Embracing sufficiency while nurturing abundance

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This post is part of a series of newsletters was originally written for Katerva, an NGO dedicated to the identification, evaluation and acceleration of disruptive sustainable innovation; it was first published 18th May 2020.

We have been exploring shifts in mindset and behaviour that are required if we are serious about moving towards sustainability. This sixth and last one in this series is probably the most challenging one: it requires us to let go of the worldview that economic growth is the only possible way to achieve human development.

What is the shift required?
In essence, this shift is to ask ‘how much do I really need’, rather than feel the need to accumulate more and more. It is a shift from a growth economy to a steady-state economy, via degrowth, a term first introduced in 1972, the same year the book ‘The Limits of Growth’ was published by the Club of Rome; you can read a synopsis of the 30-year update here. Australian lecturer and researcher Samuel Alexander explaining that, “Degrowth means embracing sufficiency for all, rather than excess for a few, and culturally, it means imagining a good life beyond consumerism. This can be hard for people conditioned to living in a wealthy society.” Samuel has written a number of books around this topic, and the essence of his thinking around it is captured in this article. The emergence of a growth mindsets and its costs, and the benefits of degrowth are captured succinctly and humorously in the video below.

Samuel Alexander explaining De-Growth.
Where does ‘abundance’ come into play?

Consider the infographic below, contrasting a mindset of abundance with a mindset of scarcity.

If you think about your own frame of mind, and what you experience in the world of work, which mindset seems to be dominant?

If we have a sense of scarcity we feel the need to accumulate – what ever I need might not be available tomorrow; the run on toilet paper at the outset of lock-down is a great example that a mindset of scarcity actually produces scarcity. If we have a sense of scarcity we are reluctant to share – what if what we share is lost or broken, we may not get a replacement!

One way to move from resource scarcity towards abundance it to ensure that any resource used remains available in the system: a shift from linear to circular thinking; a shift from resource extraction followed by use and disposal to creating a circular economy. Nature, if nurtured and treated with respect, will create abundance – as anyone with a garden will know.


Why isn’t it happening? 

Our world is driven by the aspiration of continuous economic growth, and the belief that more is better. Perhaps this is driven by the belief that the development and progress of humans, as individuals as well as humanity as a whole, and economic growth are synonymous?

It is easy to understand why that would be. The Human Development Index (HDI) used by the United Nations is probably the most widely recognised tool for measuring and comparing the progress of countries. While the index scores and ranks countries levels of development in three areas: income, health and education, it seems that politicians and the world of business both seem to focus on the income aspect, i.e. economic growth.

The question is: is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), our measure of economic growth, truly a measure of human development? Or is it being used as it is easier to measure than that which truly matters? Arguably, GDP is considered to be an indicator for the improvement of standards of living, which in turn is supposed to reflect people’s wellbeing. Yet as early as 1968 Robert F Kennedy pointed out that, “It (GDP) measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Herman Daly, author of ‘Beyond Growth, the economics of sustainable development’ goes further stating that, “Uneconomic growth occurs when increases in production come at an expense in resources and well-being that is worth more than the items made.”

Presumably the argument is that economic growth is essential to facilitate the development and support the other two aspects of human development, health and education. This is certainly the argument of Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist who in the video below also explains GDP.

Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist explaining GDP.
Haldane also suggests that when his children are grown up, the economy as a whole, as well as their incomes, will have increased three fold. It seems that this kind of growth is expected to continue in perpetuity. Is that realistic, and sustainable? How can continuous economic growth, driven by consumption and amplified by continuing population growth, be possible, given the finite resources of our planet?

The question of “How many people can earth support?” was raised over 200 years ago by late-18th century philosopher Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). If you ask scientists today to identify the carrying capacity, that is, the maximum number humans planet earth can support indefinitely, answers will vary considerably: anything from 500 million to 1 sextillion (that’s 21 zeroes).

It is not surprising that the answers are so wide-ranging as the carrying capacity will of course depend on their patterns of consumption, of how many resources each of us claims, a concept known as the Ecological Footprint.

