One of my colleagues, after a look at my new book, suggested that I had omitted an important concept, sufficiency. True, the word does not appear anywhere in the text, but the idea lingers in the background. Sufficient must take its meaning from some reference state or quality, as the amount of something just enough to achieve or attain that stage or quality. In particular, the concern raised is triggered by the impending collapse of the Earth’s life support system. The global consumption of energy and goods is destabilizing the Earth’s capacity to maintain human and other living creatures’ habitats. Any practical solution to this untenable situation must involve the question of what level and kind of consumption is consistent with a sustainable Earth system for its living members.
The interplay of consumption and technology makes it virtually impossible to answer that question except in very broad terms. Instead, the better question should be how much consumption of energy and material goods is sufficient to support human well-being? Of course, this privileges our species, but so be it, as we are the only species that can ask this question. The answer depends on the definition of well-being. In the political economies of developed nations, well-being is linked to wealth, assuming the more one has (to consume), the better off they are. At the nation level, this translates to policies of unlimited, continuous, growth. Growth and sufficiency are completely incompatible concepts. Sufficiency in a world that is already exceeding safe limits of consumption-related stresses on the planet is an oxymoron.
The word takes on a different sense if we tie it to a different measure of well-being, and to a related expression of what being human means. My work, especially the recently published The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, argues that humans have both a selfish and a caring aspect. Which one presents itself in behavioral terms depends on which hemisphere of the brain dominates.* When the right is in charge, we act primarily as caring actors, Homo curitans, and when the left is the master, we act more as the needy, self-interested human, characteristic of the modern era, Homo economicus. Further, the primary normative goal of H. curitans is flourishing, not the accumulation of some form of material wealth. I have been arguing that flourishing is the name given to the state of being when humans realize their full biological and existential potential.
Human beings in the caring mode acquire goods and use energy principally to enable them to take care of themselves, other humans, the Planet and its non-human life, and whatever transcendent phenomena they experience. In essence, the caring human acts out of a perception of being connected to the world. Conversely, the needy human, under the influence of the left brain, acts in isolation from and is always trying to control the (real) world. The hyper-individualistic character of US society clearly indicates which side—the left—is now in charge.
Caring is initiated by some form of empathetic connection to whatever target is being attended to at the moment. Neither energy nor goods are necessary to establish the connection. As to the means selected to enact the subsequent caring intention, the choice is idiosyncratic and dependent on the context and the experience of the actor. A mature actor with a storehouse of responses would, normally, pick something that has worked before. It should be possible to embed behavioral norms that minimize consumption of energy and material means to guide the selection process, that is, to act to consume only a sufficient quantity. Caring for humans will often involve only linguistic acts, eliminating the requirement for consumption.
As I write in the book, H. curitans can gradually replace our current culturally derived, self-interested creature through direct mind-shifting practices and through the redesign of institutions and artifacts. The speed and breadth of such a replacement is difficult to predict, as is the amounts of energy and material goods that would turn out to be sufficient, so even such a move toward sufficiency cannot be guaranteed to obviate the kind of threats to our habitat we are now experiencing. But, if we continue to operate as if we have the fixed essence of Homo economicus, we are surely going to leave an unlivable world to future generations.
* The divided, bi-hemispherical model of the brain and its connection to the character of cultures has been developed in great detail by Iain McGilchrist (and others). I base much of my new book on its implications to flourishing and to the future of our Planet.