Learning to Live With Enough

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

People who live in the relatively rich world consume too much. We consume too much for our health, too much for the future of the ecosystems in which we live, and too much for global freedom from conflicts over resources. This excess consumption is matched by excess production—production which takes place in likewise excessively wasteful ways. It is exacerbated by the urge to possess even more than we can consume. Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill have written an engaging book to encourage more people to think that producing, owning, or consuming “enough” might be preferable to excess—that it might actually be attractive, and might be a realistic goal.

Dietz and O’Neill set out by demonstrating how contemporary patterns of consumption—and, for that matter, production—dramatically exceed any reasonable definition of “enough” and how drastically they are damaging both human life and the rest of the planet. At an aggregate level, it’s not a terribly hard case to make, and they do it with a light touch by marshalling a mixture of data and illustrative anecdotes that are drawn from a mixture of academic research, activist discussions, and their own observations. The cumulative presentation is persuasive. Any reader not already convinced is clearly presented with the problems—from pollution, to climate change, to energy shortages—and how they are linked to excessive consumption. Dietz and O’Neill give distinct attention to the ways excessive consumption by some causes deprivation for others, as well as the damage it causes to the planet.

The book also concentrates on why many people’s lives might be just as satisfying with less excess. Some people have already realized this: the authors cite a survey that found that 88 percent of Oregon residents believe the U.S. “would be better off if we all consumed less.” However, this is a fairly fragile empirical base. It indicates that it is possible for people to reach this viewpoint which I think is a sensible conclusion—but does not necessarily imply that this conclusion is widespread or likely to become widespread in the future. Even more importantly, it doesn’t tell us whether people will apply the conclusion to themselves and change their behavior, or if will they think it is mainly others who consume too much and put off behavioral change until others take the lead?

Given the large number of people who live in poverty, putting the responsibility on others to change their behavior first may sometimes be reasonable. Dietz and O’Neill rightly recognize that one of the things we have too much of is inequality. But they don’t fully grapple with the question of whether those who have relatively little should be asked to give up the aspiration to have more. It is hard to imagine the world coming to grips with excess consumption unless there is some way to provide adequate consumption for the poor. Moreover, even where poverty is only relative, it is still motivating and helps to drive an economy of more rather than enough. There are really three issues: people who get a minimal share of the riches of OECD countries and feel deprived; people living below the global poverty line of a dollar or two a day and who suffer serious ills from this deprivation; and the rising middle classes and elites of developing countries who seek to emulate, rival, or even exceed the lifestyles and trophies of those in countries that have been rich longer.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this book is that it is written overwhelmingly to persuade people in, say, Oregon or Southeastern England that they have enough. China, Brazil, and other emergent economies are mentioned, but the book isn’t really about or for them, and still less for those in even poorer countries. Nor is there serious consideration given to poverty in either rich countries or poor— though the authors are clearly against it. But this begs the question of when is growth justified?

Enough is Enough is about a global problem, but not written from a global perspective. It offers a range of good ideas about reducing excess among the rich. But this is only part of the story. A steady-state economy would be a lot easier to achieve if it only depended on well-off over-consumers in rich countries.

Take eating meat as an example. It makes good sense to want obese Americans to eat less. This would indeed be good for them and good for the planet, given the inefficiency of cattle production and the amount of greenhouse gas that is its byproduct. With respect to this, Enough is Enough is on target (though we need more ideas about how to actually effect the change). However, demand in developing countries is a different matter. Billions of people live on diets that contain next to no meat—but as they get richer, meat is one of the first things they begin to buy.

As explained earlier, the book sketched basic environmental and social reasons why we should prefer enough over excess, and the authors suggest that we are exceeding the planet’s biocapacity and that it isn’t bringing us happiness. Problems from greenhouse gas emissions to debt and financial crises have the same “underlying cause: our economy has grown too large.” It appears that the bottom line for Dietz and O’Neill is that excess consumption and constant growth are problems for everyone, and we have to overcome our focus on relative positions and relative wealth. But, as we have seen, there are two problems with this sort of assertion. First, “our” isn’t defined. Is it the global economy of everyone? Or the high-consumption economies of the global North? Or indeed any particular national economy? The point is not trivial. While we all may “own” the world’s economy (or our national economies), we own very different shares of them. Dietz and O’Neill tend to see all growth as problematic. Yet they don’t offer much to convince residents of the world’s less developed countries that their best options also lie with declarations of “enough” rather than the pursuit of growth.

