We live in age were for most of us in the first world the main issue is ‘too much’ and not scarcity. Yet we are supremely adapted to deal with scarcity, not abundance, as the latter is a rather unnatural (and usually short-lived) state of affairs. In conditions of scarcity your mind and body respond by shutting down non-essential functions and changing your focus to the single-minded pursuit of what you are lacking – at the most basic level food and water. That’s why we regularly see tales of heroic survival in difficult circumstances, we have been equipped with the right programs to deal effectively with scarcity.
So what about the flipside – abundance? It would appear that evolution saw little need to invest in programs and automatic responses to abundance, it probably just didn’t happen often enough to matter and when it did happen it didn’t last long enough to have an impact.
The situation is very different today. We have a massive abundance of food, water, shelter, heating, information, entertainment and so on. What we haven’t got is a useful (unconscious) program that stops us from over-consumption. The result is that two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese, we spend way too much time at work or glued to screens and we build houses that are way too big for our needs. We respond to abundance with excess consumption.
On top of that the system we have created to ‘allocate scarce resources’ (the textbook definition of the economy) is actually quite the opposite, a system designed and honed to provide and service excess consumption and to bring any and every aspect of society into the market (for yet more consumption).
Faced with this system and the resulting social pressures to achieve and consume, the vast majority conform. Not conforming (either through lack of money or desire to live differently) results in social exclusion and a fragile identity. But the excess has negative implications for those who conform as well – over-stimulation, lack of down time, over eating and lack of connection with the natural world.
I believe our epidemic of depression, anxiety and substance abuse (especially pain killers) is linked to this excess and our biological inability to stop ourselves from indulging. Of course mental illness and substance abuse is equally prevalent in those who are excluded and not able to conform through lack of work or money.
Because of the absence of a biological mechanism to stop us from indulging in excess foregoing consumption requires willpower. You have to make a conscious choice to disengage and consume less. This requires time and mental energy, both of which are the only scarce resources in our world of abundance.
For us, disengaging from the excessive consumption has only been truly possible once we moved out of the city. We did already change to a 3-day working week in 2011, but only since we moved away from the city in 2014 has there be a marked shift in our ability to resist consumption. Surprisingly, this was not just about buying stuff, it has mainly been a drastic reduction in consuming information and entertainment. Not having TV reception and relying on the mobile phone for Internet access played of course a big role in those shifts!
The most profound shift that happens with consuming less is the return of clarity. I have written about this before, but it does bear repeating. Having the time to think has enabled us to make decisions about our life that we have been putting off for years. It has also enabled us to work more effectively with our coaching clients. Having less clients means having to remember less client stories which in turn means the clients we work with today truly have our undivided attention and our full presence in the moment.
Of course not everyone is in the position to take drastic action and go to a 3-day week or move out of the city entirely. Instead, look for what you can forego to create time and space for mental relaxation. Binning the TV may be a good start, leaving the laptop at work or swapping the unlimited Internet plan to a very limited one.
Remember, everything that isn’t fixed or embedded in a process you will have to make up for in willpower to not consume. If the TV stays in the house and you get home tired you won’t have the mental energy not to switch it on. Only when there is no TV or computer can you be sure to go for a walk or meditate instead. Forgoing consumption needs to be ‘engineered’ into your life so to speak, it can’t be reliant on choices made in the moment.