A truck carries biscuits made in Glasgow to London, and a truck carries biscuits made in London to Glasgow. Is that really necessary? 600 miles of unnecessary fuel consumption and climate change emissions, and two whole driver shifts, wasted on something not necessary>?
Ship with massive load of containers passing down the Suez Canal (Reuters)
Definition of Non-essentials: "Anything that passes down the Suez Canal"? (CG, 2021)
How many of these goods are really important?
Jim Radford, author and singer of the famous song, The Shores of Normandy and the youngest person to take part in the Normandy Landings in 1944, tells how he was serving on a ship with sophisticated, new guns that could shoot accurately beyond the horizon, and wondered whether it would not have been better to have spent a fraction of the huge funds spent on them had been spent on preventing the need for them, e.g. with better negotiation.
Yet another business meeting or conference just because someone expects it. Is that really necessary? [Note Spree]
And, perhaps to cap it all, is David Graeber's account of Kurt's "bullshit job", in which he works for a sub-sub-sub-contractor to the German Military. His job is to help soldiers move offices. Instead of the soldier carrying his computer and other chattels 5 meters along the corridor to another office, Kurt is called to do this for him, often having to hire a car to drive 100-500 km and fifteen forms have to be signed in the process. A bullshit job is one where "if the position were eliminated, it would make no discernible difference in the world. Likely as not, things would improve" [p.2]. As Graeber remarks [p.6], "Contemporary capitalism seems riddled with such jobs."
See also other examples at end.
But, politicians tell us, these non-essentials all boost 'the economy' and so are a Good Thing. But maybe they are neither essential nor good. Many of those above are harmful.
I searched for discourse on non-essentials in the economy and found none or almost none. The economic-growth-at-all-costs seems to preclude even discussing the possibility of non-essentials. We should have discussed this in the fields of economics and politics etc. for ages, then we might have some ready-made theories. But since we have not, and it is now urgent that we act, I have suggested that we use aspects to help us at least think about the worst cases so we can take action.
This page tries to open a door to discussion.
Should such activities be banned? I do not believe so. It can be argued that some of this economic activity does some Good. For example, the hospitality sector provides some enjoyment and sociality, and aviation provides some useful urgent travel or rescue. Even gambling might provide some valid fun. Who can judge?
When I look at each harmful sector as a whole, I see that much of it seems non-essential. Alan Storkey wrote, "[This] focus is crucial, because even partly addressing global warming depends on it. Further, normal health and sanity usually depends on shrinking consumption of food, alcohol, travel, the work associated with much consumption and a lot else. The study has to be normative from the start."
This may be why Jesus told us clearly, as recorded in Matthew 6, that we should not seek material wealth, but seek first the Kingdom of God. Link that with the prophets, and there are grounds for believing that, when we the affluent demand our non-essentials at the expense of the livelihoods and even lives of others, in God's sight we are evil. While we might not be able to draw a sharp boundary between what is Good and what is Harmful in each sector, I do believe that we can identify the worst cases. So I want us to differentiate what is essential from what is less so, and ask people to curb their less-essential demands - beginning with myself.
I believe that we need wisdom here, and expect to have to exercise responsible judgement, rather than hoping for some logic on which we can depend and behind which we can hide. Did God not give us the dignity of responsibility for the whole Creation? This includes taking responsibility for our impact on it. Galatians 5:23: "self-control". Ezekiel 16:49 "affluence, arrogance and unconcern" is what led God to destroy Sodom and exile Judah. Alan Storkey wrote, "The root religious theoretical move is dethroning utility or subjective optimisation which allows no criticism of what the subject wants, or [of] maximisation, or [of] individualism[,] and excludes stewardship, meekness and the value of the creation."
Such wisdom and responsibility requires that we recognise the importance of perspectives; see later.
However, it now seems to me that both sets are ill-formed, heterogeneous, because they imply non-essential or indifferent is different from either good or bad/harm. Indifferent might be, but non-essential is certainly not. Rather, it is a different aspect, and economic activity that is (non-)essential is at the same time either good or harmful (or both). We have harmful activity that is essential and harmful activity that is non-essential.
