Last December in Paris, nearly 200 countries, including the United States, came together to proclaim with one voice that we can no longer build a world of prosperity by burning millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels. The agreement commits us all to work to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees.
There are some who argue that nothing will come of it because the accord has no teeth. They may have a point, but legal sanctions are only one effective way for society to enforce commitment to its values. Social sanctions can be even more powerful. And that is where we, the people, come in. More precisely, we, the people of privilege.
Fate has placed us at the intersection of two grand epochal blessings: the idyllic Holocene era, which has graced the Earth for the last 10,000 years, and the intensive-energy era of fossil fuels. It is the coupling of this rare bubble of geological stability with the technological marvels driven by fossil fuels that has allowed us to build our unique world of privilege. No generation before us could, and no generation after us can, do the same. Yet it is the very source of our extraordinary blessing, the fossil fuels, that is the devastating curse of our children.
Which is why it is proper for those of us who are the greatest beneficiaries in all geological time to seek a conversion of values. We must begin to alter our ways, and ask, “How much do we need? How shall we consume?” For all earth’s degradation begins with the human appetite.
This is not a call for sacrifice or altruism. We have plenty. Forty percent of our food goes to waste; we spend more than $6 billion dollars a year storing stuff that won’t fit in our houses, yet our houses are twice as big as they were in the 1950s; we drop $2.6 billion a year on wrapping paper alone! And we aren’t any happier. Rather, this is about knowing, marking and celebrating when and what makes us truly happy. Our appetites are enormous, for though we may be full, we are not satisfied. This over-consumption is a malady of the spirit, not a need of the body.
It is also a malady fed by society, and hard to fight alone. When society continually proclaims that having less is being less, that no matter what we have we need more, it is hard to stand firm and say, No, I have enough. So we must together recalibrate what we need for happiness; and find fulfillment in enoughness.
Doing this has been a challenge since civilization began, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible addresses this issue. It has crafted a method to measure personal enoughness, not by setting some arbitrary or external standard, but by asking each of us to assess our own behaviors and discover our own markers of fullness. The Bible, speaking in the idiom of the privileged of the day, says that when we are harvesting our fields, we are not to retrieve what we have let drop (leket); nor go back and pick up from the field what we have cut but forgotten (shikhekhah). Rather, the produce that fell or was forgotten must be left for the poor.
Leket and shikhekhah reveal to us two ways we can measure “enoughness.” Dropping things from overstuffed arms is an indication that we have enough. Leaving goods in the field after we have labored over them means we have enough, else we would not readily forget them. Even more, it is a signal that the excess does not belong to us. We therefore must leave both the dropped and forgotten for the poor to come and glean.
These are not minor or discretionary laws. These are commandments that Leviticus 19 places right between keeping the Sabbath and not lying, stealing or deceiving one another.
What about today? What are the signs of leket and shikhekhah that apply to us? When our closets are full of clothes we don’t wear? When the joy of the purchase wears off before it is even paid up?
Enoughness is about getting more by consuming less. It is good for the soul, good for society and good for the earth. Which will in turn be good for the economy. It releases us from the grip of consumerism and offers us a real chance at happiness. Something the endless pursuit of goods promises but cannot deliver.
As a worldwide movement, people’s preference for enoughness will give encouragement to our business and political leaders to make the hard decisions necessary to keep their promises of Paris, even if there are no legal sanctions to enforce them.