Wolfgang Sachs


Poverty of time degrades the wealth of goods.

from Resurgence Issue 196

Peter Till

A TOURIST FOCUSES in on a most idyllic picture: a man in simple clothes dozing in a fishing boat that has been pulled out of the waves which come rolling up the sandy beach. The camera clicks, the fisherman awakens. The tourist offers him a cigarette and launches into a conversation: “The weather is great, there is plenty of fish, why are you lying around instead of going out and catching more?”

The fisherman replies: “Because I caught enough this morning.”

“But just imagine,” the tourist says, “you would go out there three or four times a day, bringing home three or four times as much fish! You know what could happen?” The fisherman shakes his head. “After about a year you could buy yourself a motor-boat,” says the tourist. “After two years you could buy a second one, and after three years you could have a cutter or two. And just think! One day you might be able to build a freezing plant or a smoke house, you might eventually even get your own helicopter for tracing shoals of fish and guiding your fleet of cutters, or you could acquire your own trucks to ship your fish to the capital, and then . . .”

“And then?” asks the fisherman.

“And then”, the tourist continues triumphantly, “you could be calmly sitting at the beachside, dozing in the sun and looking at the beautiful ocean!” The fisherman looks at the tourist: “But that is exactly what I was doing before you came along!”

The story — told by writer Heinrich Böll — plays upon the hopes and fears of the rich. The tourist, upon seeing the lazy fisherman dozing in the sun, remembers his fears of becoming poor, of getting stuck in a situation in which he has no options. At the same time, he instinctively projects the hope of the rich upon the poor. Without thinking twice, he outlines a road map to expand productivity. And at the end, holds out a promise that is supposed to give meaning to all these efforts: achieving freedom from one’s labour and gaining mastery over time.

What makes the anecdote so puzzling is the circular structure of the story; the rich strive to arrive where the poor began. A paradox is offered, which throws up a set of unsettling questions for the affluent. Why all the pains and efforts of development, if the rich attain only what the poor seem to have all along? Or, worse, how come that the rich, despite all the hustle and bustle, appear never even to reach the state enjoyed by the poor? For if the tale of development consists in progressively acquiring a wealth of goods to attain a wealth of time, then rich societies today have evidently missed the mark. What went wrong?

In remembrance of time

As is often noted, the economy of time is at the core of any economic action. From Arkwright’s Spinning Jenny to Bill Gates’ web browser Explorer we know that most of the technology employed for the pursuit of progress is used in the belief that doing more things faster is better than doing few things slower. Indeed, the ability to save time has always been the hallmark of productivity revolutions, which have transformed patterns of production and consumption over the last 200 years.

From the very start, far-sighted men and women saw the reign of freedom rising at the horizon, a realm where toil would finally cease, vastly increasing the ability of people to engage in activities of their own liking. Hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, raising animals in the evening, engaging in literary criticism after dinner. This imaginary day was an ideal not just of the young Karl Marx. But what happened to this utopia? Where has all the time gone?

The use of the automobile can serve as a case in point. From the outset, it was hailed as the ultimate time-saver, dramatically shortening the time it takes to reach a desired destination. But contrary to popular belief, drivers do not spend less time than non-drivers in moving from one place to the other. They travel to more distant destinations. The power of speed is converted to more kilometres on the road. And time saved is reinvested into longer distances. As a consequence, the average German citizen today travels 15,000 km a year as opposed to only 2,000 km in 1950.

Across many sectors — from transport to communications, from production to entertainment — time saved is constantly transformed into greater distances, more appointments, larger outputs and increasing activity. The hours saved are eaten up by new growth. And, after a while, this expansion generates new pressure for time-saving devices — starting the cycle all over again.

Gigantic gains in productivity have by no means been converted into less work and more time. On the contrary, they have, for the most part, been transformed into new rounds of output and commodities. It is evident that everyone could afford to work just a fraction of today’s normal working hours if levels of output had stayed stable over time — just as everyone could afford to spend much less time for all kinds of daily chores if levels of aspiration had not also changed. It is the relentless expansion in output and aspirations that continues to eat up each generation of productivity gains. The utopia of affluence has undercut the utopia of liberation.

Why is there never enough?