So, instead, I suggest that think of two aspects of dimensions: Good and Harm or Bad, and essential versus non-essential. This gives four possible types of economic activity, of which I give an example in each cell:
|Good||Harmful / Bad|
Good food |
|Non-Essential||Opera||Surfeit of flying|
Adam Smith made a further differentiation, into: Essentials, Conveniences, Luxuries, with the latter two being two different types of non-essential.
That table is too simple, as we shall see later, but at least it expresses the basic idea.
I do not believe that all non-essentials should be removed (banned). Some might offer Good without Harm. Much in the aesthetic realm, of music, sport, leisure, fun, games, art, literature, opera, theatre, film, and even some scientific or mathetmatical explorations, might be non-essential and bring some good into our lives. But surely! my art and theatre should never take precedence over justice to others and the basic needs of others. Wisdom is needed here. However, much of non-essentials in the affluent cultures and nations of the world is Harmful. It is the Non-essentials that are Harmful that we should cut down on.
So, in trying to decide what to cut down on, perhaps the first thing is to look at what is Harmful and ask to what extent is it Non-essential or Useless? Target that first.
All the employment and money-flow associated with any of these, it could be argued, is non-essential in the economy.
Discussion / research: Find out how much of each, but first find a way of measuring how much of each.
Non-essentials, of all three kinds, are actually not good. They promise good but deliver a complex of bad, often hidden and long-term, especially by increasing greed, fear, idolatry, stress, etc. (That will be expanded below.)
So the question is, How do reduce non-essentials in our (wealthy) economies? I am think in terms of policy-making. I believe that policy-making can do something about the first two, but the third is more difficult. This is because the wrongs and evils that the third addresses are more deeply endemic, and probably cannot so easily be tackled by policy-making. Christians would call the wrongs and evils "human sin" and know that the only remedy is Christ.
Note: For too long many Christians have assumed that that remedy applies only to the eternal future beyond death, but I submit that it can even apply here and now, and that there is evidence that the Gospel of Christ can change the very heart of society to reduce wrongs and evils. Over the long term, as Tom Holland  argues, Christianity has brought into society ideas of compassion and righteousness. But also in the short term, we see evidence. For example, in the Welsh Revival of 1904, policemen and magistrates became non-essential because crime and drunkenness largely ceased, because people's hearts (aspirations, desires, etc.) had been changed by the Holy Spirit so they no longer wanted to do these things. Dealing with human sin in such ways is discussed elsewhere.)
And with this to identify and consider the worst cases. In order to avoid elevating some aspects and completely overlooking others, I advocated using Dooyeweerd's aspects for all these; see below.
You may download the Heywood submissions (pdf).
Richard Gunton posed, on ThinkNet, the question about how we define "non-essential", and a discussion ensued, of which the following contains the main contributions. I have emboldened what I see as main issues within this, which deserve discussion. Richard continued,
"The answer will tend to be worldview-dependent, won't it? Indeed, a Reformational view surely tends to attribute some importance to activities in all the aspects. But I imagine that different people's lists of 'definite' non-essentials will include religious worship, sport, cinema, arts in general, cosmetic surgery, air-travel, and many more, all of which would be on other people's lists of essentials. Does your project call for some kind of public discourse on shared values and the common good?"
He later added,
"I would have to start by asking 'essential for what?' and rejecting the binary distinction implied by non-. ... If we meant 'essential for staying alive', then of course we could say that food, water and air seem to be essential. But what is food? Is meat essential? In my view not, but some would disagree. Are grains essential? I'd say yes, but not if you press me to name one particular kind of grain (my wife needs a gluten-free diet). Then there are cultures where the traditional diet includes no grains (but plenty of meat). Are vegetables essential? Ditto. And so on.
"And those examples relate primarily to the biotic aspect, where arguably there's least flexibility for worldviews to affect our activity. Then what about social contact - is that essential? Most of us would say yes - although Covid lockdowns have shown how far many of us can manage without much of it. But then there are hermits and recluses.
"Your reference to Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God seems to me to relativise the 'non-essentials' category even further. To seek first the Kingdom of God can mean, in exceptional circumstances, martyrdom. What else is essential then?
