Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Money and Responsibility

It is likely a truism that you can't make money by trying to convince people to scale back on the consumption that feeds their happiness, at least the kind of happiness that depends on dominating Nature. Increasing that happiness is the purpose of our economy, evidenced by the fact that its size (Gross World Product) is proportional to the square of the average happiness of the world's population.

This is evident at the personal level, especially for those us who accept that we are consuming so much that we are critically degrading our planet's ability to remain habitable for species like us. Scaling back is our only rational option, but it is also the hardest option for the vast majority of us, especially since we continue believing that our economic system can still increase our happiness, and because that system has dominated so much of the world that our survival is intricately tied up with it – by making money.

I've described my own personal struggle with this in much of my writing. It is a key theme in Death Stoppers Anthology, the end of which publicly committed me to decisively following my own advice, no matter what the consequences. That advice involves scaling back on consumption and motivating others to do the same, which I am having some success with, but not enough, and not in a way that is obviously sustainable.

Like many families, my wife and I have used debt to maintain our standard of living while income has fluctuated; and since debt is a promise fundamentally based on the expectation of economic growth to pay it off (due to interest, which accrues no matter what), making more money is a personal imperative just to break even. Through the financial system, that money helps fuel growth in other parts of the economy, which ultimately makes our collective demise more likely in the near future.

Cutting back on expenses and living on a smaller income tends to put a brake on that growth; but it has a lot of negative side effects, not the least of which is the stress of feeling trapped with a huge threat hanging over your head, not only of debt but of a future when we can no longer work. While I tend to be most sensitive to the stress associated with not meeting my global responsibility, it is more normal to intensely feel this stress associated with not meeting personal responsibility. As I've written in many ways: under current circumstances, relieving one will make the other worse unless we can be desensitized to it (typically in an unhealthy way), but this will only work until we are all forced to deal with the underlying problem that is making it impossible to escape both.

In an ideal world, humanity would collectively make it impossible for any of us to take the means of survival from any others, including members of other species (reinforcing the concept of the "commons"), and make us all responsible for maintaining it. Whatever was left could be distributed by any means deemed socially acceptable, if there was anything left, which I would argue there isn't (thus, our underlying problem). This would follow a restart of global civilization with a common set of basic values and understanding of reality, along with common standards for developing each. This model would be reproduced wherever else we settled, such as other planets, with rewards for risks incurred in expanding habitable territory provided as part of the distribution of excess resources and lasting no more than a lifetime for those receiving them.

I've read about people (and know a few) who have gotten a head start on creating this ideal world for themselves and a few people closest to them. From what I can tell, they tend to be members of a small proportion of the population who come close to their limit of happiness with fewer resources than most of us, and are content to stay there. Put another way: natural environments require little modification to be suited to their wants and needs. As a result, global and personal responsibilities are largely in alignment, so stress is not an issue. Because their success is mostly a function of who they are than what they've learned (except about who they are), I don't believe it is generally transferrable to most of the population. The rest of us can still learn valuable lessons from them, though, such as the practical, physical constraints of living in a healthier world; but because we'll have less happiness by actually living that way, it won't be as popular as our alternatives without some forcing mechanism (such as reduced social acceptance and opportunities) that makes those alternatives less attractive.

Since finishing my book, the stress of personal responsibility has been growing, in large part because my wife is currently carrying the burden of paying our bills. The lessons I learned when our roles were reversed are still with me, and I have hope that my writing business can (at least temporarily) help turn my "death stopper" role into a means of reducing that stress along with the other stress it has largely alleviated. However, once again time is my enemy; making more money at another job is the quickest way to deal with the immediate problem; and the economy, like most of us, still doesn't value doing what is now the right thing, which increases the risk that I'll be compromising my way back into pain and a crisis of self respect. In the immediate future, I plan to do as much as possible to find a middle ground, balancing the two stresses and buying time to find ways of being more aggressive in doing that "right thing": helping to set the stage for the ideal world.

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