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Why do we want more?

Why do we want more?
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First Published: Fri, Mar 27 2009. 10 40 PM IST

Spoilt for choice: Most of Naish’s views are antithetical to a capitalist society where the consumer is king. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Spoilt for choice: Most of Naish’s views are antithetical to a capitalist society where the consumer is king. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Updated: Fri, Mar 27 2009. 10 40 PM IST
When the editor of Lounge was on a trip across the world last year, I asked her whether she would be going to Tahiti. “Why not drop in there on your way across the Pacific,” I advised her, visions of palm-fringed beaches, hammocks, Gauguin pictures and Somerset Maugham stories swimming before my eyes, “and spend the rest of your life in chilled-out bliss.” That suggestion was half-facetious, which means it was also half-serious.
Spoilt for choice: Most of Naish’s views are antithetical to a capitalist society where the consumer is king. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Most of us have, at some time or the other, harboured fantasies of getting away from it all. The thought of escaping the rat race lurks in our subconscious, prompting hundreds of books and launching the careers of a thousand spiritual gurus.
As the pithy title of John Naish’s new book implies, we should all say “Enough” to most things. Do we really need so much information, do we really need to work so hard, eat so much, buy so much? Naish believes that our culture of excess is based on our Stone Age instincts—when every bit of information came in handy in order to survive, when human beings stuffed themselves with food whenever they could get it, when the more things you stored up for a bad winter, the better your chances of survival were. Naish believes the world has moved on but our brains haven’t. And all this lower-brain stimulation is bringing us ever closer to ecological Armageddon.
So what would Naish have us do? He reminds us of a delightful old Zen joke: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Yet, languishing on tropical beaches with amphetamine-laced dreams is the last thing Naish has in mind. Nor does he advocate the power of positive thinking, karma beads, Kabbalah or Deepak Chopra-like New Age stuff. Instead, among the things we can never have enough of, he says, are gratitude, friends, meditation and what he calls connectedness and commitment. He wants us to practise the “nourishing self-denial” that the great Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn preached.
Naish’s polemic against consumerism gone mad has a fine old tradition stretching back all the way to Thoreau’s Walden. Writing in 1985, in his foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described how, while the world was worried about the dystopia predicted in George Orwell’s 1984, the nightmare of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had already overtaken us. As Postman put it so admirably, “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think... Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism”.
There are several problems with Naish’s vision. The first is that capitalism is unlikely to take kindly to the notion of people consuming less. Indeed, the system’s very basis is the conversion of everything into a commodity that can be bought or sold. At this very moment, everything possible is being done to try and ensure that the US consumer, the titan who has held up the world economy in recent years, doesn’t wilt under the strain.
The second is that in the developing world, many of our fellow citizens live in conditions of acute deprivation, and to them the idea of saying enough to growth would seem like a bad joke in poor taste. But then, they’re not the audience this book is intended for.
Perhaps the most acute objection to Naish’s premise comes from an economist who wrote about the subject as far back as 1930. In his essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”, Lord Keynes predicted a time of such abundance for the economy a hundred years later that the main problem would be not to accumulate more wealth, but how best to enjoy it.
Naish’s book is weakest when he writes about how we should start living once we’ve decided we’ve had enough of the rat race. As Keynes pointed out, “It will be those peoples, who can keep alive and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.” Those people, unfortunately, are a tiny minority.
Manas Chakravarty, a consulting editor for Mint, writes the weekly columns Capital Account, for Mint, and Loose Canon, for Hindustan Times.
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First Published: Fri, Mar 27 2009. 10 40 PM IST