The following article was published in The Age today (16 March). The online newspaper version is available here.
Increasing material wealth has been, and remains, one of the dominant goals of humankind – perhaps the dominant goal. This is hardly surprising, of course, given the extremely low material living standards endured by most people throughout history, and indeed, by great multitudes around the world even today. When people are hungry, they understandably desire more food; when people are cold, warmer clothing and adequate housing are critically important; when people are ill, they naturally want access to basic medical supplies; etc. In such circumstances, the pursuit of more material wealth seems wholly justifiable.
But what about those of us in the highly developed regions of the world who generally have our basic material needs for food, shelter, and clothing adequately met, and who even have some discretionary income to purchase things like alcohol, microwaves, fashionable clothing, takeout food, movie tickets, books, and the occasional holiday? In these relatively comfortable material circumstances, is more material wealth a goal for which we should still be striving? Or should we now be dedicating more of our time and energy to other, less materialistic pursuits?
These questions are of the highest importance, today more than ever before. First of all, at a time when Earth’s ecosystems are already trembling under the weight of overconsumption, increasing the consumption levels of those who are already materially well off seems to be a highly questionable objective. Secondly, the extent of global poverty strongly suggests that the wealthier sectors of the global population should restrain their consumption in order to leave more resources for those in greater need. This is especially so given that the global population is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century. These moral arguments will not persuade everyone to consume less, of course, but that does not mean the arguments are unsound.
In recent decades, however, a large body of sociological and psychological research has emerged which suggests that people living high consumption lifestyles might actually find that it is in their own, immediate self-interest to consume less, irrespective of the moral arguments for reduced consumption. This research suggests that once human beings have their basic material needs satisfied, further increases in material wealth stop contributing much to our wellbeing. What this means is that if we continue to dedicate our time and energy to the pursuit of more and more wealth, we may find that we are essentially wasting our time so far as wellbeing is concerned. On the other hand, if people in affluent societies rethink their relationships with money and reduce their outgoings, they just might be able to free up more time for those things that truly inspire them and make them happy, such as more time with friends and family, or more time to engage in one’s private passions and hobbies. Given the urgency with which overcoming societies need to reduce their impact on the planet, an argument based on ‘self-interest’ should be taken very seriously indeed, for the reason that such an argument may prove to be more persuasive than more ‘moralistic’ arguments. Could it be that there is an elegant ‘win-win’ solution on offer here?
Fortunately, we no longer need to rely on theories or arguments to show that people can live well on less. A growing number of people in the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement are choosing to reduce and restrain their consumption – not out of sacrifice or deprivation, but in order to be free, happy, and fulfilled in a way that consumer culture rarely permits. By limiting their working hours, spending their money frugally and conscientiously, growing their own vegetables, sharing skills and assets, riding bikes, rejecting high-fashion, and generally celebrating life outside the shopping mall, these people are new pioneers transitioning to a form of life beyond consumer culture.
The most promising thing about this emerging social movement is that it may provide a solution to one of the greatest problems of our age – the problem of growth. Despite the global economy exceeding the planet’s sustainable limits, even the richest nations on the planet still seek to grow their economies further. This growth imperative arises because our economies are dependent on growth to function, for when growth-based economies do not grow, people suffer. One is struck here by a painful contradiction arising from the need to consume less for ecological reasons, but consume more for the sake of a strong economy. Can this contradiction be resolved?
Perhaps, but only perhaps. If more people came to place self-imposed limits on their own consumption, rather than always seeking an ever-higher material standard of living, then this could well open up space to rethink the growth imperative that defines our economy. In other words, if an economics of sufficiency were ever embraced at the personal and social levels, there is no reason to think that an economics of sufficiency could not also arise at the macro-economic level. This may sound like science fiction to those who cannot think beyond the growth model. But times they are a-changing.
So ask yourself: Could it be that it is now in your self-interest to voluntarily embrace a lifestyle of reduced and restrained consumption? In an age such as our own that glorifies consumption as never before, this may seem like a counter-intuitive idea, at best. But the growing ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement is showing that such an intuition may well be false.
Consume less, live more. Just perhaps this is a ‘way of life’ whose time has come.