SUSTAINABLE GERMANY:

A Contribution to Sustainable Global Development By Wolfgang Sachs and Richard Loske


At the beginning of 1994, Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and the MISEROR Catholic Organization for Third World Development jointly commissioned the Wuppertal Institute of Climate, Environment, and Energy to carry out a study specifying how the Federal Republic of Germany must change in order to satisfy the demands of global sustainability. That entailed a unique alliance. BUND is Germany's largest environmental association and MISEROR the largest North-South organization, and both are highly respected. Joint commissioning of such a study was intended to demonstrate that ecological issues and North-South equity are linked. Ecological concerns can no longer be ignored when pursuing development since globalization of Western lifestyles, with high consumption of resources extending to the whole of humanity - or even just large parts - would soon lead to environmental breakdown. Conversely, such global environmental problems as climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, decline in bio-diversity, soil erosion, marine pollution, overfishing or population growth cannot be combatted without achievement of greater justice in international relations. This study was intended to prepare the way for an understanding of sustainability where ecology and justice are indivisible. Above all, it was meant to make clear that global sustainability demands specific changes in Germany and other industrial states: reduced utilization of the natural environment so that this can regenerate and more resources remain for future generations and people in the Southern hemisphere.

Alongside that shared motive, the two organizations also had particular issues in mind. BUND was frustrated by the pure emphasis on economic performance in German debates about the future where nothing counts except what increases the country's competitiveness. Ecologists believed that in such circumstances environmental interests are likely to fall by the wayside. That is why presenting an ecological transition in the Federal Republic as a future-oriented strategy of change was viewed as being vital. The idea was to put forward a more modern concept for tomorrow's Germany. The starting point for MISEROR was the fact that concern with Third World development had declined in importance - to an even greater extent than environmental concerns - because of the predominance of economic objectives. The hope was that publicizing the Rio agenda would liberate development policy from neglect, presenting it as a good investment in sustainable world peace. In addition, a part may also have been played by the view that the spiritual dimension had to be included in discussion of the environment and development.

Disappointment over official policy was another reason for the decision by the two organizations to support a sustainability programme for Germany. At the Rio Conference and the gatherings that followed, the Federal Government constantly presented itself as a champion of global environmental policy, but national tasks are only being inadequately implemented. Today - five years after Rio - there does not exist any national environmental plan providing orientation for businessmen and the general population; nor has any broad-based dialogue been launched about how the objectives of sustainability can be achieved. Instead, the trend in the Federal Republic (and in other industrial states) is towards lack of follow-up - in the form of adequate policies - to noble declarations about protection of the planet. To that extent the study was also conceived as a message from civil society to the makers of policy.

In October 1995, the study was presented, accompanied by great interest on the part of politicians and the media. DER SPIEGEL, Germany's largest news magazine, spoke of "a Green Bible for the ecological movement on the threshold of the next millenium." Since then, throughout the country, there have been over 800 public meetings organized by environmental groups, church congregations, North-South groups, political parties, parliaments, trade unions, consumer associations, firms, universities, schools, and adult education institutions. Some 35,000 copies of the 450-page book have been sold, and around 100,000 copies of a popularized shorter version. A parallel television film has received several rewards. In the meantime, the study findings have been made accessible to the general public. At the beginning of 1997, a school version of these findings was published; model lectures have been prepared for church communities and local environmental groups, providing for widespread dissemination of the study's recommendations; and at present, work is proceeding on a CD-ROM and a big travelling expedition devoted to Sustainable Germany. To make the study internationally accessible, the popular version is being translated to English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese. Various German cities (e.g.: Hamburg, Aachen) and regions (e.g.: Rhineland -Palatinate) are at present working on implementing the study's findings in concrete action programs. Also worthy of mention are various artistic initiatives sparked by the study, including concerts, theatre presentations, and painting and design workshops.

From Nanograms to Megatons

What indicators are suitable for providing ecological measurement of the (non-) sustainability of a country or a region? In our study of Sustainable Germany we decided in favor of a mix of 21 indicators in all. Six indicators are related to causes/pressures: consumption of primary energy, fossil fuels, non-renewable raw materials, water and land. Eight relate to emissions and impact: CO2, SO2, NOx, NH3, VOCS, synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers, biocides, soil erosion. Seven indicators are related to activities/responses: renewable sources of energy, energy-productivity, resource-productivity, organic farming, degree of regionalization of raw material cycles, ecological silviculture, utilization of indigenous woods. The study focuses on those indicators revealing a society's throughput of raw materials. That is founded on the conviction that most environmental problems are directly or indirectly brought about by the amounts of raw materials in circulation. That way of proceeding to some extent marks a departure >from classical environmental stocktaking which concentrates on emissions, assuming that a country is already sustainable when it has become cleaner through deployment of filters, catalyzers, and purification plants. Many industrial states thus believe that successes in keeping air and water clean demonstrate sustainable development. However, a central hypothesis in this study states that information about a country's sustainability is mainly provided by consumption of energy, raw materials, land, and water, rather than merely focusing on emissions.

