The Power of Limits: An Inquiry Into New Models of Wealth
Wolfgang Sachs is editor of The Development Dictionary and author of Planet Dialects (2000); Zed Books.
RomeIn the course of European history, different ruptures can be identified as having unleashed the dynamics of economic expansion. In the context of the ecological predicament, the watershed that separates the fossil age from the age of living energy is of particular significance. Only since the fossil reserves deep under the surface of the Earth were tapped have the gates to an age of apparent limitlessness been opened. It is also for this reason that with the beginning of the decline of the fossil age in the last decades of the 20th century the question of limits surfaces again in the public debate.
Even the very idea of unlimited economic growth was able to take hold only after the steam engine had entered the imagination of economists. For all observers before 1800, economic production was linked to the regenerative cycles of growing corn, cotton, timber and animals, which made limitless growth in output unthinkable. The large-scale mobilization of coal, iron and oil spurred the freeing of the economy from a whole array of constraints. The more the economic circuit was fired with fuel and minerals, the easier it became to take down various limits to expansion. Removing forms of resistance to expansionphysical, social and culturalhas been the chief effect of the ability to draw on the low-entropy islands located in the Earths crust.
Today, at the end of the fossil bonanza age, an inquiry into sufficiency should, among other things, revisit the institutions and worldviews that have come into bloom with the rise of the fossil-intensive society. The transformation of geologically highly organized low-entropy materials, such as coal, oil, iron and magnesium, has allowed the economy to overcome limits in many dimensions, including the dimensions of human power, the time and space of movements, the scope of economic activity and the volume of consumption. In each of these dimensions, specific technologies and cultural forms have emerged in the 19th century. They have subsequently turned into certainties of modern lifeand have now become ecological liabilities. Often, however, they have not just become ecological liabilities, but also exhibit socially and culturally counter-productive effects. It is out of this blend of ecological, social and cultural frustrations that the discovery emerges that today limits can be productive.
ECO-INTELLIGENT GOODS AND SERVICES | Modern systems of production still operate on the hidden assumption that nature will be forever abundant. This assumption is a legacy from the early 19th century, when economic activity was minuscule with respect to the annually renewed wealth of nature. Such experiential evidence, along with long-established notions about the generosity of the natural world, made economic thinkers forgetful of the role of nature in value creation.
Considering nature abundant, they built theories that located wealth creation in the increasing productivity of labor, disregarding losses incurred by nature. This style of thoughtalong with the capitalists interest in controlling the work of laborerswas largely responsible for the direction technological progress has taken. With one wave of innovation after another, machinery and organizational skills have been devised for decreasing the input of labor per unit of output, paving the way for massive relocation of labor across economic sectors. To a large extent, technologydriven by natural resourceshas replaced labor, expanding labor productivity at the expense of resource productivity. However, as progress concentrates on how to produce more with less people, a contradiction comes to the fore that can once again be witnessed today: the objective of doing things with fewer and fewer people may be attractive at the level of a ?rm, yet it is bound to be ultimately self-defeating at the level of society.
After one and a half centuries of industrial progress, the hidden assumption about natures never-ending generosity has collapsed. The environmental crisis has revealed the scarcity of nature. With respect to the gigantic volume of economic activity in the world, nature has turned fragile. Before this backdrop of changed historical conditions, the direction of economic progress is bound to change. In response to the vulnerability of economic systems progress must be geared toward boosting the productivity of resources rather than the productivity of labor. As the world of tomorrow appears to be running out of nature rather than out of people, priorities must shift: It is much more intelligent to lay off unproductive kilowatts, barrels of oil, tons of material, pulp from old-growth forest and water from aquifers than to lay off more and more people.
The scope for doing so is enormous if one considers not just the ?nal product, but its entire life cycle from the cradle to the grave. After all, 94 percent of the materials extracted for use in manufacturing durable products become waste before the product is ?nishedwaste of heat that escapes from power plants, waste of land that has been mined, waste of irrigation water that has evaporated or waste of biomass that has been discarded. However, a post-fossil economy will have to be light in terms of resource use; its historical mission will be to provide welfare to people, using an ever decreasing amount of natural resources. As a consequence new standards of excellence for managers and engineers emerge, which will be measured by their ability to design production systems that create value out of a modest supply of nature.
