(This is my column, written for the Bay Journal News Service, that appeared in the Baltimore Sun earlier this week:)
Ever since Adam and Eve took a bite of the apple, we have been haunted by Desire, that shape-shifting seducer who promises us beauty, understanding and fulfillment if only we chase after More.
On the one hand, that is a blessing. We would still be clumsy, clueless creatures huddling in caves — or naked in the Garden — without it.
Desire and appetite drive our ambition, fire our curiosity and lead us to discover in ways that complacency and fullness never can.
It is Desire that propels culture forward, urging us to explore, to dare, to persevere so we may uncover all the wisdom, comforts and delights that make life grand.
It is Desire that gives rise to the dignity of human achievement. Science, mathematics, medicine, the arts all depend on curiosity, appetite, the drive for more. It is these that have enabled us to recognize the awesome, intricate elegance of creation. What a pity if there were this grand universe and no one to gape in awe and wonder.
Should God ask us, as He asks Job in the Bible, “Can you tie cords to the Pleiades or undo the reins of Orion? Can you send an order to the clouds … or dispatch the lightning on a mission?” It is Desire that would have us answer, “Not yet, but we are trying.”
On the other hand, Desire is a curse. If left unchecked and undisciplined, it will drive us to excess, consuming both our resources and our spirit, and still not make us happy.
Unchecked Desire propels us right past Enough and straight toward the never-attainable More. We believe that if we just had one more handbag, one more car, one more bathroom, one more franchise, one more road, one more mall, we would be happy. Never mind that the last time we tried that it didn’t really work. This time, it will be different.
Even more, consumer desire, we are told, fuels the economy. But the dark secret is that it does so by fanning our discontent. Unhappiness is the currency that keeps the marketplace humming. “If the consumer forgets,” Jean Baudrillard said, “he will gently be reminded that he has no right to be happy.”
That is not good. Such a reckless Economy of More wreaks havoc on both the spirit and the environment, and ultimately back on the economy itself. The current world-wide crisis was not brought upon us by people buying too little but by people grasping for too much.
Once upon a time, the earth could absorb our reckless habits of consumption. No more. We are now 7 billion strong, growing at an astounding rate of 1 billion every 12 years. As the eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson teaches us, humans have now become a geophysical force. Our numbers and our capacity can overwhelm global systems.
We may not [yet] possess the keys to the vaults of heaven or be able to call the wind to give birth to spring, but with our unchecked appetites we can foul the air and spoil the oceans and strip the Earth of fertile soil. We can destroy whole ecosystems, harvest the very last speck of nature’s bounty, rip the earth to shreds by desperately digging out the last crumbs of energy and metals. If we are the stewards of God’s creation, as many of our traditions say we are, presiding over global degradation and species extinction is not a good thing to have on our resume.
The solution may lie in the concept of Enoughness, in balancing the urge of Desire with the peace of satisfaction, the restlessness of curiosity with the quiet of contentment. The solution lies in knowing when and where we are full enough, and when we need more, to proceed humbly. It lies in creating systems that breathe in sync with the systems of the Earth so that discovery, creation, consumption and dissolution happen within the bounds of nature’s way.
Humans have never been good at this balance. Adam and Eve can tell you that. But we can learn to do it better than we ever have before, and today we know we must. For with all the upset caused by eating the apple, Adam and Eve had somewhere else to go. For us, there is nothing outside the Garden.