Written by Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
In my office I have a quote on the wall by Lao Tzu: “he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough”.
I was moved to reconsider it after reading several newspaper articles about the need for more and more. In this case more and more flying (through the further expansion of Heathrow), and more and more cars (Government estimates predict 30% more over the next decade). Why are more people not standing up to ask if either of these is actually genuinely even a desirable outcome? And neither in my opinion is a signal of our becoming sustainable. Both are rather things to avoid not to encourage.
I have many quotes spread around the office, but this one feels especially poignant, perhaps because it flies in the face of our constant consumerist desire for greater and greater everything. Governments particularly love to promise more. More trade. More airports. More roads. More GDP. Growth, growth, growth, as though it’s even possible. And with the genuine fears over the impact of Brexit, and the ever increasing austerity, this emphasis is growing stronger.
But is more always better? Of course I want a secure job, a safe home, sufficient food and excitement in my life. But this quote reminds me that sometimes enough is enough. It is almost the variety and the balance of the many facets of my life that truly matters, not just the growth of them. As long as I have enough security, enough food, enough fun, enough challenge, enough love, enough variety then maybe that is all I should expect and maybe that is okay. A constant striving for more is an insatiable path. Should we be aiming for sufficient trade, jobs, houses, and a circular economy…? I actually find the quote quite grounding and I think it makes me better able to join up my thinking, as I am less unquestioning and obsessive in my pursuit of endless ‘more’.
With the possible exception of cake, I can imagine a point at which more of almost anything can become too much. More is not always better. Nor is it always desirable. And yet our current economic drivers are predicated on creating more.
We always want more monetary wealth – and especially right now, more “sustainable economic growth”, whatever that means. But if you recognise that the world’s resources are finite and that the earth is a closed system, then you realise that the only reason we report growth is because we only count one bit of it: money. The main measure of monetary wealth is GDP which is a very crude measure of economic progress, and it hardly reflects the whole of what we should value. In our desperation to encourage growth we have even detached our ‘money’ from the actual real wealth that underpins it, so three quarters of our recent growth is based on debt and not on reality. And perhaps more importantly it comes at an ever increasing societal and environmental cost. A cost to resources, to our seas and our air, our soils and our security.
I would also argue that a high level of inequality is ultimately unsustainable, and the simple pursuit of more does little to address this either. There is a significant human and environmental cost to GDP which is becoming increasingly evident. And yet we continue to pursue a policy of more. We attribute no value to a forest, yet when we cut it down it becomes timber, which we value because we can sell it. We dig holes to extract metals and gold but the mountain and the soil has no economic value – only the metals. But if you keep digging holes you’ll eventually undermine everything. Or fall in one.
Common sense dictates surely that in a finite system we are not magically growing anything, we are simply moving things around. We are converting one set of chemicals and cells into another, and only valuing the latter. And that is not sustainable.
Early 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that “the day is not far off when the economic problem will take a back seat where it belongs and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or re-occupied by our real problems… of life, and human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.”
Today, more than 70 years after his death, this seems somehow further away than ever. We need a new more honest measure based on balancing all of what really matters. Or we need to cost what we are destroying to create GDP growth. A philosophy of ‘enough’ of everything rather than simply one demanding ‘more’ money.