In the modern world, we tend to equate happiness with success, and in turn we define success as material possessions and external achievement. We emphasize constant activity and visible, measurable wealth over experience and reflection. We lack sensitivity to the inherent elegance and beauty of restraint and limits. However, many languages have proverbs or sayings that reflect the insight that enough is as good as a feast. In Irish, for example, the same phrase – go leor – means “enough” and “plenty”. Enough is about optimum, having exactly the right amount and using it gracefully. It is about being economical with what we have, without waste of resources or effort, but without being stingy either. But this knowledge is becoming increasingly obscured.
Generational differences affect how people understand enough. For those generations brought up in the early part of the twentieth century, enough was a way of life. They tried to instill a sense of enough into their own children. Unfortunately, many of those children, now middle-aged, rejected enough, seeing it as stingy and associating it with depressed times of rationing and scrimping. And many in their teens and twenties, children of those middle-aged, say that their parents’ rejection of enough has caused the waste and ecological destruction that is now so apparent.
Whatever our generational experiences, whatever way of life – enough or excess – our parents modeled, we all, including children, have the capacity for enough. It is part of human nature. We may have to work at developing the capacity, but we all know enough when we see or feel it. All of us have had some experience of enough – when we had everything we needed at a particular moment. Then, we have known contentment, which is another underrated aspect of human experience in modern times. To appreciate and cultivate contentment is to be open to the value of enough.
Embracing enough does not mean that we never experience excess again. There are so many facets to our lives, we probably won’t ever be excessive or sufficient in all of them. So it would be a pity to understand excess and sufficiency as having nothing to say to each other. We appreciate enough with a special clarity, when we have experienced excess. Excess is sometimes appropriate, although not in the long term. Someone who embraces the harmony of enough for the most part of their life will not close off the possibility of excess at certain times and places. Similarly, if we have lacked something such as time or money, we appreciate with great relish having a sufficient amount of it. The trick is for us to know when to stop, so that we do not exceed the optimum point of whatever it is we are doing.
Ideas concerning the beauty of enough are not alien or distasteful, although embracing them fully is not a well developed option either because they are so countercultural. Many of us recognize the value of enough, yet we receive strong messages to keep growing. In the contradiction between two different messages there lies the potential for wisdom. Striving for enough in the midst of a world of more is a way to cope with the demands of the modern world. It can help us to balance the different roles we hold and the worlds we inhabit, and to make sound decisions and choices.
Enough and ecology
The words “ecology” and “economics” have the same root; “eco” means “home” or “household”. Enough takes economics back into the scale of the household, makes it focus on the needs of the systems that sustain us, insists that economics recognize that everything is connected in the wider household of being. Enough treats markets, money, trade, science, technology, competition and profit – all the elements of modern growth economies – as good, creative activities in themselves, which can be harnessed for the good of people and the planet if they are kept within moral and ecological boundaries. It distinguishes vibrant economic activity from unregulated economic growth.
Ecology differs from environmentalism, which is a modern way of trying to manage and limit the destructive effects of growth-related activities on the natural world. Ecology is a way of looking at the big picture, including the whole person and the place of humans in the systems of the earth. We need to know more about our home planet, in order to overcome the ways that the modern world separates us off from eco-systems and from diversity. An ecological outlook encourages a sense of belonging, which in turn helps us to create meaning: a meaning that is lacking for many in the cultures that grow up in tandem with growth economies.7
Scientific insights into the natural world have made the marvels of healthy ecological systems available to us. They do not waste; they are economical in the original sense of the word; they elegantly and spontaneously observe limits. They are, in other words, truly sustainable. We could take our cues from these organic systems and encourage human, social and economic systems modeled on them.
We should not idealize nature; it can just as easily be co-opted for fascist ends at it can for justice. Everyone wants their ideas to be seen as “natural”; it is a very powerful concept, because it suggests that what is natural is right and unstoppable; it provides a moral justification of sorts. For instance, nature can be employed to suggest that there is a natural hierarchical order of relationships in human society, among different races or ethnic groups, or between the sexes. Proponents of unrestrained global markets and growth economies say that such systems are a natural progression for humans and that there is no alternative to them, even if they sometimes have considerable downsides.
