“The verb ‘to grow’ has become so over laden with positive value
the we have forgotten its first literal dictionary denotation, namely
‘to spring up and develop to maturity.’ Thus the very notion of growth
includes some concept of maturity or sufficiency, beyond which point
accumulation gives way to maintenance…”
— Herman Daly, Steady State Economics
The richest are the most dissatisfied. The most well fed suffer profound emptiness. The most famous believe themselves least loved. The more one has, the more one hungers.
One friend has towers of shoe boxes stacked in her closet. A miniature city of footwear. Taped to the outside of every box is a Polaroid of the pair nested inside. Without this guide, she might forget the turquoise clogs, the strappy silver pumps. Still, she haunts the stores for sales, convinced she must have more.
It’s the wily gene built into the laddered DNA of capitalism: Hunger that can never be satisfied. A growth economy depends on unrelieved discontent.
Wanting begins in the neural systems of the brain. Wanting is not the same as desire. Desire is a conscious awareness. We can want, however, without even knowing that we do, without even knowing why.
Another friend lives in a two-bedroom house. She lives alone, without spouse or children, without extended family. She’s built a separate office in the back and leases an artist’s loft downtown. Still, she rents a storage unit to shelter excess possessions with which she cannot bear to part.
Capitalism thrives on the premise of more. Always more. It envisions an ever-expanding world of insatiable want. Unending growth. The Big Bang theory of human need. Our hunger is stoked by advertising. It’s the job of advertising to invent needs we didn’t know we had.
It is possible to over-stimulate the neural system. Then it becomes hypersensitive. Until the impulse to want is independent of actual need, dissociated from what we like, disconnected even from what we already have.
An addict will crave the drug most intensely immediately after taking it. The ache is stronger then even than later, when pangs of withdrawal hollow the mind to a single desperate drive.
I once had a lover who lived in another country. I grew accustomed to long periods of separation; missing her would dull to a small throb. It was when we came together, after weeks or months apart, that the longing would bloom like a poisonous flower. Then I would miss her so much I couldn’t even feel the delicate wind of her breath against my neck.
The concept of more is inextricably linked to the feeling of not enough. Studies have observed that in places where people have pretty much the same amount of money or possessions, no matter how sparse that might be, those people do not feel poor. It is only when they are made to view the abundance of others that they begin to feel a sense of deprivation.
I sit to plan my calendar for the coming week. Squares of hours in a grid of days. Each one inscribed with task, meeting, deadline, goal. No square empty. No hour unplanned. Still, I feel, I must do more.
But aren’t we humans programmed to strive, to attain? Isn’t that the evolutionary thrust? Isn’t that the course of survival itself? Or have we crafted our theories to validate our symptoms?
In the tiny country of Bhutan, the leading economic measurement is Gross National Happiness, the overall wellbeing of its people. Relational cultures strive toward “enough for all,” not “more for me.”
In the land of E-Z Credit and all-you-can-eat buffets, what is enough? The dictionary defines it as “occurring in such quantity, quality or scope as to fully meet demands, needs, or expectations.” In the province of more, there can never be enough. Demands are always increasing, needs ever-expanding, expectations exploding.
The United States comprises 20% of the people of the world. We consume 80% of its natural resources. We like to measure Gross Domestic Product, and since 1945 it’s tripled. But our life satisfaction index hasn’t budged in all that time.
Another friend is a writer who’s known the glory of success. He’s published books, received glowing reviews, gotten grants, won awards. Still, he’s bitter. Someone else was blessed with a larger advance, a better review in a more respected periodical, a more prestigious award. The more success he devours, the more it tastes like failure.
In a culture of individuality, we believe the self an empty basket; it’s our job to fill it up. We accumulate—things, sensations, wealth, experiences, accolades—more and more, layer upon layer, as if from scraps and gadgets and trophies we might construct a life, the sense of who we are.
In relational cultures, sense of selfhood derives from one’s place in the complex web of human society, strands binding one to others—family and bloodline, tribe or community, social and interest groups. In seeing this tapestry, one understands the self as a vital thread in this larger fabric. Feeling alone or empty would be inconceivable.
In the laboratory, a rat’s world is the cage. Deprived of its natural social structure of family and community, one is alone. One learns to press the lever to receive a pellet of food. Sometimes the lever is pressed and nothing happens. Sometimes the lever is pressed and food comes, as if from God. But maybe too much reinforcement is not a positive thing. The more often a rat receives a pellet, the more it will press the lever. More and more. Even if it is not hungry. It has been trained to want.
More is the mirage that glimmers on the horizon. The harder we run toward it, the farther away it appears. Still we run and run, cradling our fragile baskets of self. Baskets that seem to grow more empty with every frenzied step.