Surplus vs. Excess

I was reading around my deep ecology anthology recently when I came across a short article by Gary Snyder, the poet, written over 30 years ago. I’ve never read much Gary Snyder, tending to think of him as a bit too mystical for me. But in this article he pinpoints overpopulation, overconsumption, and pollution as the chief obstacles to our survival. I find myself largely in agreement with his conclusions, if not entirely with every one of his assumptions along the way. Here’s an example of his language and thinking:

"In the realm of thought, inner experience, consciousness, as in the outward realm of interconnection, there is a difference between balanced cycle, and the excess which cannot be handled."

See what I mean? Far out, eh? But for all the wonky poeticizing, one senses he’s headed in the right direction. It’s difficult, however, not to wind up a bit convoluted on this subject if you can’t make some kind of a clear distinction between excess and surplus. Excess has to do with having or using more than we need, whereas surplus is about having enough for ourselves so that we can feel generous toward our neighbors on a regular basis. Depending upon how you look at it, our tendencies toward excess have a characterological or emotional basis, while our need for surplus is a more or less practical one. The big change that has occurred in the world over the past couple hundred years, culminating though far from ending in its potentialities and refinements at the end of World War II, is the development of the technological capability to provide a surplus for everyone.

Taking this development by itself on a purely practical level, one should think it could mean, to an amazingly beneficial extent, the end of scarcity, war, famine, inequity of opportunity, etc., etc. At least two things, however, stand in the way of our making this wonderful new world. Both have to do with excess. One is that, at the same time that we have been developing the potential for universal surplus, we have also produced an excess of human beings. Many of the reasons for this are quite well-known, and have to do with advances in agricultural and medical science.

Six billion people living on our planet, however, would have been too many without modern technology. But clearly, with the streamlining of the workforce made possible by our new technologies, even less people than those technologies could sustain would do just fine by themselves, and with a far better quality of life for all. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this state of affairs is both ironic and scary: that so many less people than ever before are necessary even as we add to our population at a shocking rate.

The other kind of excess that now blocks this better future is somewhat harder to pin down, precisely because it involves that usually amorphous realm of “inner experience” to which Snyder refers. The result of its actions, however, are clear: we habitually crave and use more stuff than we need. What used to be an arguably reasonable response to technological limits and the subsequent inevitable scarcity of basic resources has, practically overnight historically speaking, turned into a bad, even suicidal social and psychological habit.

The overall result is the compound ecological problem we have now: too many people using too much stuff. One may point out that some hope lies in the apparent fact that, looking at the crisis “ecodemographically,” rates of population growth tend to be tapering off in areas where overconsumption is the worst, whereas overconsumption is relatively negligible in areas where population growth is the highest. But this can only be a relief to those for whom universal equality of opportunity is of no particular value. For if we can suppose higher rates of consumption to be one logical result of raised social status, improving the life of people in developing nations would not particularly seem to offer a long-term solution to the general ecological crisis. Quite the contrary.

Thus, to whatever extent overpopulation and overconsumption may or may not be connected, a chief obstacle to our attaining the sort of inner and outer balance to which Snyder alludes would seem to center on our inability to effectively distinguish between excess and surplus. Many still at some level buy into the age-old notion that human beings are somehow characterologically flawed, that one sort of extreme disaster or another will therefore always be with us, and that the best we can do is surround ourselves with sufficient protections and ameliorations to keep the inevitable damage to the minimum.

A more idealistic view (some of course would say “unrealistic”), however, is that human beings are indeed capable of doing much better than they have done in the past, that many of their self-destructive habits are learned rather innate, and that they can be thus be unlearned or modified as external conditions change. Either way, no sensible person can deny our continued tendencies toward excess,* and our still chronic lack of clarity when it comes to distinguishing these from a very real, practical need for surplus.

It seems to me that for those for whom human behavior in this area is essentially innate, genetically predisposed in some unalterable way, or otherwise etched in stone, the only recourse is to find some happy way to wait out the apocalypse. For the rest of us, however, developing more effective methods of clearly distinguishing, both within ourselves and in the world at large, the difference between the need for surplus and the habit of excess would seem prerequisite to solving our ecological problems.

Perhaps Synder said it best 32 years ago: “Our own heads: Is where it starts.”

(*This includes excessive abstention. Perhaps Ibsen’s protagonist in An Enemy of the People put it best; “I believe in moderation in all things, including moderation.”)

Lee Strauss (Copyright@2018)