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More Happiness, Less Stuff

Within the environmental community, there is widespread acceptance of the Ehrlich equation that establishes the relationship among four factors: population (P), affluence (A), technology (T), and environmental impact (I).   The relationships are expressed in the famous Ehrlich impact equation:  I=PxAxT (published in The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich).   Many consider this equation immutable, and believe there is no way to break its iron grip on humanity.  As any of the three independent variables grows, environmental impact increases.

How do we break the grip of this equation on the future of humankind?  How do we rewrite the equation for a sustainable future?

One huge challenge to the global industrial system is to move the T (call it T1) from the numerator to the denominator (now call it T2).   Renewable, recyclable materials fit the category, as does renewable energy.   As technologies transition from T1 that belong in the numerator to T2 in the denominator, the equation changes to:  



and impacts (I) are reduced.

As T2 displaces T1, the future looks very different.

But, what about the capital “A” for affluence?   It suggests that affluence is an end in itself, satisfying unlimited “wants,” rather than “needs”.  What if we converted “A” to “a”, signifying affluence to be a means to an end, and not the end in itself? Then the equation would read: I = .
And what if societal changes and priorities allowed happiness to increase without more and more affluence?  Then the equation, over time, could evolve to:

More happiness with less stuff, all made sustainably.
Now we have the impact equation for a sustainable future.
When I talk about this on the speaking circuit, this explanation always gets a big reaction – audiences love the idea of more happiness, less stuff.  So why do we find ourselves in the mess than we’re in, environmentally and socially speaking?  How will we find our way out of it?

Industrialism—the industrial system of which we are each a part—developed in a different world from the one we live in today:  fewer people, more plentiful natural resources, simpler lifestyles:  less stuff.  It made perfect sense to exploit nature to increase human productivity—300 years ago!  These days, with people overly abundant and nature scarce and diminishing, industry moves, mines, extracts, shovels, burns, wastes, pumps and disposes of four million pounds of material to provide one average, middle?class American family their needs for a year.  With the whole world aspiring to the American standard of living, that cannot go on and on and on in a finite Earth; and it is finite, you can see it from space; that’s all there is and there isn’t any more.  The rate of material throughput—the metabolism of the industrial system—is now endangering prosperity, as much as enhancing it, and the toxicity of some of that stuff is really endangering the biosphere, thus everyone’s health, ours and that of the 30 million other species that share the biosphere with us.  It is manifestly the wrong thing to do.

When we talk about environmental destruction as the “wrong thing to do,” we’re talking about what I see as a shifting mind-set, a growing sense of ethics. This growing sense of ethics might be the push we need to find our way out of the mess that we’re in.

In the final analysis, the ethical thing—the right thing to do—is driven by enlightened self?interest.  The study of ecology tells us we are part of nature, not above or outside it; it also tells us that what we do to the web of life we do to ourselves.  Industrial ecology tells us the industrial system, as it operates today, simply cannot go on and on and on, taking, making, wasting—abusing the web of life.  The industrial system takes too much, extracting and frittering away Earth’s natural capital on wants, not needs.  It wastes too much.  It abuses too much.  It takes stuff and makes stuff that very quickly ends up in landfills or incinerators—more waste, more abuse, more pollution.  I’m told that less than 3% of the throughput of the entire industrial system has any value six months afterward.  We industrialists operate a waste-making machine.  And all of us are part of the problem, either as producers, specifiers, users, or consumers.

I believe that a sustainable society depends totally and absolutely on a new mind-set to deeply embrace ethical values.  Values that, along with an enlightened self-interest, drive us to make new and better decisions.  I also believe that it doesn’t happen quickly … it happens one mind at a time, one organization at a time, one building, one company, one community, one region, one new, clean technology, one industry, one supply chain at a time … until the entire industrial system has been transformed into a sustainable system, existing ethically in balance with Earth’s natural systems, upon which every living thing is utterly dependent.   Again, what we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.

So what about this sacred shrine of growth and affluence, the one that fuels the extractive, abusive and linear technologies upon which we have become so dependent?  How do we make the shift?  How do we decide, if we are moving toward a sustainable society, what should grow?  What should not grow?

Here are some thoughts to stimulate our thinking:  The lowest impact technologies, those that are beneficial, (belong in the denominator), should grow.  The abusive “numerator technologies” should shrink and eventually disappear.  The sale of services should grow.  The sale of products should shrink.  Applied brainpower should grow.  Applied brute force should shrink.  Market shares for the sustainable companies should grow.  For the unsustainable companies, market shares should shrink—to zero.

Each of us has a role to play because, each of us has power.  The power to vote, with ours dollar and our ballots.  The power to shape commerce, with what we buy and what we don’t buy.  We have power as individuals and collectively, as a community of people.  We each make choices, large and small, every day, that translate into power.  Power to change the paradigm.

To get where we need to be requires a vast mind-shift that leads to a cumulative and collective mandate:  Less stuff, more happiness.  Then the revised impact equation can take center stage.