"So I'd argue that essentials / non-essentials is a false dichotomy. Instead we should think about prioritisation (relative value), and how the prioritisation varies with culture and worldview. Wouldn't this be a more feasible research project? And perhaps the Covid lockdowns provide us with an interesting natural experiment to reveal how societies (or at least national governments) prioritise a range of goods. I've been pondering how to set up such a project, and I'd be interested in collaborating to try and make it happen."
Karl Heintz added,
"I think that definition ignores the role of historical opening in the motion of "non-essential" businesses. Many things essential to our daily lives (e.g. e-mail) would have been considered non-essential 100 years ago, if not inconceivable. "
And Petrus Simons added,
"Adam Smith (The theory of moral sentiments) divided objects into: essentials, conveniences and luxuries. Of course, we define these things differently today. They also have different meanings in other than Western cultures. However, one of today's problems is that we have expanded the range of 'conveniences' enormously, using modern technology and modern materials such as plastics. The Evergreen [the huge container ship that blocked the Suez Canal early in 2021, and in relation to which Chris Gousmett defined non-essentials as 'anything that has to come through the Suez Canal.'] is likely to carry a huge amounts of conveniences. The size of the ship itself points to economism (low unit costs of transport) and technicism (the size of the ship, designed apparently without allowing for the type of risks such as experienced this week)."
Later, the following emerged:
"For this reason I would recommend the word 'important' instead of 'essential'. I also stand by my view that it's a matter of perspective - and this is why I would prefer to talk about 'value'." [RG]
"I see the idea of 'essentiality' as a simplifying tool at the intersection of subjective situations (of particular individuals and groups) with the law-structures of creation, under the direction of some religious motive." [RG]
"Denoting something as 'essential' in some context protects it from critique while lesser priorities are negotiated, but nothing (bar the Kingdom of God) is essential out of context, in my view." [RG]
"I do accept the rhetorical value in the binary language you used for the submission to the Heywood Foundation. But although it's easy to point to provocative examples of 'essential' vs. 'non-essential', I don't think these are particularly helpful for probing the question analytically." [RG]
This discussion raises many important, interconnected points. Let us take some of them further, as follows, in order to increase understanding.
So the dichotomy is not entirely false. There is some distinction that does require addressing, even if analytical thinking cannot ever define the sharp boundary that it seeks. Instead, therefore, this might suggest we need to think in terms of value and importance rather than essentiality. In any case, the three notions are intimately bound together.
However, value and importance cannot fully substitute for essentiality, because they have different connotations, derived from different aspects (see below). RG usefully introduces the idea of law-structures of Creation (another word for aspects), and it is by reference to these that we can understand the difference.
The notion of value, though primarily either economic or ethical in meaning, also implies the idea of "more", which is quantitative, as does the notion of importance. This is why the phrases "more value" or "more important" are almost always meaningful.
By contrast, "more essential" is not so meaningful (except when used as a synonym of "more important"). Essentiality does not imply "more", does not have the same quantitative component. Instead it implies, as you earlier pointed out, a binary distinction; either something is essential or it is not. So instead of the quantitative, we find the analytical law-sphere. That is not its primary aspect however. Its primary aspect is, as you have already alluded to, pistic. It speaks of ultimacy (the word you use to name that aspect) and, as you point out, only the kingdom of God can be called ultimately essential. Instead of the word "more" the prefix "non-" is appropriate - at least in its ultimate sense.
"Essential" also, I might suggest, has some economic meaning too, and maybe formative, in that it is meaningful to ask "essential for what?" Essential implies both resource (economic) and achievement (formative).
However, the discourse in which I inserted my call to understand non-essentials (the Heywood Foundation) is that of decision-making, rather than of philosophy, because what I was talking about was the responsibility that policy-makers have, and the need to act urgently, given the climate emergency. Whereas the discourse of philosophy calls for an approach that beings all things into consideration, the discourse of decision-making moves in the opposite directon, to making sharp distinctions between options, and even opposing them to each other. Most decisions involve analytical distinction, of either-or.
(They might indeed employ quantitative reasoning in order to arrive at decisions, but usually the quantitative constructs are converted into analytical binary distinctions by comparison of one quantity with another (the switch from less-than to more-than).)