Germany's Environment: Clean But Sustainable

In some problem areas, absolute improvements have been achieved. That is particularly true of the air pollution caused by big blast-furnaces and of industrial and domestic discharges of toxic materials into rivers. Nevertheless, those undoubted successes within an "end of pipe," toxics- oriented environmental policy can be interpreted in different ways. Firstly, emissions of, say, acidic substances are still clearly greater than the various ecosystems are capable of absorbing. Secondly, these technologies do not really solve problems, but instead displace them (e.g.: contaminated sludge as the obverse of "cleaner" rivers). Thirdly, retrospective protection of the environment involves high costs, and will quickly be called in question at times of economic crisis.

In some problem areas, relative successes have been achieved. That mainly involves efficient utilization of energy, raw materials, and water. Even though the German gross domestic product has risen by about 2/3 since the start of the 70's, consumption of primary energy remained roughly constant. However, improvements in energy - and resource - productivity did not relieve the environment because increased efficiency was offset by the growing amounts involved. Cars use less fuel, but there are more of them; houses are better insulated, but ever more houses are built; more electronic equipment exists, but electricity is used for an increasing number of purposes. Relative successes in stabilizing consumption of energy, raw materials, and water are thus by no means sufficient since what is needed - as will be shown - is a clear cut reduction in what we take from nature.

In some problem areas, ecologically destructive tendencies remain almost untouched. Transportation and land utilization are the main issues. The number of cars in Germany is constantly growing, even though for years people have been forecasting a saturation point. Between 1960 and 1993, transportation's contribution to energy consumption almost doubled (to just under 10% to just under 20%). Today, transportation infrastructure covers slightly less than 5% of the overall area of the Federal Republic of Germany. The fragmentation of the landscape and the increase in noise are enormous. Building-over of the land is increasing equally fast, mainly because of mounting demands for living pace per head (1950: 15 meters squared, 1996: almost 40 meters squared). Overall, buildings and transportation facilities today cover 11.3% of the Federal Republic. In many areas, intensity of land utilization is leading to considerable soil erosion, reduction of landscape diversity, and the presence of pesticides and fertilizers in groundwater and rivers.

Perhaps the state of the environment in Germany could be summarized in the following way: Germany has certainly become cleaner, but it is still far from being sustainable.

Targets for Environment and Equity: Factor 10

After establishing indicators and analyzing the state of the environment in Germany, the next task was to lay down environmental targets, providing orientation for politics, the economy, and society. To determine such environmental targets, two factors were examined: the limit's to nature's capacity for absorption of pollution (so far as those are ascertainable) and equitable distribution of rights to utilize the global environment. The means of ascertaining targets can be briefly depicted in terms of climate-changing emissions of carbon dioxide. Climatologists estimate the annual sink-capacity of plants and oceans at somewhat over 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That amount is viewed as the maximum tolerable amount "for nature" per year, and thus available "to humanity" as the total useable emission budget annually. Those are the natural limits. It is then assumed that this sink-capacity, should be equally available to all of the world's inhabitants, and that the total of just over 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide should be divided by the number of people alive today (around 5.8 billion). If that is done, the outcome is a (initially only hypothetical) "carbon dioxide emission right" of 2.3 tons per head annually. If that figure is compared with the average German's current emission level (11.4 tons CO2/a), then a reduction of around 80% would be necessary here. Such a reduction of emissions should really happen immediately if the natural limits and "equality of opportunity" are to be accepted. However, that is completely unrealistic unless enforced by catastrophe. So the time-scale has been extended, which calls for assumptions about what degree of environmental (here climatic) changes are tolerable. In Sustainable Germany, accepted research findings are taken as basis for the assumption that global warming of the earth's atmosphere of 0.1 degrees Celsius up to the year 2100 would be tolerable. Fulfillment of the target (an 80% reduction) could thus be "displaced" over the period up to 2050. Nevertheless, if the criterion of equal distribution is adhered to, that would in fact entail a reduction of 90% by 2050 since there will probably be a 10 billion world population by that time. Such a reduction would correspond to curtailment by a factor of ten.