The most immediate entry point for sketching the contours of resource-light manufacturing is product design. Each product constitutes a claim on resources; products will therefore be made in such a way as to minimize resource content, utilize biodegradable materials and extend durability. Laundry detergent from Procter & Gamble provides an illustrative example for the ?rst approach. Eco-ef?cient innovation some years ago has reduced the volume of detergent needed for a given level of laundry power. While in the old days customers carried home bulky barrels of detergent, they have now the same cleaning power contained in smaller packages.
The second approach can be exempli?ed by a credit card, introduced by Greenpeace, made out of plant starch and plant sugar. Millions of plastic cards can now be composted without residues instead of being incinerated, releasing carcinogenic substances into the air.
Finally, the third approach aims at increasing the longevity of products by making those parts interchangeable that wear out quickly or are subject to fashion. The modular of?ce chair, for instance, consists of structural elements including the mechanics of the seat and visible elements such as cushions and cloth. The ?rst elements are built to maximize durability, the second to maximize recyclability. Both classes of components are designed to obtain full utility out of a shrinking ?ow of energy and materials.
Product design, of course, focuses attention only on the ?nal stage of the entire life cycle of a product. Another set of approaches for enhancing resource productivity attempts to refashion production processes. In this endeavor, the crucial step is to move from the 19th-century conception of a linear throughput growth, in which materials ?ow through the economy as if through a straight pipe, to a closed-loop economy where as many materials as possible are fed back into the same or another production cycle. One way to close cycles is to utilize fully the entire throughput, allowing as little waste as possible. Examples abound. Juice manufacturers may utilize lemon peel for perfume instead of throwing it away, chip manufacturers may re-utilize waste water along with treatment chemicals, power producers may co-generate electricity along with heat for industrial or residential purposes. And, of course, ecological agriculture follows similar principles.
INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY | This logic is carried further, much more ambitiously, by attempts to set up industrial clusters modeled after ecological food webs. Just as in an ecosystem waste produced by one species turns into food for another, so in an industrial cluster the waste products of an industry become the raw material for another. Such an arrangement is often referred to as "industrial ecology." Aiming in the last instance at zero waste emissions, it represents the ideal type of an industrial production system for an age of limits.
Furthermore, the move toward higher resource productivity triggers a new understanding of the kind of business that business is in when it produces utility and value. According to conventional wisdom, business caters to the demands of consumers by offering products in ownership. The focus on ownership, however, impedes system-wide responsibility on the part of the company for the entire life cycle of its products. It encourages more throughput rather than optimal administration of stocks. Shifting the entrepreneurial focus from the sale of hardware to the direct sale of the services through leasing or renting would make the full utilization of hardware, including maintenance and recycling, pro?table. For example, Rank Xerox has moved from selling products to selling functions. Photocopy machines are not sold but leased, and the customer pays for the amount of copies required. Such an arrangement changes the strategic interest of the company. The ?rm now pro?ts from managing its assets carefully through repair services, upgrading or re-manufacturing.
A similar shift in entrepreneurial strategy is the transition from energy production to energy services. Energy companies move into the business of demand-side management, selling consulting and managerial services for saving energy rather than focusing exclusively on the expansion of energy supplies. Generally speaking, in an environmental service economy money ?ows not for adding as much hardware as possible to the world, but for providing a particular service to customers through the temporary use of a piece of hardware. As producers turn into providers, and consumers into users, the eco-ef?cient design, management and disposal of material assets become part of the economic logic.
In all of these cases, "production," in the 19th-century meaning of transforming raw materials into useful objects, loses importance. Instead, a truely post-industrial vision of economic activity emerges where intelligence, social innovation and an attitude of care largely substitute for the accumulation of hardware. Such an evolution, at any rate, is imminent when the golden rule of an eco-intelligent economy takes ?rm hold: Dont expect the Earth to produce more; expect humans to do more with what the Earth produces.