Of course, policy and philosophy are linked, but they are different. The content of the policy might involve quantities (e.g. tax breaks) but they tend always to manifest themselves in distinct ranges.
Policy-making aims to achieve some rectification of wrongs, but there are those who resist this, especially those who are affluent, well-resourced and well-connected.
So, to sum up: When we are in a philosophical discourse about the nature and norms of economic activity, we need to beware of false dichotomies, and recognise the complex nature of non-essentials, allowing for something more nuanced than a binary "non-", and should also refer to value and importance. When we are in a policy-making, decision-making discourse, we should recognise the need to make sharp distinctions, and should probably focus on the clear cases of difference, and especially the worst cases of non-essential harm.
One danger of thinking in quantitative terms of value, is: do we not give the affluent excuses? We (the affluent) can always argue that "xxx has value" - we can find some value in relation to some aspect. So, those who want to protect their own interests, conveniences and luxuries, can always add up the various pieces of value from various aspects into some total that would exceed some quantity that policy makers require - so that policy is not set against them.
Furthermore, does not over-emphasising the quantitative tend to hinder decision-making more generally? Especially if we end up with quantities near some comparison value.
As we shall discuss below, much of the cause of harmful non-essentials is sin, such as hubris or greed. It may be that the very act of pointing out the non-essentiality of what hubris wants to protect and idolise is actually a useful contribution because it dethrones it, because "essential" has a pistic component; see below. Merely using the word "value" or "importance" fails to do that, IMHO.
On the other hand, as RG put it well, a danger of "urging the language of non-essentials upon the powers that be could, in our secular humanist climate, have unintended consequences. I fear that neoliberal political discourse considers, for example, job-creation and economic growth as essentials, and religious freedom, free speech and debt-release as non-essentials. At some points, therefore, the 'non-essentials' approach could backfire."
Both have dangers. So perhaps, when forming policy, we should think neither in quantitative terms of "more" or totalling (value, importance), nor in binary either-or choices (essentiality), but in terms of wisdom and judgement as we actively think about all the aspects involved. That will be the emphasis and also the assumption below.
These are good points, in which at least three issues may be discerned.
These points mean that historical opening and cultures must be taken into account, but they must never be allowed to dominate the discourse. We must always take it into account within a wider global, cross-era, cross-culture perspective. In Dooyeweerd's terminology (whose aspects I am employing here) this refers to the formative aspect, which itself needs to be opened by those later than it, including the social, juridical, ethical and faith aspects mentioned or alluded to above. See below on wisdom.
I discuss more aspects of this below, but first, another multi-aspectual issue about non-essentials.
See below for discussion of aspects.
If aspects indicate, as I believe they do, the Creator's intention for the good of all Creation, then every aspect must be part of God's will. The problem, however, is when we prioritise *my* / *our* enjoyment over justice for the poor, and especially those in LDNs [less-developed nations]. We will see that, to consider all aspects together (in loose, misleading parlance, "to balance them"), we should employ, neither logic nor quantitative comparisons and 'balancing', but wisdom, responsibility and care - and those are some aspects of the previous point.
That the kingdom of God and
Jesus of Nazareth said "Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you" [Matthew 6:33]. Jesus' words leading up to this verse indicate that we do not need all that we have become accustomed to in our Western lifestyles. This verse provides a positive promise: God is actively engaged in providing what God deems essential for those who truly follow Jesus.
It has been the lived experience of countless of Jesus' disciples down through the ages that this is true. I think, for example, of Paul (Saul of Tarsus), of Francis of Assissi, of George Muller of Bristol (who decided to trust God for resources without telling humans about it) and was able to found orphanages on this basis - such that £3million went through his hands during his lifetime, and various missionaries like Hudson Taylor, James Fraser, Gladys Aylward. Their needs ('essential') were all met. Sometimes abundantly, but sometimes barely.
Example: At one stage, George Muller was looking after 300 orphans. He knew there was no food. Yet he believed God would supply. So at breakfast, he sat the 300 young people down, and said 'grace' (the prayer that many Christians say before a meal) to thank God for the food. Immediately, a knock came on the door. It was the baker. He explained, "I felt I must bake bread for you this morning" - and delivered enough for their meal. Then there was another knock, at which a milkman or farmer explained that he was on his way to deliver milk but his cart broke down and, not wanting to waste it, he decided to let the orphanage have it.
