The Power of Enough


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In this time when businesses are failing and people are losing their jobs and in some cases their homes, it may seem crazy to criticise economic growth. But sufficiency, sustainability and security are key needs of people and living systems all over the world, as we move into the rest of this century. We also need maximum citizen participation, diversity, resilience and whole-system health. Untrammeled economic growth did not provide or foster those features, nor can it do so in the future.

In the drive for economic growth at all costs, we brought monetary wealth to a few. At the same time we lost sight of limits, destroyed ecosystems and created huge global and local social injustices. The culture surrounding growth also encouraged many of our worst human capacities: indifference, cruelty, denial, cynicism, a narrow materialism and short-term thinking in an effort to compete with others.

Even if it were desirable to get back to that kind of growth, it is unlikely that we can, given that we are near the end of cheap oil, have immanent crises over water, and face the huge challenges of climate change. The philosophy of enough provides a sane basis for moving into the future.

Enough has an immediate personal value because working out what is enough in one’s life is a way to get some peace of mind and capacity to deal with hectic daily activities. It is a way to be content, not in the sense of tolerating poor quality, but in the sense of knowing what is valuable and what is not, and relishing the good things we have already. It provides security in times of boom and recession.

Enough helps us cope with the world as it is, but it is also good for us morally and ecologically. If we apply enough to our health, finances and personal energy, we automatically restrict the kinds of damage we might be unwittingly doing in the wider world. Practising enough allows us to get what is needed from the world to sustain human flourishing and prosperity, but without taking too much from individuals, or from social and natural systems. It is also about how to give adequately to the world around us. So it is about the relationship between humans and the world. A sense of enough can nourish a culture of adapted human behaviour, which will give at least some of the earth’s ecosystems a chance for renewal and at the same time foster social justice.

Enough is about creating many different channels for human growth and expansion. A culture of enough would judge human progress in diverse ways and not just in the quantitative, measurable sense of increasing GDP. Such a culture would always attempt to balance the considerable scientific and scientific achievements we humans have made, with an increase in our moral, ecological, spiritual and emotional development. Humane and ecologically sound cultures would be a mark of progress and human advancement.

Enough has important reflective and qualitative aspects. It also underpins some very practical proposals for a transition to a more ecologically sound and stable world, which include contraction and convergence, a citizen’s income and official policies for intelligent agriculture.

Contraction and convergence for climate security

Given the imperative that exists to reduce overall global carbon emissions, the crucial question is how to draw everybody and every country into the process. The answer lies in equity, which is the foundation of a framework called contraction and convergence. Contraction is the reduction part of the framework; convergence is the process part.

Contraction is about reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that play a major role in global warming. (Reforming agriculture would mitigate dangerous methane emissions.) Convergence depends on the notion that all countries should participate in reducing carbon emissions, and that every person in the world has equal entitlements to the atmosphere (part of the global commons) and is thus entitled to ‘dump’ a certain amount of carbon in it. Under a convergence policy, our entitlements would come in the form of a fair quota for each citizen of the globe. Each person can use their quota in total, or trade it in a legitimate worldwide carbon market, without the involvement of a ‘middle man’. Trading in excess carbon quotas by individuals would also provide a type of citizens’ income to offset higher energy costs. The Cap and Share campaign is an excellent first step for developing carbon quotas and individual trading.

This framework regulates at the broad parameters, but allows creativity and innovation within the limits set down. It allows everybody to decide for themselves how they will use their quota, which is an exciting alternative to the idea that government will examine minute aspects of our lives to see how we emit carbon. It also contains enticements for every individual and country to participate: on the one hand, carbon-thrifty individuals and countries can make some money from trading their excess quotas; on the other hand, it allows those who want to continue to emit carbon to buy the surplus quotas they need. It thus deals with the objections of third-world countries to paying for the sins of the rich, who are largely responsible for creating a dangerous level of emissions.

A quota system is eminently fair. Quotas are simpler than taxation and they have the moral and political edge because they establish the same broad rules for everybody and for every country, in a radical blend of regulation and freedom.

Citizen’s income for financial security

Basic financial security for everybody in the form of a citizens’ income can contribute to general security and a global retreat from growth, while also encouraging local development. A citizen’s income means that individuals are no longer dependent on jobs for their basic income. If everyone has sufficient for basic needs, simply by virtue of being a citizen, then losing a job is not a disaster. Citizens also have meaningful choices about the kinds of paid and unpaid work they do.

A citizens’ income also provides a way out of the ‘poverty trap’, which is a major problem with the current welfare system. It can benefit employers, because it replaces the minimum wage, which can make businesses difficult to sustain. A minimum wage can also have the effect of forcing growth, no matter what the ecological and moral consequences.

One source of finance for a citizen’s income is taxation. But there are more exciting possibilities, such as the sharing of dividends from earth resources (such as the carbon quotas mentioned earlier). In Alaska, for example, all residents receive a dividend from the state’s oil resources.  In Norway, much of the income from oil reserves goes into the state pension fund, ensuring that all citizens have a decent pension.

Intelligent agriculture for food security

Food security cannot be taken for granted anywhere in the world at this time. Industrialised global agriculture flouts ecological principles and is unsustainable. Agriculture needs to operate on intelligent principles, namely that food production and food consumption should take place as close together as possible. Intelligent farming systems are capable of producing sufficient high-quality food in each bio-region. Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) presents an opportunity for the EU to support such intelligent agriculture, which could revitalise rural communities and reward urban and suburban dwellers for participating in local food production, even on a very small scale.

