The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
How much is enough? That's a tough question. It has practical dimensions, and many moral and spiritual facets. There is no easy, clear-cut answer.
In fact, that simple query is really raising two very different -- but intertwined -- questions. "How much is enough?" needs to be explored quite differently if the topic is the poor of the world, or the rich.
Both sides of the question are engaged in the ethical norm of "sufficiency." (This Lent, my weekly meditations are stepping through the four core norms of an eco-justice ethic: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency, participation. And, yes, that will be on the test). "How much is enough?" is one of the central questions for those who seek eco-justice in the world.
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Let's start by considering the poor. For them, enough is about survival.
Sufficiency demands that all people have a bare minimum of food, water, clothing, shelter and health care. In today's world, the standards for that bare minimum of resources and services are pretty bare.
The UN's Millenium Development Goals define eight areas where the world's governments have agreed to work for sufficiency, for "enough", by 2015. At the top of the list is a five word challenge: "Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger." The specifics of that goal set two benchmarks: (1) Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day, and (2) Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
Meeting those goals would change a lot of lives. In round figures, one sixth of the world's population lives on less than a dollar a day. That's around a billion people who now live in the most extreme forms of poverty. In 2003, an estimated 824 million people in the developing world were affected by chronic hunger, "lacking the food needed to meet their daily needs." This is the sort of hunger which leads to malnutrition, to permanent and debilitating health effects, and to death.
How much is enough? It isn't much at all. By UN standards, two dollars a day, or one adequate meal a day, might do it. Over one-fifth of the human population can't reach that standard, though. The ethical principle of sufficiency tells us that -- at the very least -- all people should be able to have enough food to fend off starvation, and enough income to meet the most basic of human needs.
Sufficiency for the poor people of the world meshes well with basic Christian (and human) principles of compassion and justice. We don't want people to starve. The norm of sufficiency becomes far more challenging when it is extended beyond the human situation. A broad interpretation of sufficiency insists that all species have a right to what they need to survive -- food, habitat, and migration routes. The epidemic of extinction is clear evidence that large sections of the biosphere are not being allowed sufficient means for survival.
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"Enough" is a very different consideration for those of us who are among the world's affluent. We most often encounter "enough" in terms of our wants, instead of our needs. It has to do with satiation, not survival.
For the wealthy, enough is that fuzzy line that defines the start of "too much." We experience enough when anything more would get in our way -- physically or spiritually. Surveys have revealed that most people in the US, at all income levels, consider themselves just short of having "enough." We want a bit more income, a slightly larger house, a few more luxury goods. Just a bit more, we tell the pollsters, and we'd be happy.
For us, asking a serious question about how much is enough is often a first step toward cutting back our consumption. Pondering sufficiency brings us back to a consideration of definable needs, instead of insatiable wants. Even when we'd like to have more, we can realize that what we have now is more than sufficient in meeting our needs.
In our consumer culture, acknowledging that we have enough is a spiritual act, which brings a new balance to our relationships with God, with people, and with stuff.
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In a world of infinite resources, these two divergent approaches to "enough" might have little interaction. Ensuring that all have enough for survival would have little bearing on the ever-expanding wants of the wealthy.
But our world does not have infinite resources. It is true that some of the problem of hunger comes from distribution, not shortages -- people do starve when there are full warehouses. But the world's growing population and growing consumption has brought us into a time when we are using up more than the world can produce. There is a finite amount of cropland, and a limited number of fish in the sea. Urban sprawl destroys essential habitat. The unsustainable way of life of the more affluent is taking away the possibility of a sufficient way of life for the poor, and for countless other species.
How much is enough? Enough is a baseline of survival for the billion people who don't have enough of anything, and for the species that are being crowded out of existence. And enough is an upper boundary on the wants of the affluent, to ensure that there are sustainable resources to meet the needs of all.
As we hold firmly to the norm of sufficiency, our ethical call needs to be "Enough, already!" Provide enough for those in need, and admit "enough" for those with too much.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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