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When Too Much is Never Enough

By Jeremy Ireland on September 2, 2020 in Other

Big Dave delivers a sermon. Photo: Sue Zooky

As is often the case, when searching for a topic to write about I find myself sifting through my bookshelf for inspiration. This time something a little different turned up. Amongst all the textbooks and other non-fiction works I have collected over the years I stumbled across a small, slightly understated book by David Suzuki titled The Legacy.
I didn’t have just one copy of the book, I had two. On the book’s cover, just below the title, was a brief synopsis of its contents; “An elder’s vision for our sustainable future”. With Suzuki’s vision in mind, I was a little bothered by the fact I had two copies. “That’s not very sustainable, I don’t need two, maybe I should give one away?”
But I couldn’t. As much as I wanted to, both books are still here, staring at me from their place on the kitchen table. It wasn’t because each copy was a gift from family that made me keep them, there was something else deep inside the reptilian part of my brain that was compounding the issue. My conundrum was caused by an age-old common conflict: ‘need verses want’.
The message from Suzuki is fairly simple; the impact that humans have on the biosphere is enormous and unsustainable, and only by addressing this will we take the search for alternative ways to live as seriously as we must. The very first graph in his book is quite confronting. From 0-1800 AD, the world’s population slowly rose to just under one billion, and since then the population has exploded to a current estimate of 7.8 billion – an increase of roughly 7 billion people in just 200 years. It’s a curve of exponential growth that would make the eyes of COVID analyst Casey Briggs light up.
Despite an aging society, the population curve shows no sign of flattening out just yet. The main reason? Technology. Science and technology combined have allowed the population to skyrocket, resulting in soaring levels of consumption. A side effect of this newfound consumption, which really began with the onset of the industrial revolution, was a shift in our mindset from ‘needing’ to ‘desiring’. If we satisfied our desires by consuming, the world would be a better place. So, buying and spending became the new norm, developing a system where buying ‘stuff’ was seen as a victory over poverty, and in turn leading us to believe that the more ‘stuff’ we have, the happier we’ll be.
But is this really true? In a culture where we have come to believe anything is possible and anything is attainable, are we any happier? Surely I must be better off because I can eat a peach in the winter that’s been imported from the US, or take that cheap cruise around the South Pacific where the ship uses over 90 litres of fuel per kilometre, or go to that buffet and eat as much as I want?
According to author Alain De Botton, there is an actual list of essential non-material things that make us happy. In no real order, that list includes friends, freedom, thought, food, shelter and clothes. Notice how money and ‘stuff’ didn’t make the cut? Sure, you might need money to provide food, shelter and clothing, but spending larger amounts of money for these things doesn’t correlate with happiness. In other words, our level of happiness will plateau at some point regardless of how much you spend. “But hang on,” I hear you say, “surely buying a Ferrari will make me happier than a Hyundai?” Well, not if you have no friends to share it with.
Why are we drawn to expensive things, and are we just being greedy if we want them? It comes back to desire, which in itself is not a bad thing, but bare in mind it is a prominent theme of the seven deadly sins. As for my spare copy of The Legacy, if anyone wants it please give me a shout.

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