IX. Quantity vs Quality

This is the 9th posting on the topic of ecology

Living systems grow or they die. Individually and collectively, zero growth is not possible. Faced with the current challenge of rapidly increasing and dramatic climate change, there are a variety of options open to us as individuals. Among the obvious, is observing the Earth House Rules (Blog #5 in this series): Take only my share; clean up after myself; keep my house in good repair. A related option has to do with shopping, for instance less impulse buying and shopping for something to do or shopping for entertainment. When Linda sees something she’d like, her habit is to walk away. After weighing the consequences of the purchase, if the positives outweigh the negatives and the desire persists, she’ll go back. More often than not, she decides not to acquire the object.

Ecologists note that growth in commerce and the economy are primarily based on consumption, which is linear (taking) and limited (because resources are finite). On the contrary, growth in nature is nonlinear and unlimited because the decay of organisms produces materials that are recycled. Mulching is a prime example.

Less considered but equally contributing to the slowing and diminishing severity of climate change is a shift in thinking from quantity to quality. Ecologists promote “qualitative growth”  rather than quantative growth because it enhances the quality of life. According to systems theorist and ecologist Fritjof Capra “In living organisms, ecosystems, and societies, qualitative growth includes an increase of complexity, sophistication, and maturity. Unlimited quantitative growth on a finite planet is clearly unsustainable, but qualitative economic growth can be sustained if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes the inner growth of learning and maturity.” Whatever motivates our desire for bigger, faster, better, newer and more stuff and experiences, those of us privileged to live in plentiful societies consider it the norm.

Psychologists trace motivations and desires to a variety of physical, mental and emotional causes. Whatever they might be, everyday living is filled with choice-points. Growing up in a consumption oriented culture, decisions relating to what I needed or wanted came easily because products and experiences were “on the shelf” so to speak. Available. The only challenges were price and priority. Can I afford it? Is it at or near the top of my list of things to have or do? Consuming was—and is—sold to us, largely by advertisers. But it’s also in the bloodstream of the culture. The unwritten, unspoken but clearly understood rule was clear: Having will make you happy. There was even a well-trodden path: get your toys, books, desk, telephone, computer, uniform… car, degree, apartment, spouse, house, refrigerator… children, profession, pension and  retire to Florida. I’m reminded of comedian George Carlin’s sketch A Place For My Stuff. 

And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. 

George Carlin

I’m also reminded of comments made by people whose homes, properties and material goods have been destroyed. Holding on to a loved one, they say the same thing: “At least we have each other.” Homes can be rebuilt. Material goods can be replaced. What can’t be replaced is family or a significant other. These are reminders that happiness is not attained through acquiring, owning or consuming, not even collecting a variety of interesting or exciting experiences. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with these. I just want to be more aware at my decision-points  so they’re based on real needs and prioritized wants, always taking the environment into consideration. 

The American propensity to value quantity over quality was largely driven by science. Because its modus operandi is measurement, it became the best way to assign value. Often, the first question asked at a decision point is how much something costs. Having more of any good became better than having less. It’s a fallacy. Money, for instance, the commodity we tend to measure most, is no guarantee of happiness, excitement, comfort or health. Neither is it a reliable indicator of the health of a society. Yet, as the photo above attests, “everything has a price tag.”

The perpetual growth myth promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world’s problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root of our unsustainable global practices. 

Brundtland, G.H., et al. (2012). Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act. New York: UNEP Report.

Ecologists recommend a shift in thinking, making life-decisions less about quantity and more about quality across the board—in material goods, services, relationships—such decisions enhance the quality of life and at the same time lessen the ecological footprint and optimize sustainability. I found it curious and on the mark that “the inner growth of learning and maturity” was cited as contributing to sustained qualitative economic growth. It took me a while to realize that, in many  instances, buying cheap products is a false economy. For instance, in the long run, it’s more economical to pay more for a high quality garment that will last, than an inexpensive one that won’t. How we spend our time is another consideration. How much time an I spending on acquiring and consuming, relative to time spent on enriching activities? 

A popular consumer attitude is summed up in the phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Linda had a student who died in his junior year of high school. I paraphrase the lesson she presented to the class: “What you’re doing today could be the most important thing you’ll ever do. Relative to our topic, it matters less how much I get done, far more how well I do it—no matter what it is.  

Ecological healing requires our society to look beneath its consumptive symptoms and reorient toward qualitative development. To do so requires significant reprogramming, since our guiding narratives, from economic to scientific, embody quantitative thinking.

Charles Eisenstein

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