God sometimes actively provides what God knows is essential for those truly follow Jesus. But God does not always do it to our timescale, plans, and not even to our comfort. Sometimes, God does it in a way that increases our faith by exercising it.
As a disciple of Jesus, I wish to take God's active provision into account - but to understand the conditions under which it is valid. These seem to be
This brings us to aspects
I find them useful for helping me think about the diversity of Creation - and Dooyeweerd's approach is especially useful in Christian thinking because it is based on the fundamental idea that all meaningfulness derives, ultimately though maybe indirectly, from the Creator, God. And meaningfulness implies value, good and thus norms. It is also helpful because Dooyeweerd offers us an understanding of the idea of shalom, in which all life functions well together, as Reality (including humans) functioning well rather than dysfunctionally, in each and every aspect together. Good functioning in all aspects is require by, and constitutes, shalom.
Dooyeweerd's aspects can therefore help us think about essential versus non-essential in a nuanced way, which surpasses any false dichotomy, and yet allows for a recognition of the distinction implied by "non-". There are two ways in which Dooyeweerd's aspects apply to this:
In thinking about all these, we need, not so much logic, as wisdom, responsibility, care and proper perspectives.
For each aspect, I present the aspect and a link to its discussion on the Dooyeweerd Pages, a note of what is meaningful within its sphere, and then what is (non-)essential for each aspect of life to function well, and then how each aspect is important in our approach.
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to [to be written=====]. [to be written=====].
What is needed ('essential') for good development, skills, techniques, technologies, etc. is clear thinking and incentive to plan and form. However, this should be in harmony with all later aspects, and not absolutized e.g. "technology for technology's sake" or "our economy depends on technological advance at all costs".
This formative aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to the role of technology and technological advance in defining what seems essential. We must take into account the human tendency to make or innovate, on the other, the historical context as above. We would be unwise to deem non-essential that which the poor of the world now deem essential, such as email and mobile phone - so those are things we should adapt to. But other technological advances, which are enjoyed by the elite, wealthy cultures, may perhaps be questioned, especially when we bring in issues from other aspects such as surfeit, justice and attitude.
What is needed ('essential') for good lingual functioning is openness and honesty, and literacy, and hence education.
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to the need for conversations and discourse on the nature of essential and non-essential, and which things are essential and non-essential. That is what this page seeks to contribute.
We function in the social aspect as we come to agreement on what we deem essential and non-essential.
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to the need to obtain some measure of agreement about (a) the nature of essentiality and non-essentiality, (b) what is essential and non-essential in each aspect. Without widespread agreement, we have little hope of tackling the curse of over-consumption, leading to climate crisis and biodiversity loss, as well as other problems like obesity.
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to the whole notion of essentiality being at root an economic question (to do with needs) as well as a faith question (to do with what we believe to be kinds of needs that are truly essential rather than not-so-essential or non-essential). When we talk about "essential" we are thinking about what resources are needed. So, we do not seek to ban all harmful economic activity, but rather challenge the need for a surfeit of it. Surfeit is an economic notion, and goes against the laws of the economic aspect (if Dooyeweerd is correct), even though it seems to build up GDP-oriented economic growth in the short term. So we need to understand the causes of surfeit. There are multiple causes of surfeit of non-essentials. They are all kinds of aspectual human functioning, so we might use aspects at first to understand it; see Understanding Surfeit.
What is needed ('essential') for adequate resources? Answers to that question will, of course, depend on what social, lingual, cultural and other functions (including those to come, like aesthetic and juridical) we are allowing as 'essential' to resource. So it is bound up with other aspects. And an understanding and agreement that surfeit is harmful.
When we ask "What is needed ('essential') for decent aesthetic life?", we find the paradox that some non-essential is essential. The latter half of the aesthetic aspect speaks of a kind of non-essential that is good and valid. However, this does not justify non-essentials as such; there are three further aspects that (in Dooyeweerd's understanding at least) must modify and where necessary override this, as will be explained now.
