Minimizing human wants is the central thrust of many idealists and religious people who recognize that people have fundamental material needs but who consider color televisions, flashy clothes, and sporty cars as distractions that impede spiritual development. Thus, things that many of us consider necessary for "the good life" are perceived as actually getting in the way of the good life favored by these idealists. Such critics believe that most of our material demands are foisted on us by capitalists who use the demands for their products to cajole people into working 40 hours a week or more.
Under capitalism, income, status, and worth depend on work, so we create work by creating artificial demands. Although many religions require their priests to take vows of poverty, certain aspects of Buddhism contain the most elaborate strictures, which assert that the path to nirvana (enlightenment) requires only minimal material comforts. These critics think that socialists have bought the line, "more means better," (doesn't that reminds you of a slogan of a soda company?) although the socialist stress on replacing competition with cooperation is at least partly in keeping with the religious values underlying the Buddhist approach.
In a best-selling book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, E. F. Schumacher elaborated the economic ideas of Mohandas Gandhi, who led India to independence from Britain after World War II. Schumacher has referred to these ideas as "Buddhist economics," although they also draw from Hindu teachings.
The idea that "small is beautiful" stresses curbing material want as the key to dealing with scarcity, and emphasizes local self-sufficiency, and small-scale, labor-intensive technology.
Gandhi rejected mass production and the sophisticated technology used in modern industrial states. He recognized that production in isolated villages is inevitably lower than it is in densely populated cities in which crowds of people work on hectic assembly lines, but felt that the benefits of the simple life were well worth the production foregone. Gandhi's philosophy is akin to Buddhism in its emphasis on the spiritual enrichment to human life available, in this case, by avoiding industrialization.
Limits to Growth
In the minds of critics who argue that economic growth must be controlled, the energy crisis of the 1970s and widespread pollution are coupled with computer forecasts that excessive desires for consumer "goodies" will soon deplete the natural resources of "Spaceship Earth." These critics, whose number includes such prominent economists as Kenneth Boulding, argue that capitalism encourages people in developed economies to seek ever higher consumption. In their view, this "cowboy" mentality promotes a disregard for the pollution generated by heavy industry and "anti-Earth gas guzzlers" and depletes the minerals, timber, and other resources necessary to sustain future generations.
They point out that known reserves of petroleum, coal, metallic ores, and other finite raw materials are insufficient to allow consumption by the populations of less developed countries to grow to the standards of living enjoyed by people in North America and Western Europe. Moreover, their projections suggest that even without economic growth, if raw materials continue to be depleted at current rates, most will be gone within two or three generations. Their solutions? Get natural, rid ourselves of plastic-oriented mindsets, and generally scale everything down.
Defenders of capitalism and growth try to rebut these arguments by suggesting that technological advances will permit continued growth, and that automatic changes in relative prices will force us to use natural resources more efficiently as they become scarcer. Moreover, they suggest that, as our technology advances, we will learn to use raw materials presently seen as worthless. Those who advocate limits to growth are generally pessimistic that technology will bail us out of the difficulties they foresee.