Saturday, June 23, 2012

Utopia: Sufficiency or Abundance?

A friend mentioned an academic book about utopias: Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the Sustainable Society by Marius de Geus.

The book as a whole is outside the scope of this project. But there is a very interesting distinction in the introduction between utopias of sufficiency , ,also called ecological utopias, and utopias of abundance.

Ecological utopias include More, Thoreau, Kropotkin, and Huxley. Abundance or technological utopias include Bacon, Owen, Saint-Simon and Bellamy. According to de Geus:

The ecological thinkers show themselves as opponents of abundant production and consumption. They emphasize that a perfect situation is not compatible with excess: abundance does not make people happy. In this unpretentious approach, the perfect society is not sought via prosperity, but individual and social happiness is instead found in a conscious relinquishment of material pleasures and the restraining of human wants. (p21)

He quotes another book, Stone Age Economics (Routledge Classic Ethnographies)by Marshall Sahlins:

.. there are two possible courses of affluence. Wants may be 'easily satisfied' either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way, makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man's wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that 'urgent goods' become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from the premises somewhat different from our own: that human wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty, with a low standard of living.
In technological utopias like Francis Bacon's New Atlantis or Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887, he says, the approach is based on a spectacular degree of technological progress, a luxurious lifestyle, and dominance of nature.  

I can see this distinction makes sense. It actually has much older precedents, such as the idea in Buddhism that desire leads to suffering and the solution is the renunciation of striving and desire. And indeed a great deal of the current environmentalist movement has the ideal of making do with less. De Geus spends the rest of the book looking at Ecological utopias, incidentally.


But I'm not sure we always have to choose. In fact, I think a lot of what I am saying is that abundance means we have to exercise some restraint as well. Otherwise we have a society which becomes obese in every sense.


It also raises the issue of just what urgent needs, or basic needs are. That is something I could explore a bit more in due course, looking at both Rawls and Maslow (again).


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