LOWER SPEEDS AND THE PLURALITY OF TIME SCALES | "Faster" and "Further"alongside the principle of "More"can be considered as the main leitmotifs of fossil-powered progress. It was toward the middle of the 19th century that the ?rst railways revolutionized the human relationship to time and space. Contemporaries were both alarmed and excited as they watched the trains running across valleys and mountains without any sweat or fatigue. While living beings can be fast only in proportion to their organic powers, the railroad bursts the bounds of nature and races tirelessly at high speeds, threatened by neither exhaustion nor weakness. In the machine age, neither the body nor the topography any longer de?nes a natural measure for speed. As a consequence, the modern conception that human motion is set on an in?nite path toward ever increasing acceleration takes hold in the popular imagination. In a nutshell, the rush for higher speeds is a cultural fallout of the steam engine.
Since the appearance of the locomotive, our societies have devoted an enormous amount of energy to accelerating the movement of people and goods (and, more recently, information). Engineers have supplied constantly changing generations of locomotives, automobiles and airplanes, while planners have transformed the face of the land with railway tracks, roads and airports. Indeed, the assumption that higher speeds are always better than lower ones has prevailed until the present day.
However, it is only against the backdrop of a slow and sedentary society that the Utopia of acceleration could appear as the signal of a bright new world. Where mobility is tiresome and exhausting, mechanized transport appears as a promise to paradise. But in the setting of todays restlessly high-speed society, such a Utopia easily becomes exhausted and stale. New conditions are bound to produce new desires. In this sense, the over-motorized society creates the conditions that give rise to feelings of disenchantment with the car. Where unceasing mobility turns into a stressful burden, a desire for leisureliness and unharriedness is likely to grow. The fact that new wishes are increasingly being articulated in contrast to a high-speed society makes it progressively possible to speak publicly about slower speeds and shorter distances.
Quite apart from environmental problems, pleasure in mobility is today increasingly intermingled with frustration. The biggest setbacks of universal motorization spring from its success. For the automobile offers most of its advantages only as long as there are just a few individual motorists. However, since most people have now become motorized the advantages of being faster and being able to travel further than anyone else have declined. Being faster than your neighbor only takes you more quickly into a traf?c jam, just as the desire to get away brings you to remote places crowded by those you have just tried to escape. With mass motorization the situation has changed, and the relative advantages the car once conferred have dwindled: the more cars, the less joy. Moreover, as soon as speed is a general expectation, gaining time is no longer a pleasure, but becomes an obligation. The power over space and time granted by transportation is becoming a duty rather than a privilege, so the fascination of the motorists Utopia vanishes with its triumph. In short, disillusionment is built into the process of mass motorization. This shift in the emotional base of motorization is an important ingredient in the search for environmentally sound ways of transport.
Moreover, transport experts know that the cures for congestion often result in worsening the illness. They have realized for years that the politics of opening up bottlenecks and expansion of supply as has predominated in the decades after the Second World Waronly provokes new ?ows of traf?c. Any expansion of capacity leads into a vicious cycle: more streets and faster vehicles make more people travel longer distances, which in turn, after the streets have ?lled up, increases the pressure for more streets and faster vehicles.
Indeed, none of the usual "more of the same" prescriptions help against systemic over-development. Computer-backed monitoring of traf?c ?ow, planning systems for an ef?cient modal split and other schemes of traf?c management do not strive for anything except optimization of the unsustainable. It is intelligent self-limitation that seems most likely to bring relief. Contemplating limits to further growth is a rational strategy against systemic over-development, because restraint slows down the dynamics of expansion, avoids additional ?nancial and social burdens, and opens space for planning alternatives. Not opting for further acceleration and interconnection will offer a range of opportunities for creating a socially appropriate transport system for the 21st century.
The speed Utopia of the 19th century still governs the development of automobile technology. Engineers can design cars to be robust and spacious or economical and durable, but their main emphasis has been on making comfortable and high-powered limousines. As a consequence, the average power of engines in German vehicles shot up from 34 to 85 hp between 1960 and 1993. Acceleration capabilities and top speeds are treated as if cars had to withstand long-distance races every day. Yet on average, cars spend 80 percent of their operating time in city traf?c, at an average speed of about 25 kilometers an hour. In actual use, automobiles are means more of short- than of long-distance travel. They need to be capable of no more than a cozy cruising speed. To send speed machines out onto the streets is about as rational as shooting at sparrows with cannon. Todays ?eet of automobiles is grotesquely overpowered, with all the consequent waste of energy, high materials consumption and loss of security. The rules of optimization demand matching the vehicles much more ef?ciently to their real purposea certain amount of self-limitation in machine power would not only be liberatory, but simply rational.
