All human beings seek to lead a good life, a life that they value. Yet what exactly defines the content of a good life? Asking ordinary citizens to outline their understanding of the idea would undoubtedly yield various answers, perhaps depending on geographic location, age, gender, or socioeconomic status. For example, some might highlight the importance of having a safe place to sleep at night, access to clean water, and education. In contrast, others would emphasize pleasure, spanning from the little joys in life such as walks in the park and spending time with loved ones to traveling the world. The good life could also be rooted in a successful career and individual accomplishments, whereas others, in turn, embrace their involvement in the community.
Do such various conceptions of the good life rest on fundamental differences? Not really. While comparisons between detailed individual perceptions quickly reveal differences in detail, we should not ignore what connects us as people. The core of what constitutes the good life for every one of us is, in fact, remarkably similar. On the most elementary level, all humans share particular needs that we must be able to meet. We all require material necessities, including water and food, and feel the need to belong to some community in which people treat us with appreciation. How exactly these needs are satisfied is contingent on where we live and the options available to us, but the possibility to fulfill them is an essential prerequisite for a good life.
The satisfaction of needs, in turn, commands a certain degree of consumption of material resources, such as food or drinking water, the construction of housing, the manufacturing of garments, or the supply with medication, mobility, and other services. However, the opportunities to enjoy the goods mentioned above are unequally distributed within and across national borders. Thus, while some people are endowed with countless consumer goods and live in abundance, the majority still lacks the fulfillment of a sufficient level of consumption and hence a self-determined life in the first place.
Yet even the materially rich may fall short of living a satisfactory, and therefore good life. The lure of endless possibilities to consume, incited by social conventions (e.g., always having to have the latest item) and economic interests (the ubiquity of advertising in our daily lives), can cause constant competition for status, time pressure, or debt. There is a continuous promise that the good life awaits us around the corner (of the next store or website) and its reach thereby is deferred into the future just as continuously. But the ongoing quest for an elusive, “better” life within our consumer culture swiftly traps us in an escalating spiral of “the more, the better,” which, by definition, will never be simply good.
At the same time, our consumption practices hamper the abilities of other human beings to lead a good life and reinforce historical patterns of ecological and socioeconomic exploitation. For example, if garments or groceries are surprisingly low-priced, this is probably due to insufficient compensation for the actual cost of labor. Far too frequently, a bargain for consumers likewise conceals environmental damages, exemplified by the exhaustion of the rain forest’s natural resources or greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, our consumption patterns and levels impose a tremendous ecological burden on future generations. How are those who come after us supposed to lead a good life in this world once we are done with it?
Therefore, some consumption habits are detrimental to the vision of a good life for all – for humans nearby, living in far-away places, still unborn, and ourselves. At first glance, this seems paradoxical since “consumption” is usually considered an integral component of the good life. And yet, it is the constant pursuit of a “better life” that prevents individuals who live in material comfort from achieving a good life. Moreover, the mode of consumption we have cultivated shifts social and ecological costs to other parts of the world population and the future.
Can you imagine a world in which all people, living now or in the future, can meet their needs and lead a good life? Is such a world even possible?
We argue that consumption corridors can provide a powerful vehicle to pursue the vision of living well within limits. They describe a space between minimum consumption standards that provide every individual with the ability to live a good life, and maximum consumption standards that keep individuals from consuming in quantities or ways that hurt others’ chances to do the same. Both, lower and upper limits are necessary if we want to pursue justice and wellbeing within planetary boundaries.
Limits is a concept not well liked in liberal societies, and yet we already live and thrive in a world of limits. Under the right conditions, limits are not a threat to freedom, but its foundation. What we need, therefore, is societal dialogue about human needs, the resources needed to satisfy them, and consumption limits that can ensure that every individual living now or in the future can have access to these resources. Within consumption corridors designed via citizen engagement sustainable lifestyles become a reality.
For further reading, please see:
Fuchs, Doris, Marlyne Sahakian, Tobias Gumbert, Antonietta Di Giulio, Michael Maniates, Sylvia Lorek and Antonia Graf. 2021. Consumption Corridors: Living Well within Sustainable Limits. London: Routledge.
open-access available at: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367748746
The blogpost is an abridged and slightly altered version of the book’s introductory chapter.