Use of fossil fuels must be similarly reduced. Much energy can be derived from renewable resources so consumption "only" need to be cut by around 50% up to the year 2050. Since that target date is too far away to be politically relevant today, interim targets have to be set (provisionally for 2000, 2005, 2010). For safety reasons it is advocated that no new nuclear reactors should be decommissioned by 2010.

The study also calls for overall flows of raw materials in Germany to be reduced by between 80 and 90% up to 2050. That is because any movement of goods also entails use of energy - for the moment, fossil fuels. Demands for protection of land use, avoidance of transportation, protection of water and overall avoidance of emissions also speak in favor of a reduction of throughput to a similar degree. In addition, every use of raw materials involves "ecological rucksacks" (transferred costs entailing secondary waste in the extraction of raw materials, transportation costs, the waste involved in production, etc.) whose significance is usually many times more than that of the actual product.

Clear targets are set for reduction by the year 2010 of acidic substances (e.g.: SO2, NOx, NH3), nutrients (in air, soil, and water), toxics (e.g.: pesticides) soil erosion, and building over of land. To achieve those reductions, positive growth targets are required. The overall productivity of energy and resources should thus grow by between 3 and 5% annually up to 2050, entailing a great challenge for technicians, engineers, and product designers. Utilization of renewable resources should also play an increasing part in production. The most ambitious objectives involve conversion of agriculture to organic farming, extensive closing of regional raw materials cycles, and stabilization of land coverage by 2010.

From Numbers to Narratives

However, determining quantitative aspects of a sustainable society was only half the task. The second step consisted of trying to describe the qualitative social objectives involved. Scientific presentation, inclusive of targets for reduction, may provide for clarity and concreteness in discussions - and politics, business, and society - but mere numbers reduce diversity and do not generate social imagination. As long as our range of explanations is limited to those of the natural sciences, this form of representation lacks the concept with which the environmental crisis can be understood as a historical process. It, therefore, provides little insight as to why and how our society has become ensnared in high levels of material consumption. Above all, it does not inform us of how the quantitative reduction targets could become a part of the lived worlds of human beings. In which social innovations, in which imaginations, models of behavior, or institutional restructuring could the quest for a moderate form of exploiting nature be expressed? What kind of a society should be created in the pursuit of the reduction targets? Does the sustainable society also have, beyond a material-quantitative outline, a social-qualitative form?

The reduction targets must be transposed into a presentation of qualitative objectives if the study is not to remain trapped in the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: determining limit values, but unable to contribute to civic participation. For people wish to act by will, not just by coercion. Proceeding from this understanding, we present visions conceived as blueprints for the agency of actors in the most varied social fields - entrepreneurs, employees, consumers, public utilities, policymakers, city-dwellers, rural citizens, development policy activists. The visions have as their foundation the many ideas and initiatives that have been put forward, developed and tested, and attempt to unravel the blueprints for the future that are implied in these efforts.

A Green Market Agenda

A greening of the market economy involves two dimensions: domestication of market mechanisms on the one side and their ecologically benign development on the other. The picture is incomplete if too much attention is given to only one of these dimensions. Euphoric market proponents who reduce ecological issues to a struggle for future markets and technologies, easily forget the simple fact that economic expansionism and the demolition of all cultural barriers through division of labor on a global scale, are exceptionally destructive. Market skeptics often fail to recognize what creative potential may lie in the environmentally acceptable unfolding of market forces.

In this study, four extensive projects are put forward for attainment of an ecological market economy: * elimination of open and shadow subsidies harming the environment * implementation of environmental tax reform * imposition of liability schemes on high risk activities * reorientation of competitive policy towards ecological objectives and resource efficiency

Among the indirect subsidies to be eliminated are the unlevied real costs of road transport (both private and goods), uneconomic parking charges in inner cities, the absence to date of taxes on air fuel and diesel for agricultural use, and the state's reluctance to tax the use of mineral oil as an industrial raw material. The ecological tax reform of the energy sector presented her envisages introduction of a general energy tax and its incremental rise by 5% annually in real terms over a twenty year period. Conversely, levies imposed on the labor factor can be reduced so that the reform will be revenue neutral.

In the future, competition in the energy sector should involve state guidelines and supervision so that decentralized and efficient production of electricity and heat, and utilization of renewable energies are systematically favored. State price watchdogs should reward supply companies for helping customers save energy.

