What is luxury exactly? Where does it begin and where does it end? What do I mean when I call something a luxury? Since posting luxury, ease, the topic has been ping-ponging incessantly around my head. I had to write about it again.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says of luxury:
1 archaic : lechery, lust
2 a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort : sumptuous environment
Forget the archaic definition. But “not absolutely necessary”? I’d also use those words. As for “provides pleasure,” I’d argue that there are plenty of things that provide pleasure that are not luxuries. (Food. Sex. Laughter. Music.) The same goes for “satisfaction.”
So what is “absolutely necessary”? Not as defined by dictionaries, but by you and I. I would answer clean food, clean air, and clean water. (You might say we can and do get by on the poisoned stuff, but I think today’s cancer/asthma/etc rates thanks to pollution are less than “getting by.”) Shelter. Warmth for our bodies when it is cold.
But even on this basic level there are more questions. Where do you draw the line between luxury and necessity? How much food? What kind of shelter? There are shades of gray between them all. Between potato soup and a five-course catered feast. Between a lean-to structure and a villa. Between a thick blanket and central heating.
Another factor to consider is access. Does everyone in the community have equal access to the so-called luxury? A resource plentiful in one part of the world might be perceived as a luxury in an area where the same resource is scarce. Or something necessary to life might only be available to those with the money to buy it. (True of food, water, and shelter in much of the world today.)
And now another question: can ease be equated with luxury? Disposable plastic cups could be considered a luxury because they are not absolutely necessary. They also make an individual’s life momentarily easier (no dishes to wash). But I have a hard time thinking of a plastic cup as a luxury. Plastic cups are stupid. Plastic cups are ugly. In considering this I realized something about my own thought process: I don’t associate the word “luxury” with just any decadence, but specifically with an aesthetically pleasing decadence.
When I think of the word luxury out of context I start picturing gold-leafed molding, thick Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, servants and champagne. And perhaps this is the problem—most people think of luxury this way, connecting it with kings and millionaires instead of recognizing it in the little things. What about water heated by nuclear power, coffee flown in from South America, out-of-season vegetables at the supermarket year round, and “disposable” plastics? Technically, these things fit the bill. Let’s call them what they are.