Such reform of CAP is unlikely in the near future. However, intelligent agriculture can be promoted by groups of farmers, gardeners, growers, scientists and consumers organising worldwide in a new alliance for food security. Indeed, such a worldwide food movement is the thing that most individuals can immediately get involved in.

Government and citizenship

The function of government, in the philosophy of enough, is to regulate for security at the broad parameters, and to allow unlimited creativity and diversity within those parameters.  In a time when the state is not providing structures and policies that foster virtuous action, citizens stand in the gap between what is and what might be. All citizens have the capacity to be leaders while we stand in that gap. The great middle ground is important in bringing about cultural change. Ordinary people, acting together in initiatives for local food, transport and energy, can educate elected leaders and lawmakers.

As individuals, we need to develop the resources and capacities for enough that exist within all of us. An appreciation of enough can help us to get away from our obsession with getting back to ‘business as usual’. Imagination is crucial in this project. Enough facilitates a consideration of what true advancement would look like for the human race. The philosophy supports hope and possibility, rather than cynicism, denial or despair. It can help us to survive in a difficult present world; it can help us to critique and resist what is wrong, and it can help us create new social forms and exciting personal ways to live.

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Anne B. Ryan teaches in NUI, Maynooth and the author of a newly published book Enough is Plenty (0 Books 2009). She has been researching and writing about the philosophy of enough for many years and regularly conducts workshops and seminars on sustainable living, positive futures and balanced living. All profits from Enough is Plenty are being donated to Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.

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6 Responses

  1. Pope Epopt

    February 4, 2010 12:27 pm

    Mary – that’s a fine description of how I would like to be able to live. A consensually limited egalitarian and sustainable material life combined with a rich social and cultural life would suit me just fine. And I don’t think that would necessarily mean giving up the enriching parts of technology like the one that hosts this forum.

    I also applaud the good Germanic ‘enough’ (genug) as a summing up of the principle, as opposed to abstractions like ‘sustainability’.

    However, the next obvious question (and it’s the one missing from most green critique) is: can we and how do we get there?

    I see no evidence over the past 50 years that either reform and regulation or revolutionary vanguardism will get us there before social collapse from a combination of capitalist and resource crises.

    History can be read as teaching us that those who have more than enough don’t ever give it up without a fight. It also teaches us that they are quite happy to make small concessions to reformers to ensure that they retain control of excess.

    The ‘achieving’ of a bit of green tokenism by our Greens in government in exchange of a massive transfer of resources to those with more than enough through NAMA and the bank guarantee is a case in point.

    Please excuse my lack of faith and convince me I am wrong.

  2. A Meyer

    February 4, 2010 1:56 pm

    To Pope Epopt

    When you say: –

    “I see no evidence over the past 50 years that either reform and regulation or revolutionary vanguardism will get us there before social collapse from a combination of capitalist and resource crises”

    its hard to disagree with you. However, the resource-crisis we face now is new and without precedent.

    Whatever else it embraces, as globgal climate-change shows, it is: –

    [a] truly global;

    [b] in the atmosphere where restricted rights of access with ‘ghg emissions’ have no obvious ‘natural’ limiting boundaries [we’ll have to ‘devise’ them]:

    [c] internationally recognized as needing ‘limits’ [i.e. the UNFCCC and its objective]:

    [d] internationally recognized as, “inevtiably requiring contraction and convergence” [UNFCCC executive statement COP-9 Milan 2004 and see end of document at link below].

    So with or without the ‘precedent’, bully for Mary for stepping up and making the case for it so well.

    Somebody’s got to.

    We might be a little nearer than you think: –

  3. dara

    February 4, 2010 2:22 pm

    “However, the next obvious question (and it’s the one missing from most green critique) is: can we and how do we get there? ”

    This is the million-dollar question at the moment. While there are environmental organisations and initiatives across the country, but they don’t seem to have much power to pursue an agenda of social change. As leftists, our advantage is that we have a pretty good understanding of what is needed for social change, i.e., the organisation of the working class.

    However, the environmental necessities seem to be unfortunately separate from both the left and any bases of class power. My feeling is that leftists need to bring environmentalism into places where we can fight for short & medium-term victories. I think community organisation is probably the most viable place for this, but I’m interested in others’ opinions.

  4. Pope Epopt

    February 5, 2010 12:18 am

    Anne Ryan – apologies – you’re not a Mary. I don’t know how I got that into my head.


    Yes, Green politics (with the exception of ecosocialists) almost universally chooses to ignore the perspective of class antagonism, power and the logic of capital accumulation.

    But equally many leftists choose to ignore the vital message contained in Anne’s article.

    That is, that we have to abandon or, at least, radically re-vision the productivist values implicit in many Marxisms, Leninism and social democracy. We have learned (quite recently for sure, although there were presentiments going back centuries or indeed millenia) that any form of society has extrinsic material limits, and these are now rapidly closing in on us.

    The left must stop seeing ‘environmentalism’ as a nice-to-have but essentially middle class pre-occupation and think through the consequences of resource limitation and eco-system destruction should have for goals and indeed tactics of the left.

  5. A Meyer

    February 5, 2010 6:40 am

    To *Anne*

    My apologies too for following the wrong lead and wrongly calling you ‘Mary’.

    So correction to: –

    “So with or without the ‘precedent’, bully for *Anne* for stepping up and making the case for C&C so well.”