Since 1950, the richest 20% of the world's
population has increased its per capita consumption of meat and timber two-fold, its car
ownership four-fold and its use of plastics five-fold. The poorest 20% has increased its
consumption hardly at all.
"How much is enough?" Critics say that very question is indicative of a
middle to middle-upper class movement. Indeed, many of our materially poor neighbors are
not afforded the leisure of grappling with "How much is enough?" Families
struggling to obtain basic food and shelter, for instance, can be sure that more is
So what will we do when we have 10 billion global neighbors, instead of 6 billion?(5) New technology and improved efficiency can certainly help, but that has limits too.(6) We need a cultural shift.
The U.S. is currently dominated by a commercial culture loaded with messages to drive this, drink that, eat these, wear those, listen to this, watch that, and buy it all!(7)
Bombarded, it’s easy to fall in the trap of believing that what matters most is "stuff." Few of us intend to drain the planet's dwindling resources, overwhelm its absorptive capacities, or perpetuate sweatshop labor, but our collective buying habits bear those very consequences.
Our culture, measuring success and personal worth in terms of material possessions, is especially cruel to the poor. Madison Avenue preys on low-income communities, saying success and status are only a purchase away. Millions of Americans, otherwise financially unable to play the shopping game, turn to plastic as a means to "fit in." Our savings rate has dipped into negative territory (since October 1998 Americans have spent more than they've earned) while credit card debt and personal bankruptcies are at all time highs.(8) Children, often self-conscious to begin with, are another popular target for advertising predators.(9) Some kids resort to violence, and even murder, to obtain the expensive "in" jacket or shoes.
Where is the hope in all of this? Human compassion has the potential to go a long way. It would take $40 billion annually to achieve and maintain basic education, basic health care, reproductive health care for women, adequate food, clean water, and safe sewers for all the world's needy. In 1997, Americans alone gave over $145 billion in charitable donations.(10)
There's plenty we can do. As consumers we can shop responsibly, rather than impulsively or conspicuously. We can also band together and demand durable, eco-friendly products made by workers earning a livable wage. As voters we can support policies that benefit underrepresented constituencies, both today's materially poor as well as the future generations that will inherit our land, air, and water.(11)
So how much is enough? This is an economical, ecological, and moral question. And it has no simple answer. But until every person on the planet can look every other person in the eye and say, "Yes, I have enough," it must continue to be asked.
These questions of distribution and consumption are nothing new - most religious and spiritual traditions have focussed on them for centuries. Want to read more? Then continue on to the puzzle tour’s Religion and Spirituality piece.
Copyright (c) 1999 CNAD
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