Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Voluntary Poverty

Strange water. Thick. I can recall it even now. The more
     it slipped off you the more it clung to you
and caked

so that the only sense of cleanliness you got
     was in the decision
to stop

- Jorie Graham, from "Imperialism"

It's that day of the year again, when we all get together and make a difference by blogging about making a difference. Once again, masses of people have flocked to the internet to support Action. And there are so many actions you can take. Just close your eyes and click a link. You don't even have to be all that creative. Plenty of people have already thought up truly wonderful and fun ways of fighting poverty--all you needed to do now is send money. There's even a way that you can shop poverty into extinction! Isn't that nice?

Certainly I'm not against political activism--I believe we should be more intensely involved in the shaping and evolving of the communities in which we live, of course I do. But once again, for the second year in a row, I find myself wondering if sometimes for all our buzzing and concentrated efforts, we're mostly like the proverbial fly at the window pane.

So, on Blog Action Day, this is my personal suggestion for how to make a difference: choose poverty.

That's right. It's a very simple solution, so obvious it verges on ridiculous. But after all, on a finite planet with limited space and resources, the price of one person's prosperity is another's poverty. And if this is the case, surely the reverse must also be true: if you want others to have more, then start by having less for yourself.*

With that in mind, I present to you:


Name Your Fears

     What are you so afraid of? If you had to give up everything you own, what would the nightmare of poverty look like to you? If you had to settle for making only half of your current yearly salary--what changes would you have to make? Which of those changes frighten you the most, and why? Are you afraid of losing respect, independence, social influence? Are you afraid of being unable to meet even your most basic needs? Are you afraid of being unable to put money away for the future in case you lose your job or develop health problems? Don't analyze or justify your fears--for now, just name them.

Name Your Dreams

     Many people living in the West today (especially in America) are hung up on the American Dream--the house with the big yard, the kids, a dog or two, the car in the garage. The simple fact is, this dream is unfeasible. There is no way that the finite resources of this planet would be able to sustain even a fraction of the current human population if everyone really lived this way. Hey, life's not fair. By stubbornly clinging to such a dream, you tacitly accept and support a system that keeps much of the world in extreme poverty. And the truth is, plenty of people "living the dream" aren't all that happy anyway. So forget the "American" Dream. Name your dreams. What is it that you really want out of life? Friendship, family, freedom, excitement, stability, amusement, satisfying work, aesthetic stimulation, intellectual stimulation? Again, don't analyze or justify. Just name them. Make a list, even. Imagine a perfect life--not what you own, but what you do and why. Understand your daydreams of prosperity as well as you understand your nightmares of deprivation.

Seek Perspective

     Now, begin to ask yourself what you would really need in order to fulfill your dreams and avoid your fears. Don't expect anyone else to come to your rescue, least of all indifferent multinational corporations trying to sell you something. If you want to be healthy and are afraid of being unable to afford adequate health care, seek out inexpensive ways to take active steps towards better health and disease prevention, rather than focusing on expensive treatments down the road. Avoid expensive, processed foods that are bad for you and fill your diet with fresh produce, simple whole grains, beans, nuts and soy. Go out in the fresh air to walk or jog regularly. Have a cup of herbal tea each night before bed (plenty of herbs have health benefits, and you can grow them for yourself in your own windowsill or backyard--not to mention, it's a nice way to relax and unwind, detox from stress and too much caffeine). If you find yourself bored or frustrated with your work or your social relationships, don't escape into movies, television or video games. Try making something, creating something new--either art or crafts, or new friendships and relationships with those around you.
     Also, do research. Look into other cultures from all over the world and throughout history. Our current industrial-consumerist culture has only been in existence for the past two or three centuries at the most. Explore and find out how people managed to survive and even thrive in cultures that were vastly different from your own, and see which ideas and lifestyle choices you can incorporate to meet your needs and fulfill your dreams.

