Excessive consumption will not lead to human happiness

How often we think, that if we could only afford to buy something we desire — it could be a flashy car, the latest gadget or a fashionable handbag — we would be happy.

Sep 02, 2016

By Anil Netto
How often we think, that if we could only afford to buy something we desire — it could be a flashy car, the latest gadget or a fashionable handbag — we would be happy.

But then, soon after we buy that item, we find that any happiness or contentment we derived from that product was only fleeting.

Unfortunately, conventional economics is based on the assumption that the higher our consumption, the greater will be human wellbeing and the higher the standard of living. Thus, the aim, it would seem, is to match the consumption levels of developed nations. (Never mind that we will probably need a few planet Earths to obtain the raw materials necessary to produce enough for all of us to reach such consumption levels.)

Thus, consumption is the basis of much of modern economics. This rising consumption has to be met by using the various factors of production: land, labour and capital.

Labour — human work — thus becomes only a factor of production. It has become just a cost element that manufacturers try and reduce or replace via mechanisation or outsourcing so that profits can be maximised.

Creativity and fulfilment in work become only secondary and, maybe, even a luxury.

The economist EF Schumacher questioned the assumption that high levels of consumption would bring about human wellbeing.

He put forward the notion of Buddhist Economics — though he said any of the other Eastern spiritual traditions, including Christianity, could supply similar principles.

From the Buddhist perspective, Schumacher observed that work has three functions:

-- to allow us to use and develop our faculties
-- to enable us to overcome our egocentredness and join with others in a common task, and
-- to produce goods and services that we need to exist

If work is organised to become soul-destroying, boring or alienating, it defeats its purpose.

It would mean that we are more concerned about the goods than the human being, and that we lack compassion for the worker.

Because work is so important, it is essential to have full employment rather than near full employment, which some economists believe would be the optimum level to ensure mobility of labour and stability of wages.

What about mechanisation? That which enhances the human being’s skill and power is to be preferred to wholesale mechanisation, which would be like having a “mechanical slave” take over the work, leaving the employee to serve the mechanical slave.

Thus, in Buddhist Economics, people are more important than goods. And creative activity is seen as more fulfilling than consumption. Instead of being interested in goods, we should be looking for liberation. Attachment to wealth and the craving for goods both stand in the way of true liberation.

For a Buddhist economist, “the aim should be to obtain the maximum of wellbeing with the minimum of consumption.”

“The ownership and the consumption of goods is a means to an end, and Buddhist economics is the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means.”

Under Buddhist economics, the aim is to raise human satisfaction through a low rate of consumption and a minimum of toil. The low rate of consumption results in less competition and stress for limited natural resources or raw materials. Thus, people will be less likely to fight over these limited resources, especially oil. Thus do simplicity and non-violence go hand in hand in such a model.

This is so unlike modern economics, which seeks to maximise consumption through an optimal pattern of productive effort, which then puts a great strain on non-renewable natural resources. The embrace of materialism also neglects spiritual and religious values.

It is not a coincidence that Buddhist and Christian spirituality encourages a reverential attitude, not only to all living beings but also to Nature, especially trees. The Buddha reached enlightenment under a bodhi tree, while the crucified Jesus joined heaven to earth and individuals to community, with the trunk of a tree on his back. Jesus also compared the kingdom of God to a tree which provided shelter to all creation.

Conversely, the materialism and excessive consumption we see today go hand-in-hand with the destruction of trees and the flattening of forests. The lack of reverence for magnificent trees that breathe oxygen into the eco-system has contributed to the wiping out of forests, the cutting of hills and the rising global warming.

A humble village in India appears to have recognised this: Piplantri village in southern Rajasthan has been planting 111 trees every time a girl is born, and nurturing these trees until the girls reach adulthood. This helps create a bond that realises the value of each child and connects it with Nature. Over the last half dozen years, the village has planted more than a quarter of a million trees.

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