Already back in 1976, Maxine Hancock wrote a book entitled, Living on Less and Liking it More. She eloquently made the case that the quality of one’s life is not dependent upon acquiring more stuff, but rather in modest living, sharing good things and looking out for one another.
That same year, Gary Becker published The Economic Approach to Human Behavior. In his book he sought to prove that all human behavior is guided by the same self-centered greed that underlies economic capitalism. For this discovery, Becker received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992. In other words, the brightest minds on the planet agreed that selfishness is what makes the world go round. That people only practice generosity if that somehow serves their self-interest.
I think Becker has had more influence on how people live today than has Hancock. And the consequences are stark: Greater degrees of injustice. Deterioration in political discourse and stability. More unhappiness. And a huge strain on environmental integrity.
But the good news is that many studies since 1976 have proven Hancock to be at least as realistic about human nature and potential as Becker. Although the degree of cooperation varies widely, all the studies show that in no cultures do people behave 100 percent selfishly. And, furthermore, studies in neuroscience have proven that humans have “…in-built desires for altruism and fairness as well as selfishness and avarice.” Different areas of the brain “light up” when in the process of grasping for one’s self or sharing with others.
From a faith perspective, it is right after all then, to assert that all humans carry the image of God within them. Another way of saying it is that underneath the veneer of selfishness we have come to expect from one another, there lies a more cooperative spirit than we had thought. We have all experienced how such virtue surfaces in the context of emergencies like natural disasters.
This brings me to my point about downsizing for resilience. One way to tackle the ecological crisis facing our planet is to look for alternative sources of energy and materials to satisfy our needs at present levels of consumption. Another is to downsize our expectations on a broad front. And in order to accomplish this we can appeal to those deeper levels of altruism and fairness in people that often lie hidden behind a façade of selfishness and greed we have come to expect.
If those of us in the overprivileged world begin to understand the human and environmental holocaust that is unfolding around the world we can find it in our hearts to downsize for the sake of a little more justice, peace and environmental protection. Downsizing will not look the same for everyone. But if we are serious about it, we can find ways to downsize our homes, travel plans and our need for ever-more stuff. And in the process we will discover that we can live on less and like it more.