Pay Attention

     Patterns are everywhere, in behavior and attitudes, your own and others'. Learn to notice them. The next time you hear someone complain about "welfare queens," for instance, ask yourself if the kind of attitude of entitlement without effort is not just as prevalent in the upper classes of invested and inherited wealth. If an attitude is considered "dangerous' or improper among the lower class but is praised as reasonable and even admirable among the upper class, be wary. Before you criticize the person begging for change on the street because "he'll just waste it on alcohol or drugs," ask yourself if you don't do very much the same thing with your own earnings, investing in goods and services that give you a sense of relief, ease, or comfort without actually increasing the quality of your life (I was amazed when my mother once told me, "health insurance is the best way to stay healthy"--I thought taking care of yourself was how you stayed healthy, and insurance was a kind of hypothetical safety net that, if you were lucky, you threw away thousands of dollars on but never had to use).
     Also, pay attention to your own patterns of behavior and response. Each time you go to purchase something or spend money, ask yourself which of your fears and which of your dreams does the purchase reflect. Don't skimp. Make more lists, if you like. Be familiar with your fears and dreams so that when a company attempts to play on them and use them to convince you of a purchase, you can resist and rely instead on the choices of your rational mind. If part of your dream is to live a life of ethical choices that do not harm or exploit others (which I certainly hope it is!), then make the effort to discover the effects of your purchase choice. What kind of company sells the product, how is it made, who benefits and who doesn't? Will your purchase help others realize their own dreams, or will it keep them in a cycle of scarcity and fear? Would you want someone to make an apathetic choice if it was your dreams and happiness riding on the decision? (The answer to that one should be, "No.")

Spend Less, Give More

     Hopefully, after going through the long, soul-searching process of steps one through four, you're exhausted and fed up. Good. That's part of the point. Being a consumer is an exhausting and horrendous waste of time. After worrying so much about who made my clothes and what nasty pollutant by-products the manufacturers released, seeking the least of apparently many evils--finally, I gave up and just stopped buying clothes altogether. What do I need new clothes every season for, anyway? Being more careful of how I wash and mend clothes, shrugging off social pressures to wear current trends and colors that match perfectly and never fade--I haven't had to buy new clothes in about five years. I still sometimes indulge myself in some new blouses and slacks made from organic cotton and hemp, dyed with natural clay or using other environmentally-safe methods. Obviously, I can't just stop eating, but I have learned to eat less, and to eat foods that give me the most "bang" for my buck--nutrient rich, organic and well-balanced. I stopped saving up for a car, because owning a car would mean not just the one-time expense of the purchase, but the on-going expenses of insurance and fuel, not to mention the environmental and health costs (instead, I walk almost everywhere, and when I can't, I use public transportation).
     The flip side of spending less is giving more--more of yourself, more of your time and talents--and giving it generously, without expectation of return. This spirit of generosity, a core value to the ancient Celts, keeps wealth circulating freely through a community without the necessity of fear and scarcity-driven economics. In the time I save not having to work longer hours to meet higher budget needs, I'm able to carve out more leisure time for shared simple pleasures--walks in the park (to share the freely-given company of nature), reading and rereading good, inexpensive books (sharing the writer's insights and ideas, then discussing them with others and generating our own to give back), creative writing and blogging (that I can't seem to give away fast enough, though it rarely earns me anything), and social time with friends (sharing laughs, ideas and support). My productivity of useful, meaningful work has gone up, as well as my sense of well-being and enjoyment; not only am I able to do more with my time, free from stress and worries, but I am able to give of these activities more freely and feel that they are valued and valuable in themselves, regardless of their price.