We can use insights from the study of nature as a way to examine the kinds of systems that support life. We know that healthy ecosystems are rich in diversity and that they can provide more for their “inhabitants” – human, plant or animal – than impoverished systems, even if both kinds of system have the same nutrient resources to start with. For example, an ecologically run garden has a closed nutrient cycle; nothing leaves it in the form of waste; it uses everything it produces to provide nourishment for the soil and the plants. We also know that healthy systems accommodate growth, but of a cyclical rather than an unlimited kind. Nature favors cycles because they come to an organic end after a suitable period of growth. They do not go on growing because in nature, that is a cancer.
Humans today need to consciously self-regulate. Other species and systems, which have not developed cultures that devalue limits, know spontaneously when enough is enough; humans have to choose it. For economic development to be beneficial, it has to conform to very strict ecological and moral limits. Of course, we will never reach perfect agreement on the question of what the limits should be. But rather than try to set absolute rules for them, the important thing is that we start and maintain a widespread conversation about limits. The full potential of enough cannot be seen from where we currently stand in growth-oriented countries; it can only be imagined. Its potential becomes clear only as we travel along its path and put it into practice.
It would also be marvelous if “developing” countries consciously fostered the idea of enough as they seek progress for their economies and societies, rather than copying the type of over-development that has happened in affluent countries. It would be a disaster if such over-development were the only definition of progress available. The way of enough explores how economic activities can be the servant of humans and of the planet, because inherent in enough – along with the principle of sufficiency – are the principles of sharing and fairness – the maximum benefit from what is available from the earth going to the greatest numbers of people.
Enough and Aesthetics
To appreciate enough, we need an aesthetic sense that recognizes the elegance of sufficiency. Enough has a beauty that is completely appropriate for our time. What if the cutting edge came to mean, rather than the ever-expanding of boundaries, the art of walking that edge between less and more, sometimes balancing, sometimes slipping? It would be beautiful and challenging at the same time. Wealth could consist in achieving balance and wholeness, including humor, fun, laughter and creativity.
It is difficult to embrace enough and its recognition of limits if we consider them to be about mediocrity or deprivation. The notion of limits has taken on negative meanings within our modern way of seeing the world. Enough can put us back in touch with the parts of ourselves that understand the beauty of scale and sufficiency, the parts that empathize with the rest of creation. The arts – the record in music, painting, writing or dancing of what we have found beautiful or meaningful – work with a notion of limits also. The artist has to prevent the work from exceeding itself, from becoming unwieldy or going on for too long. Otherwise the finished product becomes meaningless.
Enough and Morality
Cultural and personal appreciations of the beauty of enough are also the start of a moral practice. A conversation about morality – the principles and values that underpin our actions – is essential for a different kind of long-term public culture that does not rest on the idea that we are fundamentally economic beings. The terms “ethics” and “morality” are often used interchangeably; in this book, I distinguish between them, by thinking of “ethics” as the behaviors that result from moral values. Morality, like ecology, examines how all things can flourish in relation to each other. Both are concerned with connection and the effect that different parts of any system have on each other.
A moral quest asks us to consider things we would often rather ignore. It asks us to reflect on the place that each one of us has in this world, the extent of the damage that humans have done in the world and the responsibility that each one of us has for creating a just world: what, in short, are our obligations to other people and to the earth itself? We often don’t do enough of this, so enough requires that we do more of what we neglect right now. And it requires more than asking what is wrong; it involves going on to ask, how we can behave in ways that are right. Morality and ethics require that we examine the consequences of our beliefs and actions in areas beyond ourselves and our immediate environment, and in the long term.
A lack of moral development is distinct from a breakdown in organized religion. Institutional religions have traditionally held a monopoly on moral pronouncements, and indeed have tended to emphasize the guilt and shame aspects of our private lives. Progressive religious leaders are thankfully recognizing the need to broaden moral understanding, and that is to be welcomed. But we must not leave morality to religions – it is something we all need to concern ourselves with, whether we take a religious view of the world or not. Morality can be thought of as another way of naming politics, since politics too is concerned with human and planetary well being.
