorism is the only way to bring attention to these ideas. I hope not.

    Overall I am very grateful for your comments.

  9. Dave Gardner says:

    Samuel, awesome responses you post here. Clearly you are very thoughtful, and a careful thinker. And thanks for being one of the musicians on the GrowthBusters fundraiser soundtrack. Folks love your songs.

    RE: your reply to my earlier comment. I did not intend to beat you up about your headline, just to offer that it might color how readers interpret what you wrote. Glad you are successfully provoking conversation.

    My response to your reply: Overpopulation in the developing world is a problem today in that it prevents achieving well-being. It will be a problem tomorrow in that there will be so many people that equitable distribution of resources in sustainable fashion will be more difficult. BUT overpopulation in the over-consuming rich world IS a problem, too. Perhaps the bigger problem (so I’m suggesting we never assume that efforts to achieve sustainable population are aimed only outside the rich world). Every reduction in family size in the rich world has a huge impact, simply because of the size of the footprint in these overconsuming societies. The U.S., for example, has a fertility rate much lower than many countries, close to replacement rate. But the 310 million people in the U.S. are using 25% of the world’s resources. Therefore we have a population problem (AND a consumption problem).

    I apologize for the incomplete response here. Time is limited today.
    Latest post from Dave Gardner…Exploiting People – We Are Not a Commodity

  10. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Dave, thanks again for your contribution. Your response makes perfect sense to me, and it is clear enough that in a ‘full world’ population stabilisation and reduction anywhere is a good thing. I never intended to say anything else. I won’t repeat my earlier comments, but I will add this: another reason that I feel we are going to have to solve the consumption problem in order to address the social and ecological challenges we face today is because the population problems strikes me as almost intractable. I sure hope someone can come up with a way to stabilise and reduce population in an equitable way, but I just don’t have much hope for success – at least, success in the time available.

    I outlined a few mainstream ideas in one of the links attached to this post – education, provision of contraception, material and social security, no state incentives to procreate, perhaps even state incentives not to procreate. These should be pursued with vigour, it can be argued, and the developed world should do more to assist the developing world in these matters, as well as taking them more seriously themselves.

    Aside from these ideas, the other option is the ‘taboo’ suggestion of following China into mandating a ‘one child family’ policy. I leave that question open (with hesitance), but I do note that there is some evidence that even that policy is unnecessary or ineffective (since other nations have stabilised population without such measures) and others have argued that the policy has some very concerning social consequences (see New Economics Foundation, ‘The Consumption Explosion,’ 2010). All that aside, my hunch is that there isn’t much chance of a mandatory one child policy being taken seriously in any mainstream political party, in the West, at least, so debating the merits of such a policy is somewhat academic, irrespective of whether such a policy is ecologically necessary. In a similar vein, but without state sanction, Bill McKibben, in his book, ‘Maybe One,’ attempts to bring about one child families by way of persuasion, outlining the ethical and self-interest arguments. A case could also be made for ‘Maybe None,’ although obviously that won’t be for everyone.

    Aside from these types of ideas, what else can be done to confront the population problem? That is, quite literally, the million dollar question.

    Once again, to the extent that the population problem really is intractable, the consumption problem becomes all the more important. Furthermore, since I am convinced that reducing consumption in affluent nations is in most people’s immediate and long-term self-interest, I believe there is at least some hope of success in this area. And, finally, since there are going to be 7 billion people on the planet even if we stabilise the global population this year, I remain of the view that the consumption problem is one the greatest challenges – perhaps the greatest challenge – the human community faces today (especially when we include in the ‘consumption problem’ the three billion people or so who are under-consuming).

  11. Following on from your later comment: my observation is that most people simply don’t *see* the causal link you’ve mentioned repeatedly here (i.e. that reduced personal consumption is in their immediate and long-term self-interest).

    And, even if they could see the link, the huge problem of obesity that our society is failing to solve (even though, or perhaps because, being overweight now afflicts a substantial majority of our population) leads me to believe that garden-variety self-interest is not powerful enough to change people’s habits and “addictions” anyway.

    I use the term addiction here in the loosest sense, but many overweight people use the language of addiction to describe their relationship with food; likewise, many people these days cheerfully consider themselves to be “addicted” to their affluent lifestyles: their computers, Facebook, iGadgetry, coffee, toiletries, travel, you name it. The list is almost endless.

    It’s obviously possible for people to change. But often it takes a genuinely life-threatening scare for an addict to wake up and take the action that has been in their immediate best interest all along.

    However, when the *link* between the life-threatening event and the “self-interested” action *isn’t* obvious to people, then you can’t assume they’ll take what seems to you like the obvious and sensible action in response.

    For example, take a flood caused by a record-breaking (one in 1000 years) precipitation event, and exacerbated by poor town planning (which had been aimed at accommodating the unlimited growth of the local population). We saw an event precisely like this in Toowoomba in January this year, which was not only life-threating, it actually killed members of that community.

    It can be *argued* that the flooding was caused (or exacerbated) by AGW plus inappropriate responses to population growth. But those arguments can be, and very often are, ignored or dismissed, because people don’t want to have to change the behaviours that they’re comfortable with.

    For example, the response of Toowoomba’s mayor, Pater Taylor, to the flood was: “You can’t build for one in 500 years. The event is so extreme that detention basins would fill the whole city. What would we do? Relocate the city?”

    Finally, please take my comments here as a compliment. Most of the blogs I follow aren’t juicy or chewy enough to entice me to comment.

  12. Dave Gardner says:

    A couple of comments regarding our prospects for success. I fear the more we repeat that addressing overpopulation is so difficult, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect too little.

    And while I realize why success in reducing consumption seems more likely, I’ve lately come to the conclusion that this notion is being proved wrong with each passing day. The obsession with economic growth pretty much globally is standing in the way. A rational observer might conclude that both are equally unlikely.