From Linear to Cyclical Production Processes

Today, almost the entire planet is one large building site, resource deposit, fuel depot and waste suppository. Huge amounts of valuable resources - both renewable and non-renewable - are extracted from nature. Enormous amounts of waste are often produced during that primary production process. The extracted materials are converted during multi-level stages of processing into consumer and investment goods, which after use, become worthless refuse, affecting, damaging or even destroying ecological processes - all of this demanding vast amounts of mainly fossil-based energy. This way of running economies is not sustainable, especially since many countries in the Southern hemisphere are only just beginning to industrialize. If they follow the precedent previously set by the North, a global environmental collapse would ensue.

The economic aspect threatens to destroy the system's two other pillars, society and ecology, so holistic thinking, inclusive of new forms of business and management, is necessary. That will work only in partnership with business companies and economic institutions - but not in opposition to them. They must become an active component in fundamental systemic processes of transformation. That requires signposts providing orientation for entrepreneurial action. Four principles are intended to indicate ways of restructuring how our economy is managed:

1. Nature knows no wastes in terms of something that cannot be constructively absorbed and utilized elsewhere - now or in the future. In a sustainable economy, very many waste products could provide valuable material for other production processes - just as in nature a species' "waste products" are constantly transformed with a minimum of expenditure (through bacteria and fungi) unto useable nutrients for other forms of life.

2. The economy must be gradually based on solar energy - just as all natural processes are driven by the sun's power, continually converting raw materials in productive fashion.

3. Nature permits to every individual within a species a form of independent activity, but links in cooperative fashion the activity patterns of all species. Cooperation and competition are interlinked and maintained in a dynamic balance - also providing rational orientation for individual firms and the economy as a whole.

4. Just as a nature depends upon diversity for its functioning, flourishing and blossoming through differences, so too must human ways of life and economic activities can be similarly structured.

What do these principles entail in concrete terms for entrepreneurs? First, system-wide responsibility for products. Intelligent circulation of products and materials will be accompanied by corresponding cycles of responsibility so that valuable materials and products are taken back at the end of their service-life by the retailers or manufacturers who initially benefited economically from putting them on the market. That makes new demands of product-design. Durability, non-toxicity, dismantling, and re-use will become important design criteria alongside functionality and aesthetics. Products will increasingly be devised in terms of modular construction. It will then be possible to make retrospective improvements in products by exchanging components. The principle here is that durability takes precedence over recycling.

Efficiency-oriented environmental management, ecological product-policy, and focus on innovation will be important characteristics of the company of the future. Such a firm will no longer make money by selling products instead of intended to wear out quickly, but will instead generate and service good products of which both manufacturer and user can be proud. The service component in the overall process of value-creation will become greater. Such firms need to be close to customers, are more likely to be small than large, decentralized rather than hierarchically structured. Politicians and consumers should favor - through establishing guidelines and demand - the greening of economic management which pioneering enterprises have already initiated.

Slower Speeds

"Faster" and "further" - alongside the principle of "more" - could be seen as the main leitmotifs of progress driven by fossil fuels. The first railways in the 19th century revolutionized the human relationship to space and time. Since then, our societies have devoted an enormous amount of utopian energy to increasing acceleration of movement. Engineers supplied constantly changing new generations of locomotives, automobiles, and jet planes, while planners transformed the face of the land with railway tracks, roads and airports. Indeed, the assumption that higher speeds are always better than lower has prevailed until the present day. For a century and a half, the increasing participation of all in constantly increasing power over space and time has been a crucial element in a concept of progress which began to falter with the ecological process.

However, it is only against the background of a sedentary society that the utopia of acceleration appears as the signal of a brave new world. In the setting of a restless high-speed society, this easily becomes stale and unattractive. In fact, where unceasing mobility turns to stress, there is more likely to be growing taste for leisureliness and tranquility; and where long journeys dominate, attentiveness towards what is close at hand will probably develop. The fact that new wishes are increasingly articulated in contrast to a high-speed society makes it progressively possible to speak publicly about slower speed and shorter distances.

Even without all the ecological problems, for contemporary pleasure in mobility is increasingly intermingled with frustration. It becomes retrospectively apparent that success was the greatest setback for the utopia of all-embracing motorization. So long as there were only a few cars, the individual motorist was highly satisfied, but since most people have now become motorized and the advantages of being faster and able to travel further than anyone else have declined. The advantages that just a few car owners used to enjoy have faded away with mass motorization. The power over space and time granted by transportation is becoming an obligation rather than a privilege, so the fascination of utopia vanishes with its triumph.