World economics needs to be subjected to moral and ecological scrutiny. There is a moral dilemma involved in the way that economics, narrowly understood, has taken away our capacity to live good lives. We produce and consume to “keep the economy going” but in the process, we also destroy many of the less tangible features of life that support and sustain us. “Maximum individual choice” is the big mantra within growth economics: we are promised enormous numbers of choices, which are supposed to make us happy. We often talk about equality as if it means having the right to shop on an equal footing with other people. But many of the choices available are meaningless and cause unwanted and unnecessary complexity in our lives; they are not actually available to all and they often come at a price of ecological destruction and social injustice.
Enough recasts choice as moral decisions that strive for the common good. That means taking into account all other humans, community systems, the earth, and ourselves as individuals or small family groups. This may mean setting limits on certain kinds of expansion and accumulation, because they themselves limit the choices for others. Taking a moral stance forces us to enquire into what is really going on in the world around us, not just in our own private or family sphere. So the moral dimension of enough is also concerned with justice and fairness.
Enough and Spirituality
Spirituality involves full and constant attention to and awareness of what is happening, even if this is painful. Full attention is spiritual in a sense that has nothing to do with institutional religion. If we truly pay attention to the present, then we cannot ignore what is going on around us, the social and environmental realities that we are part of. And if we stop denying and ignoring, then we will not be prepared to live with some of the things we see.
A part of spirituality is about gaining peace of mind, and to this end, many contemporary interpretations of spirituality would have us simply acknowledge and accept what we see. But only to acknowledge the world’s wrongs is more likely to bring despair, when we realize the extent of the wrongs. The only way to find peace is to resist what is wrong and attempt to do right. The public side of the spiritual path – attention to social and economic systems – cannot be ignored in favor of the personal. Spiritual searching today must be infused with a political flavor if it is to be relevant to the contemporary scene.
Many of us are already searching for peace of mind in the private realm with activities like yoga, tai chi, reiki, meditation, psychotherapy and poetry. Unfortunately, many spiritual activities, as taught or practiced in the west, emphasize the pleasant and the personal and do not refer to a social or cultural search, or offer a sense of the bigger picture. It is not enough to embrace spirituality, if it is only to escape one’s own pain. For example, a spiritual celebration of nature, uplifting and healing as it is, is not complete if it ignores the ways that nature is being violated by economic growth, and if the spirituality does not try to defend nature. Spirituality can all too easily become the pursuit of the pleasant, a sort of tranquillizer. It can be used as an excuse for ignoring or denying what is going on in the world. However, ecology teaches us that one part of a system cannot be truly healthy if other parts are in trouble.
Morality and spirituality appropriate to our times bridge the gap between public and private. They are political matters, because both are relevant to the world around us and to our inner lives. An ecological outlook enables us to look at context, that is, the bigger picture or web, in which our private lives are lived. The search for enough enables us to broaden our horizons and critique the systems that set the scene for our lives. It brings together resistance to what is wrong in the public domain as well as in the personal; it helps us to see the need for life-giving systems and gives us a desire to work towards them. Spirituality, like morality and ecology, is a recognizing of deeper levels within ourselves and between ourselves and the world. All three are concerned with an awareness that everything in the world relates to everything else.
We cannot know all the aspects of enough without actually doing it. It is a way of being in the world, not a simple set of rules for living. It is like a path whose end point we cannot see before we start out. This is part of its spiritual dimension: although we can understand it cognitively in minutes, it can take a lifetime of practice to come to truly know it. But the more we walk on the road or practice the philosophy, the more we become aware of the nuances and value of the practice. So enough can be a slow realization along the way, and it can entail dramatic insights or transformations. It can also take the form of new knowledge that nobody has yet envisaged. There are difficult sides to any spiritual way, such as doubt, fear, failure, uncertainty and struggle. These are to be accepted for what we can learn from them; pushing them aside is another form of denial.
Enough has a good history; it is rooted in past generations and has been valued and practiced by several great wisdom traditions, including religions, especially those traditions that have an ecological outlook, and which view humans as part of the great natural systems. Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, and the Ancient Greeks – to name just some traditions — have for thousands of years promoted the virtues of moderation.
