Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Is "Enough" Really Enough?

When the author was traveling around Eastern Europe a few years ago, a Chinese man met on the bus told him of a Chinese friend who used to work on a potato farm in Russia.  The man said his friend was busy gathering potatoes during the season when all the sudden, the boss of the farm told him to stop.

“Hey, we got enough potatoes for the season, so you can stop now,” the boss said in a rather matter-of-fact way.

“Wait, so what do we do with the rest of the potatoes?  We still have many hectares that we haven’t harvested,” the friend was positively confused by the boss’ order.

“Just leave it.  We don’t need them.”  The boss stated nonchalantly, and walked away.

Flabbergasted, the friend spent the next days and weeks watching perfectly good potatoes rot in the field, as the boss and his family went about their regular lives with not a single bit of concern.  Of course, there could have been many good reasons for the boss to not harvest the potatoes.  Maybe the potato prices are so low that the labor and transport costs are not worth the extra sales.  Maybe rotten potatoes are what keep the soil filled with nutrition for the coming seasons.  But there is just one thing that the friend cannot accept in conscience, the Chinese man told the author.

“He was telling me as if he had some sort of epiphany,” the man said of his friend, “he said, ‘have you ever heard of a Chinese person ever say he had “enough” of anything?’”

He probably told the story partly as a joke to illustrate just how cheap Chinese people are (a trait that the author completely agrees), but after months and months of visiting farmers’ fields herein rural Tanzania, somehow this story that he heard from years ago came back to him, not as a joke but as a rather unfortunate reminder of just how important being a bit more ambitious in life can be, even if that ambition can be a bit costly in the short run.  After all, the concept of “not having enough” is not so much a logical calculation but a mental and behavioral habit.

How so?  One can go on and on about famous businessmen and athletes who were not satisfied by small success, and strove for greatness great enough for the history books.  But that seems rather out of reach for the common man.  Instead, “not having enough” can be reflected in everyday actions that trades a bit more sincere efforts that are directed toward the desire (or at the very least, hope) that a better result can be achieved in the same routine activity that one has been doing day in and day out for the past days, weeks, months, and years.

In the rural Tanzanian context, there is no better example of such routine activity than farming.  Generations after generations of subsistence farmers till the same fields to plant the same crops in the same way.  For many families, there have been generations after generations of food insecurity, with not enough grown to feed all family members.  Plenty of objective reasons (whether it is climate volatility, soil quality, or mismatching geography) exist to explain the difficulties of successful farming, but that does not change the fact that many have done the same thing for generations.

Perhaps they have not had anyone give them any good idea that can potentially increase yield, or perhaps the ideas given were so risky that these farmers were unwilling to risk having even less food than before.  But somehow, the author is more and more tending to reach the conclusion that many people out here feel that “barely enough is good enough” as far as growing food is concerned.  To them, the additional effort needed to speculatively increase the yield by a little bit is just not worth the energy expended on the efforts.

Why would the author conclude as such?  He has seen too many farmers who clearly understood the merit of certain farming methods, but in the end do not implement them because the method takes more time and labor.  The methods, to them, are too cumbersome and tiresome, in ways that essentially not worth it even when they know that the methods are going to work to some degree.  But because the increased yield cannot be guaranteed, but the extra efforts are certain, the easy way out is just to not do it.  There is enough to go around anyways, why get more?

But is that “enough” really enough?  May be in times of good rains and suns, the food really is enough to keep everyone fed and happy.  But no one can predict the weather.  One year of good conditions may be followed by several years of bad.  It is at those times that one would wish they saved up some food and money from the good years so that the bad years are not so bad.  When one becomes okay with “just enough,” such considerations for the mid- to long-term is completely absent.  With innately human sense of unforeseen crisis numbed by “having enough” in the present, actions to improve don’t happen.

Such inertia is true for the Russian potato farmer, the Tanzanian maize farmer, and thousands of salaried people stuck in jobs that pay bills but provide little else.  “Enough” may be great for the present, but it creates a lifelong laziness that retarded any effort to break out of the mediocre routine for something potentially better.  Even when that hope for improvement is remote and tiny, if the habit is there to pursue them, surely bigger, better opportunities and ideas can be caught when they come around.  But without the drive to “never have enough,” nothing really starts.  

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