Ray C. Anderson is the chairman and founder of Atlanta-based Interface, Inc., a $1 billion carpet manufacturer, and the author of Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, now out in paperback from St. Martin’s Griffin.

Ray Anderson
Ray C. Anderson is the chairman and founder of Atlanta-based Interface, Inc., a $1 billion carpet manufacturer, and the author of Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist, now out in paperback from St. Martin’s Griffin.
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11 thoughts on “More Happiness, Less Stuff

  1. This is a great article. Very visionary. The only problem is I still don’t see how we’re going to get there when you have people and companies who profit off of the destruction of nature, and are not held accountable. Until there is a means of holding them accountable (e.g., charging them for the externalities they currently push off onto society), I don’t see behavior changing. Right or wrong, many people are ultimately selfish, sacrificing the interests of others, and even the interests of their own descendants, for their own immediate gratification. Sorry for the downer message. One other area though in which people have power is FOR WHOM they work. They can choose to work for a company that reflects their personal values. Potentially as powerful as voting with their dollars.

  2. No one can disagree with the general idea in the article above – but it must be taken into consideration vast portions of the underdeveloped world – like for instance Africa, or the deep hinterland of China, where a large population has not benefitted from technology, never to mention affluence! If the concepts in the article are to be taken as an universal truth, they are bound to be ignored, and that cannot happen!

  3. Mr Garcia, I would offer to you that the peoples in hinterland China and other parts of the world, void of technology, are quite happy. These peoples are clearly living a sustainable lifestyle, we are talking about them. The results of converting tribes and natives to one mans thinking or beliefs is where everything goes wrong…

    To Mr. Anderson’s comments on how business was conducted at the beginning of the industrial age. I could not agree more…we only know what we know right! Problem is today is that we know what we know and we keep doing. SO, by Einstein’s theory loosely, we cannot overcome what we have done by continuing to think as we have to now. The history of how we behaved prior to the industrial age also is not a good example…so, I suggest we dig a little deeper…

    Has anyone seen Avatar?

  4. I completely agree. People in Denmark are the happiest in the world, but they live with much smaller footprint than us Americans; smaller appartment cars, less stuff etc. Like Wayne Dyer said : “The more stuff that accumulates, the more you have to watch it, insure it, worry about it, protect it, polish it, distribute it, and identify with it…” It is a liability.

  5. Mr. Garcia, I would suggest that the people in the hinterland of China and other non-industrialized parts of the world a actually happy…they don’t have stuff to worry about, no TV, just life. Truly sustainable life or we would not be talking about them.

    I believe that Mr. Anderson is right on the mark…but I would also suggest that the thinking we used as we developed over the last 100 years got us where we are today…so we must not think in the same fashion. Unfortunately, looking back to pre-industrial revolution would not be helpful to us since human behaviour was much worse in the 1400’s and the eras following.

  6. I agree that we all have power to make the right choice as an individual. Yet, not everybody today necessarily considers the right choice to be the right one. Educating people around the globe on the consequences of their choices is especially vital. We do not do that as much as we should do. Instead, PR, marketing etc companies do everything to make people buy things they do not need. What we do need are the lasting consumer products. Great point that will hopefully find its way: “The sale of services should grow. The sale of products should shrink.”

  7. Isn’t this what “money as speech” is for? To influence public “tastes” to protect erosion of property values by any kind of mass movement in politics, taste, or perception (which becomes politics anyway)that would lead us to move to a T2 that isn’t coal gasification?!?

    And of course concentrated media living off consumer ad budgets,which psychologically plays with the unconscious in ways we cannot ourselves even control to create “demand” for all kinds of rubbish?

    That closed information loop system certainly seems to render moot this statement of solution:

    “Each of us has a role to play because, each of us has power. The power to vote, with ours dollar and our ballots. The power to shape commerce, with what we buy and what we don’t buy. We have power as individuals and collectively, as a community of people. We each make choices, large and small, every day, that translate into power. Power to change the paradigm. …To get where we need to be requires a vast mind-shift that leads to a cumulative and collective mandate: Less stuff, more happiness. Then the revised impact equation can take center stage.”

    And of course that is just how Justice Lewis Powell planned it! And the Phalanx of “Justices” is in place for theirs and our lifetimes to make sure this how the “free” market continues to work in the USA so no shareholder family office gets its property value eroded by any changes in public taste, popular ideas like renewable energy or “happiness without stuff” or mass political movements of any kind! They are here to re-enact the same case law precedence that kept Slavery off the table for 80yrs!

    It’s great to read people’s ideas about possible new worlds, but we need much more workable and actionable solutions that actually address the facts on the ground about blocked competition and innovation in the USA to protect dynastic majority and controlling shareholder family offices of fossil fuels and other “businesses”!

  8. Love to you, Ray. You are wise and kind and I selfishly want you around for a long time to keep teaching us about reality and sustainability. I’d rather work for and live in the world as you see it than the one we’ve created based on unending growth and greed.

  9. This article has a purposeful message. Adoption and internalization is difficult. The general attitude is that “Sustainability” is for somebody else.
    As Gandhi so rightly said ” You become the change you wish for”

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