The Problem of Plenty
It is oft observed that we have a consumption problem. Various people come at this from various angles. Health experts warn that we have an obesity epidemic. Religious leaders warn that consumerism can be a threat to one’s real moral priorities. Environmentalists warn that we are consuming the earth’s resources at an unsustainable pace.
All of these are true to one extent or another. The fact of the matter is, the human animal is not well set up to deal with situations of long term abundance. In nature, lack almost invariably follows abundance in the natural cycle, and so our evolutionary heritage tends to tell us, in the presence of obvious plenty, “Eat up now, there may be nothing later.” For animals this is likely to be the case. The plants which are in season now will not be later, and the predator who has made a kill one day may well not another.
For us, however, this can lead to certain problems. We humans have so mastered nature that we now find an abundance of food and other resources available to us at all times, and in this situation our natural instinct of “if you’ve got it, use it” does not stand us in good stead.
Nor does this consumption instinct apply only to food. We bring our same set of instincts to a host of other things which technology and wealth have made it possible for us to have at low cost. We are certainly not incapable of planning for the future, and denying ourselves things because we think it either prudent or moral to do so, but in general when it seems like we can have more enjoyment at the moment without an obvious and fairly immanent cost that we’re hesitant to pay, we do so.
Many people profess themselves worried about the effects of burning fossil fuels on the Earth’s climate, but few of these people choose to not own televisions, computers and refrigerators, turn off the AC during the summer, never travel, or completely avoid cars and shipped goods. At most, they use these things a little less.
More generally, it’s easy to look up at some higher income level and think, “If I made X, I’d really have everything I needed to take care of my family. I’d just save and/or donate the rest.” And yet, as one’s income increases over time, one’s “needs” almost invariable increase apace.
The above problems may not seem terribly pressing from a moral perspective, at least in the short term, but when we think about “cost” more broadly, we can start to see how the abundance in our modern society can cause serious social problems. For instance, the fact that people are so much wealthier in modern developed nations than at any previous point in history, and that this wealth allows us to set up “safety net” programs to provide for those who may find themselves temporarily without means, means that in turn that people have less need to rely on their families and communities for support. Surely, no one consciously thinks, “I have a good job and a house, so it doesn’t really matter if I tell off my cousin whose wife I can’t stand and stop visiting my grandmother who always lectures me about how I live my life,” but the fact of abundance makes the lessening of these ties more possible.
Likewise, the availability of modern birth control makes the case of chastity much harder to make than in the past. Sure, it would be great if people were as willing to behave well out of a desire to follow moral prescriptions as out of fear of an unexpected pregnancy, but observation of the results would seem to indicate that one of these forces is rather stronger in its action on most people than the other.
I know of no solution to this dynamic. It does not seem to me at all desirable (or even possible) that we simply decide, “Oh, well then we’ll produce less and be less wealthy.” The same instincts that make it difficult for us to restrain ourselves from consumption in times of plenty make it even more difficult for us to purposefully be less productive than we can. And yet we should certainly be aware that our condition of plenty provides us with a situation in which it is much more difficult for us to exercise certain kinds of restrain, and gird ourselves for the struggle.