*All right, well, it's not that simple, maybe. Economists (pesky things) would say that wanting more is precisely what drives us to create as well as acquire. If we don't hoard our money and material goods, there won't be any reason for others to produce those goods for us, so production goes down and we're still left with the poorest class lurking at the bottom of a stagnated circulation of wealth. But this view is based on the assumption that producing more is always an unquestionable good. Clearly, in a society churning out more kinds of cell phones than there are species of snail, the mere quantity of items being produced has very little to do with meeting the basic needs of the population. Instead, I think of it more like a pond full of algae. Without any way of keeping the superfluous production of unnecessary goods in check, the top layer of algae floating on the pond's surface thickens and spreads until no light at all can penetrate into deeper waters to help sustain the life there. Soon, everything in the pond dies except that muck of algae. But if the surface layer remains thin enough, light can penetrate, sustaining plant life, fish, frogs and all sorts of wonderful creatures living below the surface.

All right, it's not a perfect metaphor. For instance, in a pond, animals can keep algae proliferation in check by consuming it, whereas I'm suggesting just the opposite--to decrease our consumption of unnecessary goods, those luscious luxuries floating along the rich upper layers of our culture. On the other hand, our economic ecosystem is so out of whack that there may be no suitable natural metaphor available. In a more balanced culture, basic needs could be met without having to completely reject the modest pleasures afforded by the "algae" of art, sports, spiritual pursuits, and social entertainment. We could nibble on the succulent greens without worrying that it threatened to deprive us of the very light and oxygen we needed to survive. But this is not a balanced culture. It is, in fact, far out of balance and growing ever more so.

So if you want to make a difference, if you believe in social mobility and the circulation of wealth, then it's easy enough to find a real solution, a positive action towards a whole new way of living, rather than the limited reaction of offering ten dollars charity money here or there when the need seems greatest. Choose poverty. Choose, in other words, to stop, to step out of the thick, strange water of consumerism and find a better way.


  1. I do agree with 99.9% of this post, but it seems to me you are making a core economic assumption that is very common, but misguided. You assume that in order for other people to have more abundance, you have to give up some of yours; i.e. you assume that economics is a zero-sum game, like chess. If you win, someone else has to lose. But that's not the case at all.

    In fact, economic transactions are almost always win-win. If you go to the store and buy an apple for $.79, who wins -- you, or the store? The answer is, BOTH of you. After all, you now have an apple, which you value more than the $.79. (Presumably you value the apple more than $.79, or you wouldn't have paid the money.) And the store now has the $.79, which it valued higher than the apple (otherwise they would have charged a higher price).

    Similarly, when you go to work, you value the money you receive higher than the time you're giving up. Otherwise, you'd keep your time for yourself. Right? So both you and the place you work are winning in this transaction.

    So I would offer just this: don't choose poverty so that other people will have more. Choose poverty for other reasons, sure. But the economy isn't zero-sum.

  2. Jeff, You are right, and I don't really believe economics is a zero-sum game, though it's a very easy explanation to fall back on. Kind of like my response to wealthy individuals who complain about paying taxes: want to pay fewer taxes? Easy: make less money. Obviously their real complaint is about having less money for themselves, so that making less is not really a reasonable solution to propose. However it does help to illustrate their unspoken belief that their wealth is something they have earned and thus deserve, regardless of the systemic inequalities that enabled them to earn it.

    But anyway--I'm more concerned about resources and remaining grounded in their reality (and their very real finiteness). In order to claim that both me and the store/employer/whoever benefit from economic transactions, notice that you've already had to step back one level of abstraction and bring in the idea of money. But money, especially now that it's no longer tied to actual stores of gold, is merely an imaginary way of participating in the game, and different players may have different ideas of how money "translates" in terms of real resources, material goods and labor. Someone who makes less than a dollar a day, for instance, (because some company based oversees has a different evaluation of the monetary value of that person's labor) may not consider a 79-cent apple as "worth the price," but if there is simply no viable way to provide apples, or any food, for less (if the real cost in resources and time, to grow, ship, and/or package the apple, simply cannot be accomplished for less than, say, 77 cents and the company simply cannot stay in business without some marginal profit)--then the person making a dollar a day has the choice to spend more on the apple than they can truly afford, or they'll starve. In a world where everyone is paid fairly for their labor and goods are priced fairly according to their real-world cost in terms of production, etc., then we might say that economic transactions benefit everyone involved. But that is not how the real world works.

