In economic terms, the idea of living within your means is straightforward – if what you spend is no more than that amount of money available to you, then you’ll be ok. Spend more than you have, and a downwards debt spiral is your destiny.
When it comes to the human species as household and the environment as ‘means’ no one seems to think in these terms. Governments treat the planet as an infinite resource that can be used in any way they see fit for short term profit. We have finite resources. As a species, we’re running up quite a debt. When the bailiffs come round to deal with the debts, they will come as floods and droughts, famines and sickness from pollution. In many places, the bailiffs are already here. Our species keeps running up the debts even as people are dying from polluted air and water, and species go extinct.
Look at the cold hard facts of household economies, and it’s obvious that no sensible person would borrow more than they can pay back and get into the debt spiral. And yet, in our thousands, in our hundreds of thousands, we do just this. We do it because a short term crisis can land anyone in trouble. We do it because we’re bombarded constantly with messages about what we must have, and not everyone can defend themselves adequately from the constant brainwashing. We do it because poverty is a rigged game designed to drive you into debt and powerlessness. The ‘choice’ to live within our means often isn’t a choice at all.
These very same pressures and motives are at the heart of our species not living within its means. The constant pressure to own, consume, throw away and replace. The effects of poverty on the choices people can make around sustainability. Get into poverty and you’ll have a hard time of it affording the organic, fair traded, responsibly sourced, ethically made things. You’ll by cheap (to you, but expensive to the planet) to survive.
Until governments start thinking about how we, as a species, might live within in our means, this is going to be hard to tackle. For those of us who do have the luxury of choice, we can choose to have less. We can choose not to fuel the habit of competitive ownership. No more ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ If we were all a bit more willing to share our tools and toys, for example, we could reduce need, poverty and over-production. The more of us there are who don’t buy into the ideas of overconsumption, the more hope there is that this way of thinking will catch on.