Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can less be more?

How do you measure your own sense of progress in life?

If you are a business owner, it might be in the number of new customers you attract.  Would it change how you did business if instead you measured progress by the amount of returning customers you served?

If you are a farmer, it might be in the amount of land you have under production.  Would it change how you farmed if instead you measured progress by the amount of vegetables you could produce on the least amount of land?

If you are a country, it might be in the amount of stuff (products and services) you are able to produce.  Would it change the type of society you created if instead you measured progress by the quality of life your people obtained?

And what if you consider yourself - given the culture we have all grown up in, it might be that you measure your own sense of progress against the career heights you have climbed to or the salary you have earned to live a certain type of life-style unencumbered by wants.  Would it change the life you lead if you measured progress by whether you are happy doing what you are doing or not?

Part of the problem is that the standard measures of progress are standard because they are easy to count – it is easier to quantify the amount of dollars in your bank account or the number of microwaves you produce than the experience of the people you serve or the level of happiness you feel.  Another part of the problem is that we live in a world society (currently) dominated by a fixation that equates greater scale with success; the bigger you become -- whether in business, in your career, in growing vegetables, or in the world economy -- the better off you are.

We strive to get bigger in the name of progress in order to secure a life unencumbered by wants, yet living a kind of life paradoxically driven by them.  It is worthwhile to pause and ask ourselves if this road is working out for us.

As Wendell Berry, one of the American philosophers whose thinking has most affected our farm-model, has written: “in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable.”  Berry argues that our society looks down on limitations, yet it is only in setting certain limitations that true freedom and creativity can have the space to grow.  To say I have enough – land to farm, income, stuff, professional status (and the hours of work it comes with) – is also to say I have the time and room to see what I can make of what I have.  To say enough is to free yourself to work on quality instead of quantity.

There is a growing tide of people and organizations thinking about these things and new paths forward and attempting to put them into practice.  On the farming and philosophical side, all the essays of Wendell Berry are worth reading.  On the sustainable business side, I’m currently reading Ari Weinzweig’s “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business” (recommended by our farmer friend Pablo Elliot).  On the world economy side, there are folks thinking about how to measure Gross National Happiness and build a no-growth Steady State Economy. In the coming weeks I will share some more thoughts on this subject from my essay “The End is the Story”.

Maybe in the end, old wisdom will become new wisdom again: less is more.

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