    Another example is water. A friend was telling me recently about a situation he heard of in some countries (and possibly soon here in the U.S.) of companies "owning" water and charging for its use and consumption. Their justification was that they do the service of cleaning and purifying the water, so they should be allowed to charge people for that service in compensation. As my friend pointed out, however, these companies are often the very same companies causing such high concentrations of pollution in the water to begin with. But rather than viewing the clean-up of their own waste as part of the "cost" of the original production process, they are able to abstract and compartmentalize to such an extent that they can profit even more from a service that is actually damaging to the environment and the people they claim to "benefit." But people need clean water in order to survive--just as they need food, and air--so whatever these companies end up charing will have to be worth paying, since survival itself can never be less dear than one's material wealth (i.e. what good is money if you're dead?). Thus, companies are able to "work the system" of abstract economic justification in order to profit twice over from something that used to be a freely available resource to all living creatures on earth. And they'll get away with it, because people have gotten so focused on economic double-talk that they've forgotten that water used to be naturally clean and apples used to grow wild.

    And that is the sense in which I mean that personal profit too often comes at the cost of someone (or something) else. The history of capitalism is riddled with burst bubbles, because its natural tendency is to run away with itself, dreaming and abstracting and projecting future profits that just cannot be sustained by finite real-life resources. As above, so below. Individuals are just as much at risk of this delusional chasing of ever-increasing wealth as are economic systems as a whole (after all, it is the individual pursuit of such wealth upon which these economic systems are based). So even if the apple is worth more to you than 79 cents, do you really want to pay that 79 cents to a company who values 79 cents more than a life-giving apple, and the pesticides it uses to grow that apple, and the creatures who all depend on the now-polluted water in order to survive. In other words, do you want to benefit from a transaction with a company who values an abstraction like money so highly, at the expense of real life? Doesn't that make you party to your own exploitation?

  3. Ali,

    Hmmm... Well, first off, in the situation of buying the apple at the store, I very carefully did not say that both sides of the economic transaction benefited *equally*. In fact, measuring which side benefits more is basically impossible, since there are all sorts of subjective factors at play. It's probably the case that you (the purchaser of the apple) benefit a lot more than the grocery store, since an apple can keep you alive for a few hours, but the sale of one apple is only of miniscule benefit to the store. So really, there is no such thing as "real-world cost of production", since every individual and every company places different values on things.

    Nevertheless, it IS possible to say that both sides benefit; otherwise the transaction (which is, after all, voluntary) would not have taken place.

    If you're making a dollar a day and apples cost $.79, what is necessary is charity. Since it's so expensive to get apples to these unfortunates, feeding the people in this situation will be an economic drain on the rest of us -- a drain we should eagerly embrace. But it's worth noting, I think, that a company is designed to make a profit via a set of mutually-beneficial economic transactions, so it's not really fair to criticize it for not engaging in charity. It's like criticizing a hammer for doing a rotten job reaping wheat.

    I'm afraid I had to chuckle when I read about your water example. You're basically describing the situation as it exists in the United States already. We all have to pay the government for our water; and the water is polluted by industries that have the full backing and blessing of the US government. If the government (ie judicial system) were doing its job, we would be able to bring a class-action lawsuit against businesses that pollute our water.

    Given that water is a limited resource, I have no problem paying someone for it. I would be delighted to contribute to charities that distributed water to those who couldn't afford it. But the current system is a lot closer to what you describe.

    Finally, concerning bubbles: a bubble occurs when lots of people make similar bad investments. Everyone cares about their money, and no one wants to make a bad investment. People try to check their investments to make sure they're good, but sometimes they don't have good information, or they make bad assumptions. There's no way around that, especially when governments fiddle with the interest rates or publish distorted economic figures. When a bubble occurs, it's best to allow the investments to fail, so that the money can be redirected into good investments. I'm not sure what this has to do with charity.