Our planet will be able to sustain significantly fewer globetrotting meat-eaters than vegetarians who stay locally, cycling and walking where ever they go. Yet today humanity as a whole already consumes the resources of 1.75 planets Earths. This means that we are borrowing heavily from our children’s future. The graph below shows at what point during the year we have consumed the resources that can be replenished within one year, a date known as ‘Earth Overshoot Day’.


The following graph mapping the ecological footprint against our planet’s Carrying Capacity conveys the impact even more fully.

Looking at which countries have disproportionately large “feet”, it is not surprising to see the developed countries coming out on top:


There are different views and ways on how to tackle the problem. Mathematical biologist Joel Cohen has classified them into three paradigms whereby the most effective approach will vary by geography.

  1. looking for a “bigger pie” (improving technology),
  2. advocating for “fewer forks” (slowing population growth),
  3. looking to rationalise and improve decision-making though “better manners” (changing global culture).

We will certainly need to draw on all three if we want to achieve a sustainable equilibrium, it is the last one where a mindset of sufficiency comes into play.


Is it the same for everyone? 

It seems that it is not. According to Geert Hofstede’s research into cultural differences between countries, the attitude towards self-indulgence varies country by country.  This is captured in the sixth dimension of his cultural framework, introduced in 2010. The definition of the dimension reads, “Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.”

In the video below Geert Hofstede explains the dimension of Indulgence vs Restraint further.

Geert Hofstede introduces the Power Distance Dimension

Looking at the map showing the degree of indulgence across the globe, it is noticeable that those countries with the highest indulgence ratings includes the ones with the largest ecological footprint: Australia and the United States – which is interesting as the countries which follow these two, Russia and Germany, can be found towards the ‘restraint’ end of the scale.
What can be done about it?

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
This rather succinct quote stems from American writer Edward Abbey.

To have suggested that a different way of living and working is possible would probably have sounded outlandish just a few months ago. It seems that the coronavirus has achieved what the Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg could not, and what none of us would have thought possible: a radical shift in the way we work, and a significant reduction in air pollution across the globe … in record time. While the lockdown has meant furloughing and job losses for hundreds of thousands of people, it has also made many organisations realise that working from home is indeed an option. Twitter has gone as far as allowing most employees to work from home… permanently.

On the 8th April The Independent reported that, “In areas of the state of Punjab in northern India, residents posted pictures of the mountain range from around 125 miles away after the peaks came back into view when the air cleared.”

Partly this is due to a curb in production, partly due to a sharp drop-off of car and plane journeys. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, this has resulted in 11,000 fewer death from air pollution in Europe alone. While the virus is a very visible killer, a polluted environment is certainly not without deadly consequences either. According to the World Health Organization, 4,200,000 people die every year as a result of exposure to air pollution.

While some believe that lockdown fatigue is growing, and that people are keen to get the economy moving again, a recent survey by global communications form Edelman, found that, overall, 67% of the 13,200-plus people interviewed between April 15 and April 23 agreed with the statement: “The government’s highest priority should be saving as many lives as possible even if it means the economy will recover more slowly.”

The experience of this crisis has put things into perspective, as Jonathan Friedland wrote in The Guardian on April 8th, “… our public life has also been stripped to its essentials. We’ve come to see what’s indispensable and what is not. It turns out that we can function without celebrities or star athletes, but we really cannot function without nurses, doctors, care workers, delivery drivers, the stackers of supermarket shelves or, perhaps unexpectedly, good neighbours.”

There is no ‘going back to normal’. What ever ‘normal’ we will find in 2021, it will be different from the normal of 2019. Humanity’s opportunity is now, and it is up to all of us to make the most of it. The new normal will be created by all of  by our individual and collective actions and decisions. Perhaps a focus on sufficiency can contribute to shaping a ‘new normal’ that represents a better balance between commerce and the health of our planet.

Who is already doing it?

Here a few examples from Katerva’s nominee pool and beyond the :

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