«Perhaps there is also joy in making do»
15.12.2022 The current crises are making us reflect on the topic of sufficiency. What does the term mean and how can we achieve a more sufficient lifestyle? Prof. Dr. Tobias Fritschi, head of the Institute for Social Security and Social Policy at Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH, talks about restrictions, quality of life and the role of trends.
Let's talk about the energy crisis. Mr Fritschi, have you already turned your thermostat down at home?
Yes, I have. But actually, it’s not my first time doing so. I have been taking the planet’s resources into consideration with my usage for a long time now and it’s something I plan to continue doing.
So taking steps to be more sufficient isn’t something that’s particularly difficult for you in your everyday life?
I’m certainly not one to spend life doing things by halves. But spending an afternoon with a book at the lake instead of taking a trip to Europa-Park comes naturally to me. For me, a large part of personal freedom also consists of not doing things.
What exactly do we mean when we talk about ‘sufficiency’?
Sufficiency means frugality. People who live a sufficient lifestyle use fewer resources. In other words, it’s a sustainability strategy that focuses on a person’s own behaviour. The term shouldn’t be confused with efficiency and consistency (see box).
Can you give more examples of what a sufficient lifestyle might look like?
The principle of sharing is important. For example, not purchasing every consumer good for one person, or sharing a flat with others. You could also follow a sufficient lifestyle by being more self-sufficient, such as by growing vegetables in your own garden or on your balcony. It’s not just about producing something yourself, but also about how that makes you feel.
What do you mean by that?
In practising sufficiency, your own needs play an important role. In other words, the question of what needs I have and to what extent I can limit them. So when we talk about the satisfaction of needs, for example, it’s important to remember that these are not only met by, let’s say, eating a tomato, but perhaps also by the fact that you have grown it yourself. What I am trying to say is that sufficiency is not about restriction per se, but about achieving an equally high quality of life with less consumption.
What role does sufficiency play in the whole sustainability discussion?
Compared with efficiency and consistency, sufficiency is the area where we still have the most room for improvement. Taking Switzerland as an example, we see that food waste, living space and energy consumption have risen steadily in recent years. The fact is, if everyone lived the way we do, it would take around five to six times our planet’s resources to support us.
Are we just talking about the ecological aspects of sustainability?
No – and that’s a really important point for me. Sustainability means that we behave today in such a way that future generations can have the same high standard of living as we do. In my view, this requires a shift between social, economic and ecological sustainability. If we want to maintain our standard of living without consuming so many material resources, we need to invest in our social environment or in evolving our mentality, for example.
What exactly are you thinking of here?
We need to create more social networks and structures that function sustainably. A neighbourhood playground, for example, that is broadly supported by a community and finances itself. Such basic infrastructures enable people to fulfil their needs without having to call on additional resources themselves. What’s more, I am convinced that enriching ourselves mentally – I’m thinking of education, further training in our professions and so on – is a powerful lever for moving away from material consumption.
Why do we have such a hard time with frugality?
I think we look for the easy solution too often. One example: if we plan to fly away on holiday, we should ask ourselves what the real need is that we are looking to satisfy with the trip. We don’t necessarily have to travel a long way to satisfy our need for warmth, water and togetherness, for example. But instead of asking ourselves this question and adapting accordingly, we go straight for consumer goods that promise the perfect carefree package. In this vein, we could learn from people with restrictive living situations and see how they manage to achieve the highest possible quality of life with as little consumption as possible.
What do you think would have to change for us to become more sufficiency-oriented?
Sufficiency would have to become cool, have an attractive public image and become a trend. Trends are set by young people, they cannot be enacted like a law. But I am convinced that there is even more scope to be created to enable people to try out a different lifestyle.
Does sufficiency also mean economic decline?
Yes. We are aware today that growth never leads to less consumption. I can develop new products that are more efficient and still end up consuming more resources.
Does that mean we have to make sacrifices with our prosperity?
In terms of conventional prosperity, yes – but not in terms of welfare. Prosperity means money, consumer goods and so on. Welfare is concerned with people’s quality of living.
If less consumption means a better quality of life, if freedoms are perceived and used more consciously, then we don't have to consume as much as we currently do.
Studies show, for example, that people who work less are happier, regardless of their income or field of work. These are clear indications that quality of life is not only related to available resources or consumption, but also to avoiding stress, for example.
Are there past crises that we can learn from in terms of the energy crisis?
Yes, COVID-19, for example. We became more conscious of what is important to us and how we can satisfy our needs when our activities are restricted. It was a great learning curve and also led to a better quality of life. This was clearly demonstrated in a survey we conducted with employees before, during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Even though it was a difficult time and many people became unemployed, we now have an increasing level of employment, greater satisfaction at work, a changed perspective. This is an opportunity that I see from the current crisis. Having to make do without things because of the climate crisis and other crises may seem like a limitation, but perhaps there is also joy in making do.
Prof. Dr. Tobias Fritschi conducts research on how people with restrictive living situations can be empowered to achieve their goals. He heads the Institute for Social Security and Social Policy and lectures on case management and the social economy.
Three sustainability strategies
Efficiency, sufficiency and consistency are the three strategies of sustainability. While sufficiency focuses on changes in people’s behaviour, efficiency is concerned with the production process, i.e. the question of how resources can be used more efficiently. Consistency, meanwhile, is geared towards a change in production. This means using resources and technologies that are compatible with nature – that is, those that use the ecosystem without destroying it.