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Consuming Stuff: When, If Ever, Is Enough Enough?

JEAN - Can't help noticing how you've changed since we both read Whole Earth in college. Two cars plus an SUV, a voluminous house, home entertainment center, separate freezer, three PCs—are you happier?

RACHEL - Surprise you? I am. Always wanted some of these goodies. Other things we need as a family. My husband and I both drive to work, the computers help the kids' school grades, and they need lots of space for their soccer stuff and just because they're kids. Hey, why am I justifying these purchases?

JEAN - Because of their consequences. Our family lives with lots less. We have more time and energy to do what matters most. All of us think for ourselves — we're not pushed around by ads or the culture's insistence on how to live. We bike when we can, and if you don't provide excess space, you'd be surprised at how efficient your kids become. Plus, we feel more responsive to the global implications of never-ending consumerism. In short, Rachel, we're a better model for our children.

RACHEL - Very pious, very PC. Haven't I heard this before? Dictate priorities. Force a kind of global egalitarianism. Your ideas are a throwback to sixties radicalism —Marxism transformed into Earth First. "The West must shrink its consumption 'til we match slightly better-off non-Western economies." We live too far from work and school to even think of biking.
We humans don't know enough to support your doom-and-gloom. We can't predict the future effects of consumption. Efficiencies of production continue to limit environmental consequences. The more the consumption, the greater the incentive for efficiency. Nanotechnology, bioengineering, superconductivity, and who knows what else could make increased consumption and sustainability compatible. Amory Lovins says we could use one-fourth of the energy and materials we do now to make the same amount of consumer goods. Some say we'll be able to reduce all that by a factor often.

JEAN - If we don't know enough to support my position, then we definitely don't know enough to support yours. You accuse me of being pious, yet your god is a just-in-time techno-fix. How convenient and prescient: new technologies will be perfectly suited to salvage ever-expanding consumer desires. Technologies' impact on overall consumption isn't clear. This is just techno-astrology, rationality pushed into a future that cannot be predicted. Preemptive caution is the only course that makes sense.
As for the sixties radical charge, I plead semi-guilty. But your ideology—"you are what you consume"—is an ideology stuffed down the throats of people by pervasive advertising. It all boils down to the shallow notion of having a lifestyle rather than having a life. It's an infinite regress of envy where enough is never enough. Rachel, you choose to live far from work, you choose how many children you have. Other choices are possible.

RACHEL - Your hidden agenda's revealed. Voluntary simplicity. Or perhaps you are more dogmatic and want a government-imposed "voluntary" simplicity. Maybe the Cultural Revolution!

What would you substitute as an acceptable "ideology"? Gaia worship, small is beautiful, a William Morris-esque return to village craft? Have you tried to imagine the kind of government that could force such a profound shift in values? You think consumerism is "false consciousness," as if it's merely a sleight-of-hand substitute for the search for genuine meaning. But what is genuine? And how can you know, let alone impose it on others? We don't "choose" where to live in a vacuum. There are housing costs, taxes, school quality; things like that matter.

Enough, in fact, is never enough. Consumption does confer benefits and I want my kids to have every advantage I can give them. We didn't know in the sixties that we'd be buying personal computers, and we don't know now what mom MATERIAL WORLD     the equivalent of computers will be in the future. Who knows? Perhaps in the end virtual consumption will reduce actual consumption and take care of some of your environmental concerns. Not only is increasing consumption the only way we can think of right now to improve the lot of newly industrializing countries, it will probably transform itself out of the problems which so concern you.

JEAN - So-called advanced countries will not cut back on their material wealth nor share their educational resources to put right these inequities. I've lost that idealism. They could, of course. But post-modern people are unwilling to give even of their surplus to those in need. Yes, I am probably among the very few who would deny themselves material wealth in favor of simplicity. It's not Marxism nor Earth First. I now see the economic explosion is due to the immaturity of the human soul, which cannot do much to overcome its egocentric impulses. That's what I want my kids to learn: the contentment of less hungry egos; the quietness and beauty of the human spirit, if not of Nature, without the need to dress it up all the time. Buying is not being.

RACHEL - There are learned folks who argue that we can consume much more. But I don't think they'll convince you. Your worst nightmare is people like me who both love and need to consume, who deny bad consequences, and who think the spread of market economies is the only hope for the world's poor. The worst of slums and low wages will pass, just as they have in Western countries.

JEAN - Mutual nightmares then. I would restrict your unbridled access to what are, in effect, the planet's resources, whether by a pricing system that takes into account environmental costs or by government rules or, my best hope, through personal transformation. Muddling through isn't a guaranteed solution, especially since it doesn't change the way we think about who we are and our place on Earth.

RACHEL - We've muddled through successfully in the past. Maybe I should be more scared of overshooting sustainability. Maybe it's our age, Jean, but muddling through seems like the only option left.