We Fill the Space We Have

A broader interpretation

We have heard that whatever space we have, we will tend to fill. It occurred to me that this bit of folk wisdom may be a pattern from the micro to macro level.

Consider how broadly that axiom applies, even on a personal level:

  • We use resources without restraint that are made plentiful for us (oil, corn)
  • Our expenses grow to match our income.
  • We eat the food that is in front of us.
  • We live up to the expectations others lay out for us (or which we interpret for ourselves from the script we follow)
  • What else can be added?

Try it out for yourself: just substitute “space” with any other thing or expectation you can think of.

This year both Jeff and I downsized our personal possessions because of a move to D.C. Jeff moved to a shoebox-sized apartment in Dupont Circle (complete with murphy bed and a kitchen in a wardrobe). I moved from Australia to the U.S. with only what could be carried on an economy plane ticket. Both situations left us with less stuff. Aside from the loss of a greater sense of community we both felt moving from Charlottesville to D.C., neither of us reported a loss of happiness as a result of having fewer things. Therefore, we are each doing more with less this year.  I haven’t done the actual calculation of each of our ecological footprints before and after the move, but by rough calculation, according to our own micro-Happy Planet Index, we are actually achieving equal or greater well-being this year than a year ago, using less stuff, meaning that we are improving our well-being vs. burden-of-stuff ratio.

Now substitute “we” with “society”

Extrapolating from that personal experience with economizing, I began to wonder why, as a society or as an individual, any of us would struggle so hard to increase the amount of oil available to us, the amount of income we bring in, the physical spaces we occupy, and the stuff we possess. I wonder if the recession has taught many people how much more we can do with less.

We have all heard variations on this theme at a personal level, but the Happy Planet Index, an alternative proposal to GDP, which I am slightly infatuated with right now, has been making me think about this philosophy from a systems perspective also.

What if we had less corn or beef to consume each year. Would we starve? Or would we get more creative with ways to satisfy our hunger using less?

What if we had less oil available each year? Would the great gears of our economy grind to a halt? Or would we discover more efficient modes of transportation, re-discover the outdoors and family meals, etc, as many families already have over the course of our recent recession.

It’s such an obvious thought to have while watching the slow march of oil toward the coast; If we could do more with less, if challenging ourselves to do so could be as fun as this move to D.C. has been for Jeff and I, why would we subsidize the pursuit of more at great expense?

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