For the majority in the "developed" world, and with the exception of American health care, basic human needs have long been met. Accordingly, "enough" becomes a different creature for each "consumer." At present, many enjoy the marvelous option of drawing our own arbitrary definition, and even of reducing consumption. This is, of course, anathema to capitalism generally and the American Dream in particular. It also violates a social take on Newtonian physics: A consumer in motion tends to stay in motion.
Our tendency is to consume far beyond enough and on into grandeur as portrayed in media. But more originally defined civilization arising from a world characterized by scarcities. We first gathered in cities to hoard and protect our stuff, typically agricultural surplus, from barbarians. Back then, one could indeed never have enough. In addition to status, more provided a genuine and oft-needed cushion in a very hard world. Even as the world became progressively softer, accelerated consumption became an unchallenged habit right through the Industrial Era.
Our persistence, and our promotion of consumerism worldwide, invites a firm and fatal definition from the planet itself as our "never enough" inevitably becomes the world's "too much." By that point we would also have a good definition of "too late."
As the Third World develops, such questions emerge from the realm of the philosopher and theologian to become highly practical matters of survival.
America's big selling point has forever been a shot at the American Dream, which, if actually realized the world over, would immediately become a global nightmare. Imagine 7 billion SUVs looking for parking spaces or full gas tanks or a clean bucket of air in which to deposit their exhaust. There are several dozen other shop-till-you-drop scenarios just as unpleasant.
It's the same with services. The insured want Viagra at $10 a pill, while insurance companies want the same level of profits they had in their best quarter of 1998. Members of the United Auto Workers want job security, while General Motors wants to be more competitive in a global economy. The disadvantaged want sufficient protection from economic ill winds, while legislators want to balance the budget, increase spending and cut taxes, to please their campaign contributors. Each tells the other: enough.
When desires conflict, the desirous naturally seek to legitimize themselves: My desire is rational, a bare minimum, a reasonable expectation. Your desire is unrealistic, off the meter, a selfish indulgence.
Meaningful measures of "enough" require context for a useful definition. Unfortunately, America's favorite context is the Golden '50s, as oddball a context as ever there was.
During the 1950s, not only undamaged but vitalized by World War II, America peaked in terms of global economic domination. Unions were not worth quibbling with in the days when "global competition" meant an influx of paper cocktail umbrellas. Corporations took the money they had been using to fight strikers and gave blue-collar workers a lifestyle that made communism's "worker's paradise" look idiotic. Postwar profits propelled the American middle and upper classes into suburbs and country clubs. There was still an "away" where we could throw a throwaway economy's trash and pollution. An unprecedented situation made possible by unprecedented and not-to-be-repeated post-war economic and environmental conditions set the level of our expectations unrealistically high.
Nevertheless, no matter how many times Mom told us to eat our peas because kids were starving in India, baby boomers of the '50s took affluence, global hegemony and its imperial payoffs wholly for granted. This was "the norm."
No longer; never again. The rest of the developed world, and the elites of the Third World, have risen to compete with America for resources, consumers and pollution sinks. From across the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, global economic and cultural hegemony looks and acts a lot like good, old-fashioned imperialism. Meanwhile, the time-tested weapon of the weak and oppressed, terrorism, has become distinctly modern, complete with weapons of mass destruction. Along with retaliation from the environment, this makes for still more payback scenarios where "enough" may be defined for us in very harsh terms.
If our freedom means anything, we had probably better use it to define our own "enough" for the context of a new millennium, not 1957. Voluntary simplicity will always be more appealing than forced privation. While the choice remains, we should probably make it.Travis Charbeneau is a writer who lives in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.