The general increase in speed also has consequences in the level of personal experience. The more acceleration of all aspects of life becomes a general rule, the more apparent its negative aspects become. Consistently pursued acceleration has a regrettable tendency to cancel itself out. One arrives ever faster at places where one stays ever shorter period of time. People are not present since speedy arrival is followed by thoughts of imminent - and equally speedy - departure. Acceleration thus fails to fulfill its purpose. Therefore, beneath official compulsion towards acceleration, a cautious interest in greater slowness is beginning to stir. Not as a program, not as a strategy, but rather as a subversive demand viewing all the glorification of speed as old-fashioned and out of touch with the times. If such experiences accumulate, then the familiar trend might conceivable change and affluence become associated with deceleration.

However, while an accelerating utopia prevailed, engineers' skills were primarily concentrated on constructing comfortable vehicles with high top speeds. Between 1960 and 1993, the average engine power of German vehicles shot up from 34 to 85 h.p. While car manufacturers largely followed the guideline of the heavy, strong, and fast limousine, railways invested in high speeds. Over the next ten years, a network of 19,000 km suitable for speeds of between 250 and 300 km.p.h. is due to be developed in Europe, not to mention plans for a Transpaid capable of 500 km.p.h..

With a finite earth such a guideline is nothing but rapacious mortgaging of the future. Of course, all transportation entails gigantic consumption of nature, but top speeds demand particularly much energy, raw materials, and land. The increase in a vehicle's throughput ances, thereby favoring regional density over long distance connections.

Low traffic urban structures will be the prime objective within a policy of traffic avoidance. Surveys of different kinds of settlements have shown that medium-sized communities, districts on the edge of inner cities, and areas with local diversity and many retail outlets generate what is in relative terms the lowest amount of traffic. Such a close-knit mixture of functions within a limited area, opening up the locality as was long characteristic of the European city, today also invites establishment of "the city of short distances." Mixed-use and decentralized concentration are thus important principles for traffic-reducing urban structuring, taking seriously, a citizen's right to be able to lead a pleasant existence without a car.

The next priority will be the design of transport-saving economic structures, will primarily involve regional circulation. In the transportation of goods, low costs signify absence of obstacles to long distance haulage, thus inducing traffic. Conversely, higher costs would reduce the attractiveness of such haulage, and thereby decrease traffic. Higher transportation costs would both reflect the "true" costs of carrying goods and in many cases also reduce distances. Everyday foodstuffs would then come from the locality to the shop round the corner rather than, as today, from an average distance of 278 km. Door panels may then once again be made near Wolfsburg rather than in Portugal. Higher transport costs invite "regional sourcing" and "regional marketing;" they promote local integration and provide backing for integrated regional economies.

Beyond that, the ecological opportunity involved in possible reduction of traffic through electronics can only be realized if actual traffic is subjected to slower speeds and shorter distances. Otherwise, electronic contacts, geographically separated as they are, only stoke up the demand for transportation and cause new traffic to flood onto roads. The information society will be unsustainable if the spatial obstacles to physical transportation are not preserved or even increased. On the other hand, an epoch that knows no limits to communication should be much more readily capable of developing a social aesthetics viewing modest tempi and medium distances as a particularly accomplished scale of mobility.

