Making do with enough

2009-03-31 00:00

How to live the good life in an age of consumerism and excess? It struck me as hopeful that a book that asks the age-old philosophical question for our own time should be available at CNA.

British journalist John Naish’s answer is what he calls “enoughism”. He hopes that if enough people adopt it, we will avert an ecocatastrophy and find a modest personal contentment in the process. He believes that we have enough information, food, “stuff” (consumer items), work, options, happiness and growth. After treating each of these themes he gives points for personal action, e.g. “look cheap”, “frugal cool” and “satisfice yourself” (satisfy sufficiently).

Aware that he has to sustain his moralising for 300 pages, he mounts the pulpit with every homiletical trick in the book. With entertainment he scores well, regaling us with the absurdities of fashions in the lifestyle industry and poking fun both at himself and the reader. My question for humorous books is whether they make me chuckle out loud in public places. This one did.

He packs the pages with bare-bones descriptions of scientific reports around modern human behaviour, sometimes bearding actual researchers. This all tends to make his task rather harder since much research suggests that many of our actions are deep and atavistic, going back to what we learnt when we were running around in skins and napping flints. However, the approach is soothingly reassuring; bad behaviour feels less bad if it’s hard-wired. It also conveniently implies that what was learnt in the course of evolution can be unlearnt.

Many of the studies confirm common sense. We eat faster among large and noisy crowds (because of a primitive canine-like fear that someone will nick our grub). And according to one study, crabbed and cautious people who take a more jaundiced view of the world live longer. It’s because they take fewer risks than those who laugh and grow fat, and who depart life’s stage earlier.

Apart from all the popularised scientific studies, he has devoured or at least delved into numerous self-help books and lifestyle magazines. He likes to give us the more absurd-sounding titles in his relentless ridiculing of the genre, for example “Why your ‘lizard brain’ Makes you a Bad Investor” or, “Info-besity Epidemic” or, “Psychoanalytic Treatment of the Rich and Very Rich” or, The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst can Lead to Happiness and Success.

It’s not all conditioning. Human freedom is implicit because there are genuine if delicate appeals to conscience, particularly with regard to the care of the environment, although occasionally he cannot contain his righteous anger, as in the passage in which he describes the first mother to drive her children to the local school in a “more-by-more”.

Like all preachers, he uses rhetoric as a means to persuade. Rule one is to keep it concrete, as in the Arab proverb which says that the great orator “turns the listener’s ears into eyes”. Naish does this all the time and it has the effect of making a memorable impact. He writes not simply of the ego, but the “monkey-grasping ego”, nor of an internal monologue but of a “jabbering internal monologue”, nor merely of urges but “jackdaw urges”. It’s effective.

Our fundamental problem, says Naish, is that we are Homo Expectens, conditioned to expect the more and the better. “Hope springs eternal” is our generalised Pavlovian response to life. But if we are to be moderately happy (and the conscious pursuit of happiness inevitably leads to unhappy disillusionment), we need to lower our sights, forget ourselves in less self-preoccupied activities and make do with enough. Thus we will contribute to saving the planet. Secular spirituality will help motivate us it seems. Naish recommends meditation and even the gratitude of a non-theistic grace before meals.

And how much is enough? For this Naish reaches back to Aristotle’s golden mean. As for how to persuade people to practise “enoughness” in significant numbers, he suggests that leaders cynically tap into the herd instinct which led us into the consumerist mess in the first place.

• Enough: Breaking Free from the World of Excess, by John Naish is published by Hodder Paperback.

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