January 12, 2012

When Is Enough Enough?

Angela Smith

Angela Smith

Project Adviser

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Not knowing what is “enough,” says Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

Tuesday morning began the study series entitled, Enoughness: How Shall We Live on God’s Earth? Co-hosted by the Center for Livable Future (through the Baltimore Food & Faith Project) and the Institute for Jewish & Christian Studies, the main topic of conversation on Tuesday was that of sufficiency, and, in particular, how does one define “enough”—and then, once defined, how does one go about trying to live within the bounds of what “enough” is?

Of course, the former question is not so difficult to answer. Nuances aside, “enough” seems to be that which we—as individuals and as a society—need to survive, be healthy, and thrive. No more and no less. One of the participants in the session put it this way: “Enough” allows us to have what we need, while ensuring that others and those who come after us have what they need as well. The real question is: how do we translate this definition into practically determining the nature and quantity of just what it is that we need, and when we’ve figured that out, how can we prevent ourselves from still taking more than our fair share?

After all, we are inundated with advertisements telling us that we need more of… well, everything, and the concept of “need” becomes conflated with the idea of “want.” It is not always easy for us to parse out whether what we wear, what we eat, what we do is really something that we cannot do without. And sometimes we’re just not very honest with ourselves about these things because we are frightened at the thought of not having extra for later on, especially in our hyper-individualized society where we don’t necessarily have a community to fall back on that can help us out should we lose our jobs and find it difficult to put food on the table. We think that we deserve to live high on the hog, or we find our satisfaction in shopping and filling up our homes with more than we possibly need. Spiritual consumerism one Unitarian minister once called it. Unfortunately, as Rabbi Cardin said, not having limits, always pursuing the “endless more” is a recipe for spiritual disaster. If one does not have limits—and indeed, all of life is based on limits, whether the free-market economists and politicians want to admit it or not—one can never arrive and find fulfillment.

I could write ad nauseum about the proliferation of storage facilities, about bigger cars and bigger debts, and about the sheer volume of stuff that is now available to us, but let’s take for our example food. According to Jonathon Bloom, an expert in food waste, the average American wastes about a quarter of a pound of food each day. When you include what is put down the garbage disposal, an astounding 25 percent of what enters our homes is not eaten. Add restaurants into the equation, and Bloom estimates that every day Americans throw away 6,000 TONS of food. We surely have more than enough to eat then. (I am leaving aside the problem of distribution and who is able to eat and who cannot. While we all know that many among us in this country are hungry, the problem is not that we don’t have enough for them all, but rather that not everyone is receiving an equal piece of the pie.)

Now let’s consider how much energy we are expending to produce all of this food that goes to waste. As Michael Pollan states in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it takes more than one calorie of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. Meat production is even worse: it takes 40 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce just one calorie of beef (Pimental, D., & Pimental, M. 2003). Besides this, 4,095 gallons of water are required to make one kilogram of beef; 1 kilogram of rice requires 898 gallons of water (Walker et al 2005; Squillace et al 2002; Roach J 2005). So when we throw food down the garbage disposal, we are also flushing oil and water down the drain, too. We all know that fossil fuels are non-renewable. Water is also scarce, and yet we continue to squander these resources as if there are no limits to them, as if we will always have more than enough, but tell that to the people who already don’t have enough to drink.

If we are to be better, to waste less, and to live more fully with less, then we must become more mindful of how we consume. The film Renewal highlights the Teva Learning Center in rural Connecticut. Teva offers two programs in environmental education for elementary school children. The students spend a week there, enjoying the outdoors, learning about the natural world, and sharing lunch together. Each day, at the end of lunch, every student brings her plate to the front of the dining room and empties what she did not eat into a bucket. After the last student has done this, the bucket is weighed, and the kids see how much food they wasted. By the end of the week, there is hardly any food going into that bucket. The students have learned to take just enough of what they need.

The purpose of this story is to point out that most of us will need to learn how to gauge just what is enough. It’s not necessarily intuitive, and it requires the cultivation of a certain mindfulness that requires no small amount of time and energy. But the paybacks are worth it. Making do with enough means that we can relax a bit, and we don’t have to compete so much. And this means that our earth can have some much needed breathing room and that the other people we share this planet with can have enough, too.



  1. Posted by Rebecca Ruggles

    The point that resonates the most with me just now is that it’s hard to be confident you have enough when you don’t have a community to fall back on in hard times. The lack of that community breeds anxiety and loneliness which then makes you feel the need for more things. We substitute things for people. We seek abundance of things to make up for lack of true community.

    How ironic, given that one of the root causes of our environmental crisis is overpopulation!!

  2. Posted by Ted Durr

    I follow Rebecca’s thought but would like to go a step further (or maybe its sideways). Our society is so full of individuals that often, whether or not community is lacking, the trust of libertarian individuals is so affixed to self that there is no room for God. But since no one lives alone and since things like illness or accident occur, private satiation is vulnerable to the influence of imagination. Imagination seeks inflation – of things, of instruments, of compensation. Those on this path end up in the lap of materialism which. to them, feels like salvation. Such a psychology leads to aspiration for consumption – which is just what the system wants!

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