The second problem is the notion that the economy is simply too large. This may be true in some sense, but it does not offer a dynamic way to think about production, consumption, and all the other aspects of economic life. At one point, Dietz and O’Neill tell us that “according to the latest data, humanity’s ecological footprint is 50 percent larger than global ecosystems can accommodate.” This sentence confuses estimates with data, claiming an unwarranted empirical precision. It also implies that the global economy needs to shrink dramatically, though they do not clarify if they are advocating for this. In fact, the ecologically sensitive thinking championed by Dietz and O’Neill would be more convincing if it were deeply dynamic and constantly focused on multiple relationships: economic size in relation to what is produced, number of people, resource demands, etc. To address total size in isolation distracts from analysis of what there is too much of and what is regrettably scarce. We may overproduce weapons and under-produce nutritious food. Or we may produce too much beef at great ecological cost and not enough vegetables. Or too much non-bio-degradable materials and not enough human care and similar services. Dietz and O’Neill would, in other moments, argue just these points: “Today’s most common business model involves selling physical products to consumers. In a steady-state economy, however, more businesses would probably focus on providing ‘service solutions.’” But what they don’t recognize clearly is how many economic issues are grasped poorly by the issue of “size:” for example, the fact that much more economic activity is invested in treating or curing diseases of the rich than of the poor.

Dietz and O’Neill are on stronger ground suggesting that the underlying issue is that we are using material production to solve too many problems—problems to which it is poorly suited. As Keynes put it, if we overcame scarcity, “the economic problem” could take the back seat to “our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.” But it is much easier to show the problems that loom—running out of key resources, pollution of the environment, and climate change—than to show the size of an economy that is just right.

Dietz and O’Niell are, of course, up against deep-seated prejudices and pressures in favor of a constantly expanding economy. Both the way we think and the way economic institutions work are, as they note, “founded upon economic models developed when the world was relatively full of nature and relatively empty of people and manufactured goods.”

The image of a world that is too full leads them to several proposals. For starters, they want to cut birth rates. A little more worryingly, they also want to cut labor migration, again thinking of the issue almost entirely from the perspective of receiver countries. They seem to favor small, post-materialist, self-contained communities. They are clear that they want a more equitable distribution of income and wealth, but give no consideration to questions of social mobility. When they consider approaches to egalitarian redistribution, their advice is: set maximum pay differentials; establish more employee-owned companies; transform enterprises into cooperatives; and improve gender balance.

These all seem like good ideas; they don’t seem entirely up to the challenge.

Dietz and O’Niell also hint at simultaneous schemes of global government and more local autonomy:

“Resource limits, therefore, should be set from the top down, starting at the global level and filtering through international regions, nations, and local communities. But the power to manage resources within these limits should reside with individuals and organizations at the local level.”

They like cooperatives (especially Mondragon). And they hope for more international cooperation. But their book does not offer a strong suggestion for how the politics of change might work, nor does it offer a conception of economics as always, necessarily, political economy.

Nevertheless, they do present a variety of ideas about a different sort of economy. While the ideas aren’t particularly systematic, many are attractive. They favor a Tobin tax—and imply that one is already in place in France. They want to limit banks creating money and undo some of the recent financialization of global capitalism. They want a guaranteed jobs policy, with the state being the employer of last resort (though they also want governments forbidden from taking on debt). They call for a “three-currency system, with a debt-free national currency, an abundance of local currencies, and a neutral international currency.” This would, they suggest, represent “a seismic shift in the monetary landscape that would shake the foundations of financial institutions.” But one wonders how this would all come about? Their answer is that “the impetus to overhaul the system of finance must come from citizen action outside the establishment.”

The question then becomes: where will the citizen action come from? “…Perhaps the shift needs to originate from people’s personal values…,” they suggest. This takes us back to the main orientation of the book, which is to convince people to change their personal values and act on deeper, better values that will underwrite an economy of enough. Dietz and O’Neill see bankers, advertisers, and manufacturers as taking the modern economy in the wrong direction, but as simply responding to consumer demand (though they consider them complicit in creating some of that demand). They call for efforts to curtail the power of large corporations and the media. But mostly, they call for change in values, attitudes, and consumer behavior.

Dietz and O’Neill quote Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Their project is to try to present “enough” as the basis of an alternative model. They make much in the old model sound obsolete (or at least destructive and wasteful). But they don’t really show how the new model will successfully compete with and displace the old. Their concluding chapter in “Taking Action to Start the Transition” lists actions to take, but not ways of taking them.

Since I’ve noted some limits of the Dietz and O’Neill argument, it’s important to close by saying that, in very crucial ways, they are right. Learning to live with enough rather than always pursuing more would bring great advantages, not just in the aggregate or for the environment, but for most of the citizens of the world’s rich countries. The global capitalist economy is, indeed, organized in opposition to this. Building a sustainable economy suited to a world of finite resources, therefore, truly is a pressing challenge.