    What do you think about that? I know there is this sense that reproductive freedom is sacred territory, but I think if we can stop talking ourselves out of educating the public about the need, they could be more likely to choose smaller families than they are to choose working fewer hours for less pay, aspiring to smaller houses, fewer long-distance vacations, and a bicycle instead of transportation powered by fossil fuels.
    Latest post from Dave Gardner…Exploiting People – We Are Not a Commodity

  13. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Samantha, thanks again for your comments. You write: “when the *link* between the life-threatening event and the “self-interested” action *isn’t* obvious to people, then you can’t assume they’ll take what seems to you like the obvious and sensible action in response.” I don’t make that assumption, but I am convinced the link between simple living and well-being exists in a great many cases. In fact, part of the reason I do what I do on this website is because I hope that it might help, in some small way, bring attention to this link. If more people become aware of the link, this will not NECESSARILY lead to behaviour change. But self-interest, it can hardly be denied, is a powerful motivator.

  14. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Dave, thanks again for your comments. There are two issues in relation to your first comment. One is about expressing what we “really think” about an issue; the other concerns devising a strategy for effecting change. I think both avenues are important. I’ve been saying what I really think.

    With respect to the question of strategy, I sympathise with your view on the risk of “expecting too little” becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. The same probably goes for many areas of life, including reducing consumption. If we say it will never happen, it probably won’t. If we live as if there is a chance, success is at least possible. Indeed, as Isabelle Stengers writes: “Hope is the difference between probability and possibility.” And it was Max Horkheimer who wrote: “One and the same subject who wants a new state of affairs, a better reality… also brings it forth.” There is also that quote by someone that goes something like: “Whether you believe you can, or whether you believe you cannot – either way you are right.”

    I have much more to say regarding your second point, about how economic growth is standing the way of change, but for now I have to be brief (the sun is out and the garden is calling). As I implied in my initial statement in this post, I don’t see the contemporary ‘growth fetish’ being transcended until consumer culture is transcended (although I recognise the relationship here is dialectical, in the sense that the dynamics of change will flow both ways). I argue this point at length in the first half of Chapter Four of my thesis, but won’t try to summarise it here. (An updated version of that argument is soon to be published as Samuel Alexander, “Voluntary Simplicity and the Social Reconstruction of Law: Degrowth from the Grassroots Up,” forthcoming). I hope to find time to elaborate soon.

    Finally, can I just take this opportunity to thank all contributors to this post for their thoughtful comments and criticism. I, for one, have certainly benefited from this fruitful exchange.

  15. Ralph says:

    Interesting suggestions about using self interest to drive change.

    Realize however that self interest is where the problem of overconsumption started. You’re asking for a lot of hard work if you try to use the cause of the problem to solve it (I believe it was Einstein who coined this as his definition of madness). This is why it is often so hard to help people to get out of addictions, because the immediacy of self interest (eg feeling good) drives them to avoid the pain of working through the solution.

    I’m not trying to slam the suggestion, but we have to use some clever trickery to convince a population that reducing consumption is for the benefit of self interest.

    I think the excessive emphasis of self interest over collective interests, is one of the biggest challenges the West will have to come face to face with, before a solution for many of our social problems can be reached.

    Yes, agreed, we probably need the same clever trickery to convince a population to move back toward collective thinking – or significant hardship as social theory shows us.

    Maybe this excessive emphasis of self interest over collective interests is the foundational point where we need to start to evoke change.

  16. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Ralph, thanks for raising this important point about self-interest. I hope to dedicate a post to it in the future…

    Self-interest isn’t the only motivator or driver in this context. All I have been arguing is that self-interest is one motivator, and a very important one. Under the “why live simply” tab on this website, I run through various other justifications for living simply, including social/communitarian, humanitarian, ecological, and spiritual. One would hope all of these factors help build the case for a Simpler Way. It’s hard to say which of these justifications is more important. Perhaps ranking them is impossible (and unnecessary). But I still feel that there is something unique about the self-interest argument that we shouldn’t dismiss too easily as mere narcissism. People want to be happy, to feel safe, to be fulfilled in their lives. When I say there is a self-interest component in simple living, all I am suggesting is that a better world awaits us, if only we choose it. I don’t think this should be interpreted as using the “cause” of consumerism to “solve” its problems. And we mustn’t forget that there is a strong self-interest component in collective / community engagement too.

    As for your comment about how to convince a population that reducing consumption is in its best interest, words are going to have to do some of that work, of course, but perhaps the best chance of persuading people of the benefits of simple living is to let them see. As the caption to this website reads: “Let us be pioneers once more.”

  17. Ralph says:

    Good points Samuel. I suppose I was more talking about selfish interest.

    Another couple of related points I could add.

    Firstly, there is a continuum between individualism and collectivism. Psychologically and spiritually a place somewhere in the middle of this continuum, where the individual as well as the group are equally attended to and acknowledged, is the healthiest position.

    My second point is that I have observed that populations under distress will usually seek a stronger, more authoritarian, less democratic leader or government. In the West this usually is in the form of a more right wing government.

    The way for populations under distress to cope better socio-psychologically is to move towards the collective end of the continuum. The contradiction in voting for a more right wing government in these situations is that their philosophy is about “user pays” and “everyone for themselves”, which pushes the population further towards the individualistic end.

    To resolve this contradiction they start excluding marginalized subgroups, to “achieve” the homogeneity that is needed. In doing so they often cut out the subgroups that are living more simply so that with the mainstream group they can seek to restore the previous status quo of consumerism. This is one of the ways the feedback loop I mentioned in an earlier post operates. It is however a destructive process in which marginalized groups bear the grunt of the dysfunctionality of the consumerist system.

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