It is at any rate obvious that the victory against distance and duration also carries a heavy environmental cost. The easy availability of speed does not come without a price tag. The mobilization of space and time requires the mobilization of nature. Fuels and vehicles, roads and runways, electricity and electronic equipment, satellites and relay stations call for a gigantic ?ow of energy and materials as well as for a massive use of land. In particular, higher speeds are fuel-intensive. The increase in a vehicles energy throughput (inclusive of emissions) is not simply linear; it rises disproportionately because of air resistance and friction. An average car that uses 5 liters of fuel at 80 km/h needs not 10 but 20 liters at 160 km/h. Similar laws apply to railways. Energy consumption is almost doubled for ICE and TGV trains when speeds are increased from 160 to 250 km/h, and again from 200 to 300 km/h. So anyone who is concerned about long-term reduction of energy turnover by a factor of 10 is well advised to contemplate a lowering of technically available speed levels before striving for more ef?cient motors, new materials or a rational choice of means of transportation.
For these and other reasons, there are indications that beneath the of?cial compulsions of acceleration a cautious interest in greater slowness is beginning to stirnot as a program, not as a strategy, but rather as a subversive demand viewing the glori?cation of speed as somewhat old-fashioned and out of touch with the times. If such experiences accumulate, then the familiar trend might conceivably be reversed, and af?uence will become associated with deceleration. Out of the disenchantment with traf?c, a social aesthetic might emerge where moderate speeds and intermediate distances are considered a particular accomplishment.
Nineteenth-century society was driven to haste because it feared backwardness; a self-con?dent society of the 21st century could once again be able to afford slower speeds. For a society seeking sustainability, the performance level of its technologies will emerge as a major political issue. Moderation, which has long been a norm for private virtue, will become a norm for public policy. As the age of fossil fuels draws to an end, political limits to unrestrained growth in power and performance will have to assume the role performed by natural limits in pre-industrial times. Setting upper speed limits as design criterion for cars and railways opens up a considerable potential for saving energy, materials andindirectlyland. At the same time, such a measure would make everybodyexcept speed addictsbetter off, bringing down pollution and noise, easing the expansive pressure of traf?c, slowing down urban sprawl and reducing traf?c casualties.
Creating a resource-light economy will require thinking about a moderately powered automobile ?eet where no car by constructive design can go faster than, say, 120 km/h. For such cars, downsized as they are in power and top speed, standards for security or for aerodynamics would play a minor role. In effect, cars of intermediate performance could be of light, material-saving construction, comfortable in height and size, and innovative in engine design. Eco-technology is lean technology in this sense; it combines suf?ciency in performance levels with state-of-the-art ef?ciency in all components. It is equally so for railways. Fast trains designed for speeds not higher than 200 km/could offer a considerable amount of speed without the disproportionately growing disadvantages of energy consumption, noise and safety concerns. Reduced speed levels for physical transport are a matter of ecological and social prudence; they indicate a technological progress that combines restraint with sophistication. Designing moderately powered vehicles gives technical expression to the 21st century-Utopia of living elegantly within limits.
SHORTER DISTANCES AND THE PLURALITY OF SPACES | In the evolution of modern society, large-scale geographical interdependence has grown next to acceleration in the evolution of modern society. As distance is the other side of speed, the availability of fossil fuels for transport and electric impulses for transmission has immensely increased the geographical range of many activities. Since distances are a constraint only insofar as it takes time to cover them, mechanized acceleration has made distances shrink: previously faraway destinations have suddenly been moved into immediate reach. Speed shortens distances and electronic speed ?nally abolishes space. Evolving along this logic, railways, cars and airplanes, along with the telegraph, the telephone and the computer, have brought forth a large-scale geographical interconnection of ?ows of people, goods and messages. It was on the back of these technologies of interdependence that, on different levels over time, the hope grew that growth and welfare could be best achieved through increasing economic interconnections over ever larger distances. The rise of national and supra-national markets, and eventually the prospect of a planetary economy, are all based on these technologies of space annihilation.