This aesthetic aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to how we bring all the supposedly competing demands of the various aspects together. If we take Karl's statement about historical changes to what is 'essential' in complete isolation from all other considerations (which Karl himself was not doing), then we are going directly against the norm of this aspect, but if we bring in the juridical aspect as we did above, then we are beginning to function better in this aspect. If we take Richard's biotic aspect in isolation, then we could say that all social activity is non-essential, and that too would be a dysfunction in this aspect, but Richard was calling for taking e.g. the social aspect into account. We might call this the aspect of wisdom - and wisdom is fully exercised when we take every aspect into account, but in harmony. To do this requires especially the next three aspects.
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to the that that in 'balancing' 'my' aesthetic enjoyment, with my economic resourcing, with my relationships and roles, my conversations, my skills and innovativeness and technology, and so on, we must take into account justice for the poor, for animals, for the Planet and towards God. That this aspect is later than the aesthetic aspect that makes some non-essentials valid, and the historical aspect that recognises cultural differences, implies (to Dooyeweerd) that this juridical aspect must modify the consideration of those. Might this help us 'balance' the non-essentials beloved by the wealthy as 'essential', with the rights of the non-wealthy? Especially climate and environmental responsibility? However, this aspect, on its own, takes a rather legalistic stance to do so, which the next aspect goes beyond.
What is needed ('essential') to maintain justice for all, not just for the families in wealthy cultures, but also those in the non-wealthy cultures, for future generations, for animals and not just humans, and for the planet - and, to Christians, for God Whose the planet is?
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to ...In the light of this aspect, should not the wealthy be willing - very, very willing - to give up the non-essentials they consider essential for their conveniences or enjoyment, for the sake of the needs of the non-wealthy? Especially taking longer term issues like climate and environmental responsibility into account. This is not only an individual thing, but attitudes pervade communities and societies. Western-Humanistic individualism and competitiveness, which has spread across the world, tends to make it very hard for those affected to function in this aspect except in very minor ways.
So, the question is: what is needed ('essential') to ensure good attitudes pervade society. One thing, surely, is that we do not make-OK==== the practice of selfishness.
So the question is, what is needed ('essential') to maintain morale, and assumptions, commitments and perspectives that are in line with Reality (as God has Created) rather than ones that idolize something. For example, George Muller's and his boys' experiences of God's provision helps strengthen faith.
This aspect of thinking about (non-)essentiality draws our attention to the perspectives we assume or adopt when we argue for things being essential or non-essential - especially our hidden agendas, and the presuppositions we entertain about what constitutes the good life. Since it is the wealthy cultures that are dominating the world's agenda, as aspirational for other cultures, this aspect especially challenges the assumptions of those of us in wealthy cultures, to question our presuppositions, aspirations, expectations. For example, xxxx==== has introduced the idea of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic). Bob Goudzwaard, way back in 1984, insightfully drew our attention to some Idols of Our Time (then: technicism, economism, national security, and revolution - which probably need to be refined now).
The latter two especially influence the direction of our economic thinking and policy-making, towards either responsibility and generosity or biodiversity loss and climate crisis.
===== Here I intend to elaborate the simple table set out above. To be donw.
"Whether we use Andrew's terms or other ones, the waste must be 30-40% of GDP, and the importance of identifying and cutting this in part addressing global warming is obvious. Clearly, we all tend to privilege our own waste, but the meek will inherit the earth...Norms of efficiency, enough, what is good, 'dying to self' etc should shape our understanding of good and bad consumption. Alan S."
Now a few in a bit more detail:
Goudzwaard B. 1984. Idols of Our Time. IVP.
Graeber, D. 2018. Bullsh*t Jobs - The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It. Penguin Books.
Postman N. 1986. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Shown-business. Heinemann, London.
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Created: 5 April 2021 from Some Non-Essentials, adding major section on the difference between essential and non-essential. Last updated: 7 April 2021 Responding to further debate, which led to rewriting the Introduction to The Economy, and adding section about the Heywood submissions, and modifying other text. Added in Alan Storkey's material. 8 April 2021 incorporated more from the Thinknet discussion; created new sections on discourses and on advantages and dangers of thinking non-essentials. 9 April 2021 elaborated bullshit, baubles, beating.