Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Living poor, Part II:
Spend less, do less harm

I wrote in my blog post June 24 that money is the lifebood of civilization. We cannot function without it.

In any large-scale social grouping, two attributes, paradoxically opposed, are needed for survival: self-sufficiency and cooperation. We have to be able to accomplish some tasks on our own, and to work together to accomplish others. Money provides a framework for achieving both. Self-sufficiency comes from financial independence—the ability to buy what one needs—and cooperation in the form of income-earning work. It’s all conceptual, of course, illusory. Real self-sufficiency is making everything you need yourself and raising your own food, while true cooperation happens for no other reason than there’s need. Without money, few of us are truly self-sufficient, and without a steady paycheck, few of us prepared to work in needful joint endeavours.

This is not to cast aspersions, but rather to underline why money is essential. The notion of “value”, transferable between goods, services, and labour through the use of symbolic tokens, eases the burden of self-sufficiency and provides an incentive for cooperation.

No, we cannot do without money. And yet...

– the produce you buy at the supermarket is shipped from half a world away, creating a huge carbon footprint; most of it is grown as destructive monoculture crops; chemical pesticides, fertilizers and significant water diversion were likely involved; underpaid and unprotected migrant workers or impoverished native populations were used to harvest it

– the clothing you purchase was almost certainly made in a sweatshop

– the gasoline you fill your tank with on the way to work pollutes the atmosphere; wars are fought to keep the oil it comes from flowing

– money from the pills you buy enriches companies who manufacture deadly chemicals that enter the biosphere; the same companies then turn around and sell you drugs to treat the diseases they have caused

– the house you’re paying too much for—or selling for too much—inflates the cost of real estate, impoverishing millions and dooming many to homelessness

– the electricity you burn through comes from dirty, coal-fired generators, unsafe nuclear plants, and land-destroying damns

– the insurance premiums you pay on your hourse, your car, your belongings are invested in corporations that operate without regard to human rights, safety, or dignity; the environment is treated with the same contempt

– the treat you give yourself for being a wage-slave—a resort holiday on some impoverished island—adds to global warming when you fly there and come back, and furthers the social inequity endemic to poor nations

And that’s just what happens when you spend money. For many, earning it has consequences equally as dire. Flipping burgers at a fast-food joint contributes to the epidemic of obesity afflicting North America and encourages destructive land-use policies. Working for a financial institution means you’re helping those without a conscience play with capital—buying, selling, investing—wrecking lives and the environment without a second thought. Your factory job depends on manufactured obsolescence. Your farming job requires you to plant and harvest crops that have been modified so that the seed can’t be collected and you have to pay each year for something nature gives for free. Your teaching job demands that you train worker drones to feed the maw of finance rather than instructing students to become mature and thinking members of society.

If money is the lifeblood of civilization, then we must conclude that, at present, the blood is poisoned. Virtually every time we spend it, we are doing harm somewhere, and the hours we put in earning it are scarcely less damaging. There is no escaping; we must earn and spend in order to survive, yet doing so incurs a host of evils which, if left unchecked, threaten to destroy the Earth.

“Living poor”, as I have come to call my way of life, is not intended as a solution. It is not a cure. It is a response, an individual commitment not to worsen things, to minimize the damage done by money. It is a decision to devote oneself to real productivity and fruitful pursuits. It begins by valuing one’s social, creative, intellectual, and spiritual aptitudes higher than a paycheque, thereby enabling a life of conscience, not expedience. The choice is hard since it means limiting expenditures, forgoing convenience, overcoming laziness, and acquiring skills the poor the world over practise to survive.

Living poor need not be all-or-nothing; taken to extremes it risks fanaticism. Rather, it’s a guiding ethos, best described by questions: Am I learning to survive with less and still feel full? Am I maximizing the utility of everything I buy? Am I sharing what I can, even it it means I have to tighten up my belt? Am I seeking entertainment in the company of others, not expensive toys? Can I ask for help in need, knowing that I give it freely?

Living poor, as I see it, is taking on the role of conscientious objector in a war that’s being waged against the Earth and all humanity. The poor are not responsible for plundering the globe and spreading misery to every hemisphere. The poor don’t waste. The poor don’t wage imperial wars. The poor don’t despoil the environment. Furthermore, the poor know how to share. The poor know how to sacrifice. The poor know how to work together. Joining them by learning to get by with next to nothing will not stop the war, but it minimizes harm and announces that you won’t partake in something that runs contrary to conscience.

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