However, economic integration entails transport and even more transport. The distances between producer and consumer, suppliers and manufacturers are increasing everywhere?owers from Kenya and shoes from Taiwan are cases in point. Through "global sourcing" manufacturers gather parts from all over the world, and, likewise, the current trend toward lean manufacturing extends the supply lines, and thus the distances covered. "Lean production" thereby leads directly to "fat transportation." Even the assembled elements of a simple German yogurt carton have traveled a total of almost 9,000 km. Production and lifestyles based on high volumes of long-distance transportation carry an unsustainable load of energy and raw materials. The expansion of networks of economic exchange, eventually to the ends of the Earth, is to a great extent paid for by spending the natural capital of humanity.
Awareness of the bio-physical limits to economic expansion requires one to conceive the economy as evolving in a plurality of spacesregionally, continentally, internationallythat are connected only partially to each other. However, research into the ecologically optimal scale of different economic operations, from the global to the local level, has barely begun. It is, though, obvious that an ecological policy should aim primarily at the reduction of transport to bearable levels. Such a policy will have to turn away from the long-time priority of eliminating obstacles to long-distance travel wherever possible. Instead, it will seek to maintain, or to increase, the costs in time and effort to reach remote destinations. Slower vehicles, less negotiable routes and higher monetary costs lead to fewer journeys and shorter distancesand thus less traf?c. Designing transport-saving economic structures requires an emphasis to be put on shorter distances, thereby favoring regional density over long-distance connections. Higher transport costs, which would render long-distance haulage less attractive, are an obvious condition, but they are only a part of the picture. The larger picture is a new perception of economic strength.
While for decades economic revival in cities and regions was pursued to attract competitive industries and to insert them as victoriously as possible into the circuits of national and international markets, the idea of a home-grown economy emphasizes the need to reconnect material cycles, as well as monetary cycles, on the regional level. Forging more business links in the region can create locally intensi?ed economies, which is also desirable for reasons of economic security and enhanced political autonomy in the places where people live. Because of both ecology and community well-being, strategies of regional sourcing and regional marketing are probably particularly important for food, furniture, construction, repair and maintenance services, as well as for human services.
There is evidence that even under present conditions quite a number of things are done best on a small or medium scale. In terms of jobs, quality of services and regional linkages in the economy, medium-scale actors in business and public administration are often superior to centralized institutions. In addition, a regionalized economy appears to offer the appropriate scale for the development of core sectors of a restorative economy. Recycling and repairing, both sectors of high importance of an economy of low material throughput, require proximity to the consumer and are therefore most ef?cient at a medium scale of operation. Moreover, solar power, which relies on the widespread but diffuse resource of sunlight, is best developed when many operators harvest small amounts of energy, transforming and consuming them at close distance. A similar logic holds for biomass-centered technologies: plant matter is widely available, heavy in weight and therefore best obtained and processed in a decentralized fashion. In most of these cases, short distances between points of production and points of consumption are technically most suitable; a restorative economy will in part have to be a regionalized economy.
Seen in this light, the long-held certainty that progress always means reducing the resistance of duration and distance gradually comes into question. Countless bridges, tunnels, highways, airports, cables and antennae are the heredity of the standard belief in progress. Instead, the suspicion grows that progress can also imply leaving deliberately the resistances of time and space unchanged, even increasing them if suitable. There would cease to be a relentless battle against the hindrances of time and space at any cost. Such a change would prove that society has outgrown the compulsion to carry the 19th-century world of desires right into the 21st century.
WEALTH IN TIME RATHER THAN WEALTH IN GOODS | On what is well-being based? Ever since founding father Adam Smith extolled work (for the production of marketable goods) as the source of national af?uence, economists have neglected the sphere of non-commercial activities, before and beyond the market, that constitute community. Their eyes ?rmly set on the GNP, they have dif?culties recognizing any value creation in those activities performed outside the formal economy, such as housework and bringing up children, personal activity and friendship, associative life and civic activity. They have, in short, lost sight not only of natural but also of social capitalif one wants to use economic language. This oversight is in great part a result of the towering output of the formal economy, fuelled by fossil resources, which cast a long shadow on other sources of well-being. The belief that everything of value is produced by marketable goods has found its complement in the belief that satisfaction derives from objects (and services) available from the market and therefore from purchasing power. Again, personal pursuits, networks of reciprocity and public associations disappear from the perception of well-being, leaving just the activity of consumption in the limelight.
