Just right: the Goldilocks Principle and Sustainability

Simple living is a case of not too little and not too much, in other words, just right.

The idea of ‘just right’ is also known as the Goldilocks principle. It is named after the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks preferred the porridge that was not too hot and not too cold, but just right. She also preferred the bed that was not too hard and not too soft, but just right.

The Goldilocks Principle has been identified in many fields including psychology, economics, statistics and medicine. Astrobiologists say that star systems have a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ which is a habitable zone where life could potentially evolve because it’s not too hot and not too cold. The Earth is in the Goldilocks Zone of our solar system. In another field, developmental psychology, the Goldilocks Zone refers to an infant’s preference to attend to new things that are neither too simple nor too complex, according to their current perception of the world.

The middle way

Many religions and philosophies extol the ‘middle way’, or ‘middle path’. This is the path between extremes. For instance, in Buddhism the middle way refers to a spiritual practice that steers clear of both extreme asceticism and extreme indulgence. Socrates taught that a person must know “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” In the Cretan tale of Daedalus and Icarus, Daedalus built feathered wings so he and his son Icarus could escape from King Minos. Daedalus warned Icarus to “fly the middle course” between the sea spray and the sun’s heat. Icarus did not heed his father; he flew up and up until the sun melted the wax off his wings and he plunged to his death.

In Sweden the word ‘lagom’ translates as ‘just the right amount’. In just one word, ‘lagom’ is said to describe the basis of the Swedish national psyche, one of consensus and equality. 

I wrote in the post ‘Nothing in excess’ that extremes are bad, not just too much (excess) but also too little (deficiency). You can have too little of a good thing (e.g. food), which is obviously bad, and you can have too much of a good thing (e.g. food), which is also bad. There is a golden mean between the two extremes which I would call an optimal balance. 

The sacred balance

In nature things tend to balance out, not too much of this and not too much of that, because it would be unsustainable. For example, populations of different animals remain relatively stable over time in an ecosystem. This is because any sudden increase or decrease of a particular species would upset the balance both up and down the food chain. In biology this balance is called homeostasis, which is defined as a self-regulating process by which biological systems maintain equilibrium while adjusting to changing external conditions. Homeostasis is another way of saying ‘just right’. In his book The Sacred Balance, David Suzuki talks about how we humans have upset the balance of nature and in so doing we have upset our own balance as well. 

Practical wisdom: knowing what is ‘just right’

Aristotle thought that too much of a virtue could be a bad thing. e.g. too much confidence could lead to recklessness or too much thrift could lead to miserliness. Aristotle believed we should pursue Phronesis (a Greek word that means prudence or ‘practical wisdom’). It is not just about knowing what is right but also in the right amount, and at the right time. Knowing and understanding what is ‘just right’ is wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom is one of the goals of Sustainabilism.

What is enough

Sustainability is when our collective ecological footprint is less than the biocapacity of nature. The idea of sustainabilism is to get the greatest amount of general well-being from the least amount of resources use.

We talk about sufficiency which is enough consumption for a life of well-being. We think that too much consumption is bad for you as well as being bad for the environment. The idea of enough Is the idea of just right: Not too little and not too much.

Of course, this still leaves the question: how much is enough? It is the minimum of whatever is needed to provide the maximum of well-being.