How much do we really need?

The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.
        ==Attributed to Gandhi

I believe that, with good luck and good management, the world is capable of feeding the world’s people through the hoped-for demographic transition, when population growth levels off.

But I doubt that the world is capable of keeping all of the world’s people at as high a material standard of living as I enjoy as a middle-class American, barring some breakthrough that is beyond my imagination.

numberRTE_DVstuffwedon'tneedOf course the world is not limited by my imagination.  I have no way of knowing what the future will be like.  Many of fears of 50 or 60 years ago proved unfounded.  Maybe my present fears will prove equally unfounded 50 or 60 years from now.

But, as the saying goes, hope is not a plan.  Suppose things are what they seem to be.

What is required to provide for everyone’s need?  How much is enough?

Back in the 1930s, thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes projected that economic growth would, in the foreseeable future, provide enough so that human beings—at least those in the USA and UK—could cease striving for more and lead lives based on higher values than acquiring money.

This didn’t happen because the definition of “enough” changed.

I am unhappy if my Internet connection goes down for a few days.   I am in acute discomfort if my gas furnace ceases to function.   But I was happy as a boy without those things, and so were my parents.

If you go back in history, highly civilized people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Samuel Johnson lived happily without electricity, indoor plumbing or private automobiles, and their contemporaries put up with pain and discomfort that people today would find unendurable.

I’ve met people who say that when they were growing up, they were poor, but they didn’t know they were poor.

Upper-class and middle-class people would have regarded them as poor, but, since they never encountered upper-class or middle-class people, they regarded what they had as normal.   Maybe they are the benchmark for what people need.

What would you have to have in order to not know you were poor?

Enough to eat so that you weren’t hungry all the time.  Clean water.  Fresh air and sunshine.  Enough clothing to keep warm and look decent.  Shelter so that you weren’t homeless.  Sufficient medical care that you weren’t in constant fear of death.   Enough free time that you could socialize with family and friends.

I think all these things are achievable.

I feel tempted to add other things that are desirable, but not really necessary.   I personally would not be happy without access to cheap books, a good public library or the Internet, but Socrates led a highly intellectual life without written material.   I think most people would require some sort of public space for sports, dancing and singing, other public performances and religious rituals.  I think these things are achievable, too.

A sustainable minimalist society would have to give up the science-fictional dreams that I grew up with.  No colonization of Mars, no matter replicators, no interstellar travel through hyperspace, no immortality by downloading your personality into a computer.

Those are dreams I hate to give up.  But maybe my grand-niece and grand-nephew will have other dreams.


Afterthought.  [9/29/2015]  What about you?  What is the minimum you think people need to be happy?


Americans Buy More Stuff They Don’t Need by Mark Whitehouse for The Wall Street Journal.  Source of the chart.

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One Response to “How much do we really need?”

  1. John Pennington Says:

    Consider beef. IMHO, nobody needs beef, let alone large amounts of it, which compromises health. Further, cattle emit methane in rather large amounts when they belch. Methane is a 24 times worse greenhouse gas than CO2. But most of all, cattle consume 7X as much protein as they produce, as well as consuming huge amounts of water. Minimizing beef consumption would (1) improve health, (2) reduce greenhouse gasses, (3) provide more protein, (4) provide more water. Beef is one of the things we think is essential, which isn’t even necessary.


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