However, giving the market so much scope has led af?uent societies in an ecologicallybut by no means only ecologicallyvicious circle. As maximizing consumption is seen as the road to satisfaction, maximizing wage earnings appears to be the only rational behavior. Income has generally been considered more important than free time, and consumption better than having more leisure. As a consequence, increases in economic productivity were for the most part converted into higher wages and increased productionand thus consumption of resourcesleaving only a small part available for the increased freedom from the necessity to work. This pattern has been particularly reinforced by the rigidity of working timeand connected income levelsin most societies; regular work for a long time meant an eight-hour day, ?ve days a week and a lifelong job. Despite all their freedom to consume, people really had one fundamental option: the possibility of deciding how much time they wanted to workand, correspondingly, how much they wanted to earn. Up to the present day, the choice is normally between full-time employment or nothing at all. Intermediate forms such as shorter working weeks, or longer annual holidays, are rare. However, as income levels are ?xed, spending power tends to determine the level of consumption. In the process a "work and spend" cycle ensues where rising but invariable incomes leave no other option, apart from saving, than to increase consumption. Simply put, people stop asking how much money they should earn for their needs and instead get used to pondering what needs they can afford by spending the money they earn. From this point of view, the lack of individual freedom of choice over working time emerges as a powerful incentive for the expansion of consumption in society.
A sustainable community will ultimately be dependent on economic under-achievers who are uninterested in, or even antagonistic toward, a mounting volume of consumption. Economic underachievers can give rise to a sector of reciprocity and civic life without which the end of economic growth would be a dramatic blow for the quality of life. The crucial question for an economy of permanence will be: How are social security and a good life possible without a growing economy? One possible answer lies in devising ways in which resources of law, land, infrastructure and money can be deployed so that citizens become enabled to do many useful things autonomously by relying on their own resources. Such a shift is greatly facilitated when localities and neighborhoods develop networks and institutions where non-commercial activities, bene?ting those involved and others, can ?ourish. LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System) schemes, for instance, facilitate networks of modern reciprocity whose members (linked by way of local of?ce) can supply or demand all kinds of services by utilizing an account based on the local LETS currency. These experiments respond to the need for creative opportunities that allow people to live agreeably with less money and reduced purchasing power. They point toward a future where a societys competence will be measured in terms of whether it can guarantee well-being without permanent economic growth.
WELL-BEING INSTEAD OF WELL-HAVING | With the rise of the consumer society in 19th-century England, a rede?nition of the meaning of human happiness took hold that today reveals itself as both environmentally pernicious and socially fragile. The growing volume of objects for thousands of needs make sense only in the context of a worldview that sees happiness increase along with larger quantities of goods. Even new generations of commodities hold out the promise that a further accumulation of goods will again raise human satisfaction. Clearly, this assumption of non-saturation provides the cultural ground upon which the world of high-throughput consumption rises. Its roots reach back to the period of the Enlightenment, when the conception of human needs had changed and they were seen as both in?nite and utilitarian. While such a de?nition of human nature contrasted polemically with the classical view that considered needs circumscribed within the various models of an accomplished life and ultimately directed toward some non-material ideal, todays consumer culture is nevertheless thriving upon it.
Why, however, is there never enough, even in rich societies? Why are they still hooked upon the principle of non-saturation? This question has been lingering on for decades. John Maynard Keynes, one of the master thinkers of 20th-century economics, wondered if an exceedingly successful economy would not at some point reach a state of saturation. In his Essays in Persuasion he speculated that the imperative of productivity might lose signi?cance under conditions of af?uence, as abundance makes it less and less important to allocate means optimally. But he underestimated the cultural signi?cance of products in af?uent societies. What matters in such a society is the symbolic power of goods and services: They are less than ever simply vehicles of instrumental utility, but serve an expressive function. What counts is what goods say, not what they do. Ethnologists will not be surprised: Studying pre-modern societies they have always read material possessions as symbols of social allegiance and cultural meaning. In modern societies goods are also a means of communication. They constitute a system of signs through which purchasers make statements about themselves, their families and their friends. While in the old days of the consumer society goods mainly informed about social status, today they signal allegiance to a particular lifestyle and convey how people are different from each other.
