In a recent essay about how consumerism is ecocide, I introduced the topic of “enough,” that unless humanity can stem its seemingly insatiable desire for more, we’re doomed. In response, a reader asked me to explore “enough,” what it is, who gets it, and who decides? Answering these questions necessitates a wider inquiry, of course.
Classical Buddhism places humanity squarely inside what it terms “the realm of desire,” the existential space of grasping and attachment to things and feelings with which we all are so familiar. Tellingly, consumer spending in America comprises 70% of our economy, so any exploration of “enough” necessarily runs headlong into the topic of desire.
Previously, I’ve examined the effects of hunger and predation; securing food is necessary for survival, a biological reality deeper than desire but closely related to it. I’ve proposed that elaborations of satisfying hunger dominate the structure of human society; at bottom our social and political activities come down to filling bellies and satisfying desire. Humanity has moderately succeeded in cultivating delayed gratification, but as Buddhism teaches, desire is foundational, and drives most everything about us, including being entertained. “Next to want,” writes Erwin Schrödinger, “boredom has become the worst scourge in our lives.”
“Can’t get no satisfaction,” sang The Rolling Stones, and as is often the case, the truth is in the tunes. Human desire is constant; thus the truth of suffering was Buddha’s first teaching. In this context, we might define human progress as the orderly social management of satisfying desire. The problem is that we do not systematically manage desire particularly well; our methods oscillate between exploitation and coercion, instruments of predation.
It’s advised that ethical management of desire requires looking ahead for seven generations, but we easily slip into Utopianism. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” famously wrote Karl Marx. Nice idea, but a flop. Here in capitalist America we prefer the Free Market’s “Hand of Providence,” although all too often its thumb tilts the scales of justice. In a just society, the management of desire would focus on reducing vulnerability and fear by insuring life’s essentials – food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare – but this approach is neither profitable nor a customary practice of capitalism. What might “enough” mean, I wonder, if people feel secure and know that they’ll have what is essential? Would it create a radically different ethical and social system? Individually, we might heed the advice of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 A.D.): “Do what’s essential…ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
Which brings us to the crux of the matter, defining “enough.” Enough is what’s essential. When fear of the future takes over – of hunger, loss, deprivation, or death – we grasp things ever tighter in the present, accumulate far more than we need, and employ rationality in service to desire.
There’s never been eight billion of us needing to fill our bellies before. Religion has been only marginally successful in its transformation of human character, similarly the power of persuasion in stemming our desires; likely, the harsh ecology of natural limits will painfully constrain us. Those limits have been extended by science and inventiveness, but consumerism’s economy-of-more is relentlessly stimulated by desire. Notably, pictured in the center of the Buddhist Wheel of Karma are a rooster, snake, and pig, symbols of the greed, aggression and ignorance that drives the wheel. What remains to be answered is, will this wisdom be enough?