Entitlement and hairshirts

‘No, I’m used to it now so I WON’T give it up!’
(Photo by Ryan Franco)

Apparently it’s called ‘generational habituation’: what for our great-grandparents was unattainable soon became, for our grandparents, a luxury. That luxury then became, for our parents, a little more everyday and now, for our generation, it’s not just commonplace but expected, even demanded as a right.

Whether it’s flying off for a week in the sun or eating meat with every dinner, because for many on this planet such actions are now possible, because they’re affordable, there seems no reason not to embrace them, enjoying ever greater convenience, greater choices, greater opportunities.

And so the world organises itself accordingly, each generation reaching for its own luxuries and consuming them to the point that they’re handed down as commonplace. That’s in large part what progress is, and who’s not grateful for it? So much of what we enjoy about life today is only possible thanks to the advances of the past.

Only now it’s become clear that some of those pleasures we’ve come to see as our entitlement were never really so affordable after all. Because, all that time, the planet was paying the price, subsidising our actions.

The rational response, in light of this growing awareness, would be to either start paying the real price or break the habit, stopping – or at least reducing – those harmful actions. Yet the mere suggestion of restricting what we’ve got so used to rouses indignation: ‘But it’s those pleasures that make life worth living! And we’ve been doing it for years! Why should we deny ourselves now?’

It’s hard to view such a response as anything less than immature, as selfish as it is short-sighted. Look at it this way: if my nine year-old son ordered up a game for his tablet that he loved and played with his friends for months on end, but then discovered that he’d unwittingly signed himself up to a monthly fortune in membership rates, I’d make him cancel that membership in an instant. Obviously. And my message would be clear: now that you know the real price, if you still think it’s a game worth playing, you’ll have to wait until you can afford it. And until then, you’ll have to play something else.

If his response was to accuse me of forcing him into a horsehair straightjacket, my reply – once I’d congratulated him on his pretty impressive analogy – would be treat him like the child he is, and sit him down for a serious discussion about priorities, and the difference between needs and wants. And I’m not convinced that him moaning ‘But I’ve been playing it for months!’ would change my mind. Especially not if I then discovered that his failure to pay those membership rates had been contributing to floods, famines, droughts and cyclones around the planet.

So if it makes perfect sense that I should restrict my son from crippling his future with a debt he can’t afford, why do we shirk from restricting ourselves? Not as a push for penance, an enforced abstinence as punishment for our profligacy, but as something positive, a recognition of a better future, and a way of shifting focus instead onto the many pleasures available that don’t have a hidden cost.

After all, the fundamental pleasures of life have never really changed that much: we’re still the same animals we were before the invention of drive-thru restaurants, skyscrapers and smartphones. And we still have the same basic needs: for food, shelter and companionship. It’s just that these days, the wonders of the modern world have made it easier for us to meet those needs, relieving us of many of the mundane tasks that, for our ancestors, were a tedious necessity. As a result, we’re able to devote more time and longer lives to pursuing pleasure. But for all our ingenuity and technological advances, a good meal with friends has always been – and always will be – high on everyone’s list, whether it’s in a cave in prehistoric Africa, or a gleaming, glass penthouse in the capital.

A civilisation’s march towards a better future is not measured by an ability to jet off to New York for the weekend, or to eat exotic fruits out of season. Real progress is surely an ability to not only appreciate life’s pleasures, but to endure while doing so. And that can only come from recognising the true cost of our actions and factoring that into our decisions, so that each new generation can enjoy their own luxuries without stealing from the next. Because a sustainable path is the only long-term path there is.

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