Many products have by now been perfected and cannot be developed any further; new buyers can be found only when these goods offer more symbolic capital. Cars that cannot become faster and more comfortable are designed to be technological wonders. Watches that cannot show the time more accurately take on a sportive ?air when they become diving watches. Television sets whose images cannot become clearer take on a cinematic effect with wider screens. In short, products play a part no longer in the struggle for survival, but in the struggle for experience.
Designers and advertisers are thus continually offering consumers new thrills and new identities, while the products utility is taken for granted. In such a context, the relationship between consumer and product is shaped mainly by imagination, which is in?nitely malleable. Feelings and meanings are anything but stable; their plasticity and ease of obsolescence can be exploited by designers in an unending variety of ways. Imagination, in effect, is an inexhaustible fuel for maintaining a growing supply of goods and services. And for that reason, the expectation that rich societies should one day reach a level of saturation has not come about: When commodities become cultural symbols there is no end to economic expansion.
Yet the promise of growing happiness with growing consumption is fraught with uncertainties. Currently, there is not much empirical evidence thatbeyond a certain thresholdthe assumed correlation between increased consumption and well-being holds true. Research into the psychology of happiness can ?nd neither within nor between societies any evidence that levels of satisfaction signi?cantly increase with levels of wealth. After a certain minimum, the less well-to-do are not unhappier than the rich. This derives in the ?rst instance from the fact that people assess their satisfaction above all in reference to others; the perceived distance to others can be the same independent of the general level of wealth. However, there might also be a deeper reason for these ?ndings, ultimately linked to the ?niteness of time. In particular the rich are caught in a time trap.
Consider that, beyond a certain number, things can become the thieves of time. 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 objects unavoidably gnaw away at the most restricted of all resources: time. The number of possibilitiesgoods, services, eventshas exploded in af?uent 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. Scarcity of time has therefore become the nemesis of af?uence.
In fact, in a multi-option society people suffer not from a lack but from an excess of opportunities. While well-being is threatened by a shortage of means in the ?rst case, it is threatened by confusion about goals in the second. The proliferation of options makes it increasingly dif?cult to know what one wants, to decide what one does not want and to cherish what one has. Many people feel overburdened and constantly under pressure: In the maelstrom of modern life they have lost their clarity of purpose and determination of will. Apart from giving rise to all kinds of personal problems, such a condition tends to undermine well-being in post-industrial societies.
Viewed up close, one can say that well-being has two dimensions: the material and the non-material. Material satisfaction is obtained by acquiring and utilizing certain objects or materialsfor example, buying food and eating a multi-course meal will satisfy the need to ?ll the stomach. Immaterial satisfaction stems from the way in which the objects achieve their full value only when they are put to use, enjoyed and cultivated. However, this is the dilemma, obtaining immaterial satisfaction calls for attention, demands involvement and requires time. To a varying degree, the full value of many goods and services can be experienced only when they are given attention and become a part of a larger activity: They have to be properly used, adequately enjoyed and carefully cultivated. The conclusion is obvious. Having too many things makes time for non-material pleasure shrink; an overabundance of options can easily diminish full satisfaction. Poverty of time degrades the utility of a wealth of goods. Material and non-material satisfaction cannot be maximized simultaneously; there is a limit to material satisfaction beyond which overall satisfaction is bound to decrease. As it turns out, having much contradicts living well. Frugality, therefore, is a key to well-being.
It almost seems that after its breathtaking success the consumer society comes full circle to some of the 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. In this tradition, the opposite to a simple lifestyle is seen as being not a luxurious but a fragmented existence because excess of things is seen as distracting attention, dissipating energies and weakening the capacity to take control of ones life. Advocacy of simplicity is thus more concerned with the art of living than with morality. Just as in art everything depends on a limited but skillful use of color and sounds, so too the art of living demands a limited but skillful use of material objects. In other words, this tradition suggests a subterranean relationship between pleasure and austerity.
Particularly in an age of exploding options, the ability to focus, which implies the sovereignty of saying no, becomes an important ingredient in creating a richer life. Anyone who wants to keep his or her head above the ?ood of goods has no choice but to be a selective consumer, and anyone who wants to remain master of his or her wishes will discover the pleasure of systematically not pursuing options for buying. Consciously cultivating a lack of interest in excessive consumption is a very future-oriented attitude, for oneself and also for the world. Henry David Thoreau put that experience in a nutshell, when he scribbled in his journal at Walden Pond: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."