The fisherman in our story would be amazed at the never-ending urge for more in already rich societies. After all, he was satisfied with his morning catch and could then afford to rest. The issue is one that has been examined before: John Maynard Keynes, one of the master thinkers of twentieth-century economics, wondered if an exceedingly successful economy would not at some point reach a state of saturation. In his “Essays in Persuasion” he speculated that the imperative of productivity might lose significance under conditions of affluence, as abundance makes it less and less important to allocate means optimally. But rich societies still fail to conform to that expectation. They are hooked upon the principle of non-saturation. Why do they ignore the notion of “enough”?

What matters in such a society is the symbolic power of goods and services; they are less than ever simply vehicles of utility: they serve an expressive function. What counts is what goods say, not what they do. In modern societies goods are means of communication. They constitute a system of “signs” through which a purchaser makes statements about him- or herself. While in the old days goods informed about social status, today they signal allegiance to a particular lifestyle.

Many products have by now been perfected and cannot be developed any further; new buyers can be found only when these goods offer more symbolic capital. Cars that cannot become faster and more comfortable are designed to be technological wonders. Watches that cannot show the time more accurately take on a sportive flair when they become diving watches. Television sets whose images cannot become clearer take on a cinematic effect with wider screens. Designers and advertisers are continually offering consumers new thrills and new identities, while the product’s utility is taken for granted.

In such a context, the relationship between consumer and product is shaped mainly by imagination, which is infinitely malleable. Feelings and meanings are anything but stable; their plasticity and ease of obsolescence can be exploited by designers in an unending variety of ways. Imagination, in effect, is an inexhaustible fuel for maintaining a growing supply of goods and services. And for that reason, the expectation that rich societies should one day reach a level of saturation has not come about: when commodities become cultural symbols, there is no end to economic expansion.

Frugality and well-being

Beyond a certain threshold, things can become the thieves of time. Goods have to be chosen, bought, set up, used, experienced, maintained, tidied away, dusted, repaired, stored and disposed of. Likewise, appointments have to be sought, co-ordinated, agreed upon, put into the diary, maintained, assessed and followed up. Even the most beautiful of objects and the most valuable of interactions gnaw away at our time — the most restricted of all resources. The number of possibilities — goods, services, events — has exploded in affluent societies, but the day in its conservative way continues to be just twenty-four hours long. Scarcity of time is the nemesis of affluence. The rich may have plenty of things, but are poor in time.
In fact, in a multi-option society people do not suffer from a lack but from an excess of opportunities. While well-being is threatened by a shortage of means in the first case, it is threatened by a confusion about goals in the second. The proliferation of options makes it increasingly difficult to know what one wants, to decide what one does not want, and to cherish what one has.

Human well-being has two dimensions: the material and the non-material. Anyone who buys food and prepares dinner has the material satisfaction of filling his or her stomach, and the non-material satisfaction of having enjoyed cooking a particular cuisine or partaking in good company. This non-material satisfaction requires attention, which means time. The full value of goods and services can only be experienced when they are given attention: they have to be properly used, adequately enjoyed and carefully cultivated. Having too many things makes time for non-material pleasure shrink; an overabundance of options can easily diminish full satisfaction. So poverty of time degrades the richness of goods. In other words, there is a limit to material satisfaction beyond which overall satisfaction is bound to decrease. Frugality, therefore, is a key to well-being.

Indeed, it is often the inability to exercise a certain degree of frugality that is at the core of the problem of time. The art of living requires a sense for the right measure. Less can definitely be more. The modern consumer society continually squanders the wealth of time. In an age of exploding options the ability to focus, which implies the sovereignty of saying no, becomes an important ingredient in creating a richer life. Without that ability, the lament of dramatist Ödon von Horvarth may become the universal apology: “I am really an entirely different person; it’s just that I never get around to showing it.”

It goes without saying that without a wealth of time, there is bound to be less generosity, less compassion, less dedication and less freedom — a sort of modernized poverty which the fisherman innately understood, and the tourist only reluctantly became aware of.  •

Wolfgang Sachs is presently with the Wupertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, in Germany. His most recent book is Planet Dialectics: Explorations in Environment and Development, to be published by Zed Books, London, in November 1999. Wolfgang will teach at Schumacher College and give a Schumacher Lecture in Bristol, in October.


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