Sunday, August 3, 2008

Make Wealth History

In recent months I have come across several fascinating articles – all of them from The Ecologist.

There have been some great articles about the economy and the environment and consumerism. I could (and may) go on at length, but one idea in particular stuck with me and keeps coming up again.

It came from a very brief article called “How to be Free: The last untapped resource.” The author argued that we shouldn’t be trying to end poverty – but instead we should be putting an end to wealth. I’ve spent the last year or two studying international aid, economic development, microfinance development, and lots of theories about how to lift people out of poverty. One of the things I learned about was absolute poverty versus relative poverty. Absolute poverty is that extreme poverty where you don’t have the essentials of life: food, water, a place to live. Relative poverty is more about how poor you feel compared to others. If we all live in one bedroom houses and have enough food to eat, we probably feel fine. But if someone builds a mansion in our neighborhood we feel a lot poorer.

We should definitely put an end to absolute poverty. I hope eventually no one will go hungry or thirsty. I hope eventually everyone will have access to housing, health care, education, and jobs. But we don’t all (in fact none of us) need to own mansions, $20,000 cars, the latest electronic gadget, and things like that.

After all, argues the author of this article, what does it mean to end poverty? It means the poor of the world will be able to afford to buy stuff! But all 6.4 billion of us cannot live at the incredible high levels set by western countries, especially the US. That shouldn’t mean that we in the US continue at these levels while the poor become poorer and poorer. We in the western countries and the US need to reduce our levels of wealth.

The author, Tom Hodgkinson, says it better:
“The first thing you do with a little money is start to consume oil. You also buy more stuff, more plastics and more of the output of the industrial society…. The gradual elimination of poverty would mean that global demand for oil would rise… This means…that wealth is ecologically damaging. It is not eco-friendly. And it means poverty is eco-friendly.
“So when we talk glibly about our desire to end poverty, we need to reflect a little more carefully on what that means. In actual fact, one way to avoid environmental catastrophe would not be to end poverty but to end wealth. It is wealth, not poverty, that makes the problem. A self-sufficient subsistence life may look to us like poverty, but if people have all they need and enjoy life, what is wrong with being poor?”

I’ve been mulling this over for some time and then ran across another article in The Ecologist. This one seemed benign, just an interview with the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia is an outdoor wear company and they’ve been involved in recycling and organic cotton and other great earth-friendly programs for years. The green movement has no doubt been helpful to them. But then I read Chouinard’s last comment: “There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.”

I’m all for electric cars, solar and wind power, recycled and reused materials, organic everything, green this, earth-friendly that, and so on. But… is it possible we could cause just as much damage consuming vast quantities of green products? Maybe it would take longer, but overconsumption is overconsumption.

It’s nice that I can sit on my couch in my lovely apartment and blog about the virtues of poverty. But most people who are poor don’t see it as a good thing (and I’ve been there so I think I can talk). The point of making wealth history is that those of us who are wealthy need to take a look at ourselves. We need to forget about the Joneses and what everyone else thinks. If we aren’t happy with a house full of stuff and crushing debt, we need to do something about that. We need to remember the difference between need versus want. Perhaps we need to (as another Ecologist article suggests) downshift. We need a worldwide cultural shift – where downshifting, poverty, simplicity, and living with less are valued and the norm. Where working 60 hours a week and consuming as much as possible is looked down upon and is definitely not the norm.

Jeremy and I have been talking and thinking about this a lot lately – so stay tuned. We’ll be back with more thoughts on this…


@bdul muHib said...

Good post. I was just talking to my dad yesterday, about the fake "War on Terror", because George II can't understand the meaning of the word "metaphor". Now that the CIA has come out and said we shouldn't use the phrase anymore, and the administration has dropped it, I suggested to my dad that we need to begin a War on Wealth. Not the wealthy, but on wealth itself.

Aimee said...

Yeah, I read your post on that and thought it was very interesting. I didn't know the gov. had decided to stop using it. As a quaker, I'm not sure about the idea of a 'war' on anything, but I get your meaning. =)

@bdul muHib said...

Really? I said that on a post?

I think we need to embrace the metaphorical use of the word "war". We should not reject the Old Testament or try to change it to fit our desires; we need to understand it's meaning. Likewise, Paul was very happy to use the metaphors, when appropriate. Indeed, I'd argue it was not a metaphor at all. Jesus did not reject war; he regularly engaged in war. But for Jesus and Paul, war was rejected against humans. Wealth, and violence, terrorism, and drugs, I would say are all manifestations of the demonic.

Omar Poppenlander said...

Do we really want to eliminate wealth? Or is what we really want and need to eliminate conspicuous and extravangant overconsumption? It seems to me that what we probably need is a new definition of wealth . . .

I like John DeGraaf's description of the problem: Affluenza

@bdul muHib said...

I would say Yes. Wealth is a root of all kinds of evil. And while we could say that about a host of other things, our Lord singled out wealth for that appelation, and I think he was correct. One can have possessions, of course, without it being wealth. Wealth in the terms Jesus was referring to it there means a great deal of possessions. Wealth, more than almost anything else, is a corruption that destroys everything it touches, and runs contrary to the Kingdom ideal of community, sharing all things in common, and not regarding anything as one's own.

Aimee said...

Well, we do need to eliminate 'affluenza' and overconsumption. It's interesting, Omar, that you mention redefining wealth. I've been thinking for some time we need to redefine poverty.
Either way it comes to the same thing: redefine a word or idea so we're more comfortable being that way.
Perhaps we just need a new word. Jeremy suggests downshifting. But downshifting is more of a verb than a noun, a state of being (wealthy or poor). But perhaps a verb is better - it describes the process. After all, aren't the wealthy getting wealthier and the poor poorer?

@bdul muHib said...

I thought a lot about the issues of absolute vs. relative poverty when I went to Egypt 10 years ago. It was my first time living around extreme unchosen poverty. I think however it is defined, that relative poverty should be what we are striving for. As you say, God will meet our needs. But we need to strive to be poorer than those around us, so that we can lead them into a state of depending on God to a greater degree than they now do- which is the whole point of poverty.