Although enough does not rely on religious doctrine, it is not rigidly secular either; its spiritual and ecological dimensions take it beyond any view of life and the world that values only material things, or the strictly rational. Spirituality is about who we are when all inessential trappings are stripped away; it also concerns the most important connections we have in the world.
Enough is not about trying to retrieve a supposedly better past. While it is in contrast with the dominant materialist-expansionist mentality of our times, it is not about going back. Enough is a living concept, in the sense that it looks to how we can make the future positive and actually construct progress, while drawing on insights and understanding that have served well in the past. But it is based on the premise that we cannot undo what we have done. The present world in which enough could be valuable is quite different from other times when enough was valued, such as the medieval era. To-day many forces separate us from our innate sense of belonging to the world, and from our understanding of limits. We have wrought terrible ecological and social destruction but, perhaps paradoxically, the destruction we have caused is the very thing that makes our re-invigoration possible. In some ways, the earth itself, troubled by the damage we have caused, is forcing us to look anew and recognize the need to re-evaluate economic growth.
Humans today differ from previous generations who recognized the value of enough. We have developed and evolved; we have marvelous scientific insights and knowledge, which help us understand many aspects of the intuitive knowledge of earlier times; we have also come through a mechanistic era. We are now at a higher turn of the spiral than earlier societies and worldviews that valued enough. Like pre-modern peoples, we recognize connection; unlike them, we understand that we are part of an open system that is unfolding, not determined, and in which we can participate.
Some of the issues of our times are completely new and very complex. But we have a number of new “tools” at our disposal. We have a truly global civilization for the first time in human history; we can see for ourselves that events in one place on earth affect other parts of the earth. We understand that citizenship is not confined to humans in nation-states, but that we are all citizens of the globe, and, moreover, that we share citizenship with all the living systems of the planet. We have well developed notions of rights and fairness. Enough for our times is about who we are and what we are capable of at this time. In responding to the questions raised by enough, we can create new stories about what it means to be human, and what true progress and advancement might mean for us. In the process, we acquire new understandings of self, others and the world.
Enough is about possibility, which is different from prediction. The future is not knowable and predictable, despite the claims of futurists. But possibility remains open to us because when large numbers of people, working and communicating with each other, develop in their daily lives new ways of formulating problems and responses to those problems, then social change takes place and it can influence decision-making at high levels. The vision of unregulated growth has until recently been very coherent and convincing: greater spending power for everyone, money trickling down from the top where it is generated. I have even heard it said that we need continued growth, in order to create the money to deal with the harmful effects of growth.
The vision of growth has gone sour; it has turned out to be a suicidal practice rather than an intelligent one. A better world is possible only if greater numbers of people ask hard questions such as how much is too much, who decides, who wins and loses in the process? Ecologists, philosophers, educators, business leaders, politicized religious leaders, scientists and ordinary citizens need to come together to promote enough and new visions surrounding it. Global warming is one chance to do this and the recent financial crisis is another. Both, of course, are connected to each other and it would be a shame if the crisis of global warming were ignored in the effort to stimulate the kinds of unregulated growth that have caused many of the global warming problems in the first place. Solutions based purely on technology or piecemeal interventions are not the answer; we must repair a sense of morality in the world if we are to truly rise above these crises.
Enough is neither cynical nor utopian, but hopeful. It is based on our potential for good; it is simple but not simplistic, a principled way of understanding and being. We can think about the future in a hopeful way, grounded in the belief that humans can live up to their potential for good and for moral action. The problems facing us are very serious, but if we look only at the extremely hard realities and avoid the language of possibility, then the realities seem just too much, and we slip into cynicism, denial or despair. We need to lay claim to the notion that human beings have the capacity to intervene in, influence and shape the forces that structure our lives.
You may think that I make very big claims for enough and related ecological and moral ways of looking at the world. Of course, there is no perfect worldview; anything taken to an extreme will show its shadow side or become dogma. But a reflexive attitude can prevent the way of enough from becoming rigid. This means sticking with the questions and not flinching from the challenges inherent in them. Enough is a key concept for the 21st century.