The virtues of material abundance

Eric Lanser

Here at Lawrence, there are always various posters advocating small sacrifices. Some ask for your time to help some group in need; others ask for your money or for donations. Recently, a poster appeared advocating “One Less Day,” a day to use one less of, or give up, something you value.The main claim of most of the advocates of sacrifice is that you don’t “really need” one more gallon of gas, one hour of your time, or one more outfit to wear in order to survive.

However, living means more than simply continuing to breathe.

Living does require survival, but it also means much more. Living means living in the human fashion. It doesn’t mean walking about naked in the forest, scavenging for food, or eating one’s young the way animals do.

Achieving the minimum to survive is not living. A skyscraper is a symbol of life; a cave is not. A feast is a symbol of life; a half-spoiled remnant of fruit is not. One’s standard for life should not be a sickly man gasping for a last breath, but a healthy, happy human being not just retaining life but achieving it.

What achieving life requires is thinking. Man’s ability to think is what sets him apart from the lower animals. Animals have certain means of survival: they have sharp teeth, physical prowess, and superior senses. What man has is the capacity to think conceptually.

The differences between these modes of survival are readily apparent. To live as a human being means to think and produce, rather than perceive and gather. Human beings cannot survive successfully by animal means alone.

The human mode of survival requires the products of man’s mind: agriculture, industry and science, not mindless instincts.

Every life-sustaining action you take requires a process of thought. The clothes you wear needed to be produced, the light bulb you use needed to be invented, and the money you spend needed to be earned.

Productive people use, invent, and earn these things because they are a benefit to their lives. They use them because it is healthy to wear clothes, because they can get more done in a lighted room than in the dark, and sustain their lives better with valuable goods and services than without them.

Asking you to give up these values means asking you to give up the benefits they bring you. It means asking you to give up part of your life and your happiness.

Being productive is the application of thinking to the task of living. Material prosperity is the result.

The most important values necessary for human life depend on rational, creative thinking. It is only a brain and ambition like Edison’s that can create a light bulb. No amount of “manual labor” alone can produce a work of art, discover electricity, or spur an advance in medicine. Yet these are the things we rely on to live fruitfully and securely.

It takes mental effort to identify that something is of value to you. Figuring out what toothbrush is best, whether or not to buy another outfit, or what group of friends to spend time with requires a process of thought.

Asking you to give up things that are valuable to you also means asking you to give up your judgment. It means asking you to give up what, according to your mind, is best.

Disdain for the material products of man’s mind redounds to a disdain for human thinking and the human life it supports. This is why advocates of sacrifice ask that you sacrifice not only physical wealth but also the judgment of your mind.

To live and be happy one should not simply try to achieve the bare minimum; one should identify and seek greatness in all areas important to one’s life. Depending on one’s particular values, one should try to get the best grades, develop the strongest, most meaningful relationships, run the fastest mile, or write the best op-ed. The best of one’s ability in all areas-that is the ideal to strive for.

If you value life on this earth, it is not bare subsistence that you should seek, but an abundance of life-promoting values. Take no shame in your ability and effort, and take no shame in the spiritual and the material benefits that arise from them.

Instead of striving to use “one less” of something today, try to earn and enjoy “one more” important value.