Rich in Time Rather than Goods

Sustainable consumption involves low use of resources. Consumers will prefer nature-saving, regional and durable products, and view each purchase as a small-scale civic choice that helps determine what is an offer. However, "factor 10" does not only involve what is consumed, but also how much. For decades it was taken for granted that affluence increased with consumption, and consumption through higher wages. Income - stated the hidden agenda - is always better than free time, and consumption certainly furthers well being more than leisure. Logically, increases in economic productivity were for the most part converted into higher wages and increased production - and thus consumption of resources -, leaving only a small part for freedom from the necessity of work. That view of things has become obsolete in a post-materialist society. At the end of the century, it is time and not money that is in short supply - at least for most middle class people in rich societies. The idea that gaining time can compensate for loss of income and open up new horizons is beginning to spread. Despite all their freedom to consume, people in general never had one fundamental option: the possibility of deciding how long they want to work. Up to the present day, the choice is normally full-time employment or nothing at all. Intermediate forms, such as shorter working weeks or longer annual holidays, are scarcely available. Even following economic logic, there is no reason to expect an optimal relationship between income and leisure time. It might well be that, if they had the choice, a considerable number of people would prefer to work less for a lower income. In addition, the rigidity of normal working hours forces the employed into a rising spiral of income and consumption. To date it has not been possible to establish a situation where income is chosen according to needs rather than needs are formed according to income. Nevertheless, such a habit is ecologically desirable. People should be able to exercise sovereignty over their time; this principle is not only socially welcome for mitigating the employment crisis, but also ecologically welcome for moderating spending power. But that is not the only reason. "Time pioneers" develop their own lifestyles. They do not only make choices in terms of preferences, but also decide against income and goods. They want more autonomy and thus experience normal working hours as constraints. Seeking more freedom from their own interests, they are ready to renounce part of their income, and deliberately take on the adventure of arranging their lives so that they can get by with less money. For them, less is more because financial problems are eased and time for themselves is gained. In other words, beyond a certain level of expenditure of time on gaining a living and consuming, the utility of achievable income rapidly declines with regard to increasing quality of life. It could be said that money and time are seen as being in competition, so the challenge is to balance them. Pioneers consume less, but are more affluent in terms of the time at their disposal.

A sustainable community will be dependent on such economic underachievers, uninterested in, or even antagonistic towards, a mounting volume of consumption. That becomes more easily possible when localities and neighborhoods develop networks and institutions where non-commercial activities, benefiting those involved and others, attract support. There is the LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System), a modern network of reciprocity whose members (linked by way of a local office) can supply or demand all kinds of services utilizing an account based on the local LETS currency. The basic idea is to create opportunities allowing people with less money and reduced purchasing power to live agreeably. These are experiments pointing towards a future where a society's competence will be measured in terms of whether it can guarantee affluence without ongoing economic growth.

Well Being Instead of Well Having

Beyond a certain number, things steal time. In a culture where - unlike the Navajos with only 236 possessions each - a household has (as in Germany) an average of 10,000 things at its disposal, shortage of time must predominate. Goods both large and small must be chosen, bought, set up, used, experienced, maintained, tidied away, dusted, repaired, stored, and disposed of. Even the most beautiful and valuable of objects unavoidable gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilities --goods, services, events - has exploded in the affluent societies, but the day, in its conservative way, continues to have only 24 hours, so a hectic pace and stress have become characteristic of everyday existence. Shortage of time is the nemesis, the revenge, of affluence.

That dilemma perhaps explains why only a minority of about 16% of the population expects additional satisfaction from a growth in affluence. Viewed closely, satisfaction has two dimensions, material and non-material. Anyone who buys all kinds of food and prepares a multi-course meal has the material satisfaction of filling his stomach and also the non-material pleasure of enjoying cooking (perhaps together with others), making the meal a success, and having convivial company. That every day experience can be generalized. Most goods achieve their full value when put to use, experienced, participated in, and made the most of. However, this inner satisfaction requires time. And that is the dilemma. Having many goods can interfere with satisfaction. The conclusion is obvious. Material and non-material satisfaction cannot be maximized simultaneously. There is a limit to possession of goods beyond which satisfaction no longer continues to grow. In other words, having much obstructs living well.

It almost seems that after its breathtaking success, the affluent society is once again being driven by experiences clearly related to classical teachings about the good life. Teachers of wisdom in East and West may have had different views about the nature of the universe, but they almost unanimously recommended adherence to the principle of simplicity in the conduct of life. That cannot just be a matter of chance. Summarizing the experience of generations, they drew the conclusion that the way towards a successful life seldom involves accumulation of possessions. From far being any form of affliction, simplicity is advocated as one aspect of the art of life.

In this tradition, the opposite of a simple lifestyle is not a luxurious, but a fragmented existence. An excess of things obstructs everyday existence, distracts attention, dissipates energies, and weakens capacity to find a clear-cut direction. Emptiness and dross are the enemies of happiness. Anyone who wants to keep his ahead above the flood of goods has no choice but to be a selective consumer; and anyone who wants to remain master of his wishes will discover the pleasure of systematically not pursuing options for buying. Advocacy of simplicity is thus more concerned with the aesthetics of the conduct of life than with morality. Superfluity involves a danger of fragmentation of spirit. Just as in art, everything depends on an appropriate and skillful use of colors and tones, so too the art of life demands well chosen use of material riches. In other words, there exists something akin to a subterranean relationship between pleasure and austerity. Henry David Thoreau must have known that when he wrote in his journal at Walden Pond: A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.


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