Restraint. Why and how it can save us.

Here are some bad things:

  • Obesity
  • Israelis and Palestinians beating the hell out of each other
  • Goldman Sachs before the crash (and possibly after it)
  • A fox going wild in a chicken run
  • The chaps on Easter Island who cut down all the trees and destroyed their own society

Although these are very different problems, there is one common factor: the protagonists do not or cannot observe restraint in the face of abundance.  Of hamburgers, bombs, greedy clients, chickens and trees in that order.

A recent article on Grist talks of Michael Freedman’s documentary film, Critical Mass.  This describes experiments on rats by John B Calhoun.  Mr Calhoun gave his rats as much food as they wanted so that availability of food was not a constraint. Eventually their population spiralled out of control and they all died. (  Again, the rat population just grew and grew and then got too big for its little planet and bang!  It all went pop.

It seems as though there are lots of situations where we don’t have the ability coded in us to observe restraint in the presence of abundant resources.  It’s like we are programmed to shop til we drop.

So nature dealt us a bad hand.  She gave us lots of biological mechanisms for dealing with scarcity but the instruction manual doesn’t have an entry for “How to deal with abundance”.  You’re unpacking the kit bag frantically looking for an abundance management tool, but she forgot to put one in.

What was nature thinking?  All these living creatures scrabbling about for survival in scarcity and then this whopping big black swan event turns up – abundance – and we have no defence.  We are on our backs arms waving helplessly like bloated beetles, unable to do anything.

Nature has one way dealing with abundance: DEATH.  She can be very cynical.  She doesn’t endow us with a mechanism to deal with abundance.  She just gives us enough rope to hang ourselves with.

I think that one way of dealing with abundance is restraint.  Restraint is about knowing what is enough, recognising when we have got there and then stopping.

Unfortunately restraint is mocked in society.  You might get away with: “No thank you, I have a meeting tomorrow,” but try: “No thank you, my salary is big enough,” or “We’re not going to pump oil next month because there is enough energy around” and you are a labelled a weirdo.  Or even illegal because you aren’t maximising the share price.

Not only is restraint mocked, it suffers from moral asymmetry.  Marketers and politicians can urge people to be greedy without censure. But if you urge people to show restraint then you are banded a killjoy, a party pooper, and, worst of all, a hypocrite.

So there is a fundamental and perilous gap in our DNA, a massive evolutionary blooper, and one good way of handling it is ridiculed, uncool and trodden in the mud.

Restraint has been abandoned.  The techno-optimists have given up on it.  They are realists.  They are saying: “Look, there is no way you are going to get people to tone down their desires.  We just have to come up with a technology which makes the fulfilment of their desires harmless.”

Economists are too scared to mention restraint.  They say: “There are planetary constraints on how much CO2 we can emit, how many species we can exterminate, how much nitrogen we can bung into the system.  So to avoid hitting those constraints we need to make it very expensive to get too close to them.  We’ll tax.  Preach restraint?  Heaven forbid, it is not for economists to judge.  We can’t preach anything except fiscal rectitude.”

Technology will delay the collapse by a few years perhaps.  Taxation by a few years more.  If we don’t learn restraint, we’ll still crash into the brick wall all the same.

A message from’s current Do the Math campaign is that 80% of our fossil fuel reserves need to stay underground.  What is going to make us stop pumping oil and digging coal when we reach that limit?  Is someone going to impose a fine on China?  Is someone going to bomb the Indians?  That won’t happen.  China, India or the USA have no masters.  They have to be their own masters.  That is, they have to demonstrate restraint.

So as it is the only route to survival, we need to stop being embarrassed about restraint; we need to embrace it and get it up the political agenda.  Importantly, it transcends political ideology.  It can outlive electoral cycles.  A capitalist can show restraint as can a socialist.  Its message of balance and beauty and intelligence can appeal to all political views.

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