Saturday, February 2, 2008

Rethinking What It Means to be Wealthy

My faithful reader, GEM, pointed out that my last post on the Nano car left out a critical component of the equation, and asked the especially pertinent question, “If we ourselves cannot see past the setting in stone of attitudes toward what constitutes the ‘good life’ that the communications media and economic philosophy makes possible and inescapable (almost) how can we expect sensible response from another culture which strives to emulate our ‘success’?”

The short answer is, of course, that a thoughtful person can’t expect the ‘sensible’ response, because awareness that the pot is calling the kettle black is part of the critique. That’s why the positions of people like Vandana Shiva are so welcome and so reassuring. Shiva, an Indian woman who understands the culture and economics of India far better than the most erudite Westerner could, observes in her 2005 article, “How To End Poverty: Making Poverty History And The History Of Poverty” that “it is useful to separate a cultural conception of simple, sustainable living as poverty from the material experience of poverty that is a result of dispossession and deprivation.” She distinguishes what I have come to think of as true poverty—that which derives from cultural and material deprivation and produces misery—from what Westerners mistake for poverty: small-scale sustainable communities that do not participate in the drive toward what we in the West perceive of as wealth: more and more material goods produced less and less sustainably.

The poor who live in the West, as a matter of fact, may even look wealthy; they may sport designer clothes or be obese, but suffer from a cultural poverty that seems to be little recognized on this side of the world. The children of culturally impoverished communities often grow up ill-nourished, badly schooled, and essentially futureless, only to repeat the cycle as adults.

But, since I’m in the business of imagining alternative futures, I thought it might be useful to start thinking about what real wealth might look like. I’ve actually done a great deal of this in More News From Nowhere, but here are some basic themes:

Physical well-being: rather than being a population of people who are too fat or too thin, or suffering from chronic, culturally-imposed illnesses, truly wealthy citizens would be fundamentally healthy. They would get enough exercise walking and working that they don’t need gymnasiums or “health clubs.” They would be engaged in useful work like agriculture or house-husbandry, would eat well and be protected from the elements, and live in an un-polluted world—thus escaping most of the environmentally engendered diseases that plague us in the “real” world.

Material sufficiency: as Goldilocks reminds us, there is something called “just right.” The Greeks called it “nothing to excess,” and we talk about the “happy medium.” The plague of the West and of the developing world is trash, the ultimate symbol of excess. If we only made what we really need (not what we are taught to want), we would have no use for landfills and the landscape would not be littered with the detritus of “too much”: plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, aluminum cans, broken bottles, etc. Nobody would be in debt, because the economy wouldn’t depend on selling people things they don’t actually need. Wealthy people would have enough; they would not suffer from deprivation, nor would they possess excessive material goods.

Intellectual engagement: instead of a plugged-in, tuned-out culture of techno-addicts, a truly wealthy people would be engaged in their communities, aware of the past, and invested in the future; at the same time, they would be able to live in the moment, “tuned in” to their immediate environments. There would be a place for some of our more sophisticated technologies (such as the internet, because of its potential for binding communities) and exploratory sciences, but education would be a life-long endeavor, and teaching and learning would take place at home, in the workplace, and in the world at large, rather than in specialized institutions divorced from the everyday lives of citizens. Science and technology would focus on well-being and sustainability rather than on “progress” or creating more and more stuff. The arts and humanities would provide opportunities for creative expression, and would be married to science and technology instead of being seen as separate and/or subordinate. Art and music would be practiced by all, all the time, and not relegated to separate venues (“arts districts”) or reserved for an elite few.

I could go on. And on. And I probably will, later. But I wanted to take GEM’s response as a starting point for talking about a world in which being rich doesn’t mean having an enormous amount of money, living in a too-big house, driving a fuel-needy car. Wealth should not exist at the expense of the poor—and too often, these days, one man’s wealth depends on an entire population’s poverty. Only if we seriously reconsider what constitutes the “good life” will we be in any position to admonish the developing world about what its quest for wealth means to the future of the planet.

1 comment:

GEM said...

You made some great points, most clearly, concisely, and convincingly. Vandana Shiva's discussion has helped elaborate your points here, Owl. Thank you for adding an eloquent "voice in the wilderness". GEM