Wednesday, July 26, 2006

voluntary simplicity

July 25, 2006

Dear friends and family,

I'm typing this entry from the plane as I fly back to Nicaragua after
about a month in the U.S. I visited family, got an old friend
married, and accompanied Tom as he started his clinical rotations
(during the third year of medical school they send the students into
the hospital wards to experience the nightmare-ish schedule and begin
to learn how to do doctoring.)

As I expected to, I had a lot of culture shock on my return.
Fortunately, this is a familiar thing for me, so I knew what to
expect. When I get culture shock, I alternate between intensely
loving and intensely hating the things that are different. I love hot
water from the tap! I hate cars and the lack of alternative
transportation! I love the wide variety of food! I hate how much
stuff people feel they need!

It is perhaps this issue of overconsumption that I have continued to
think about most after getting over the first couple of days of the
emotional rollercoaster. The amount of spending and using up of
resources that we do in the U.S. is both environmentally and
economically unsustainable, even if we are the only ones who do it.
(The least controversial reason why it is economically unsustainable
has to do with the huge amounts of debt that we currently take out to
maintain our levels of spending.) And the object of development
programs, even sustainable development programs, is to raise the level
of consumption of poor countries up to that of the U.S. The idea of
reducing the consumption of rich countries is never on the table in
any powerful forum, although you do hear about it in alternative
venues like the World Social Forum (which meets at the same time as
the World Economic Forum).

Why do the policy makers of the world continue to pursue such
unsustainable strategies? I think it has a lot to do with the scale
that they think on. Mainstream economists and policymakers think on
the level of the nation-state: the economy of the United States or
the economy of Nicaragua, for example. They might also think in terms
of the economy of a particular sub-region, like the economy of New
Hampshire or of Matagalpa. But they almost never think on the level
of the world economy. From the perspective of the nation-state,
economic development looks possible and attainable. Taiwan and
Singapore recently moved from being poor countries to being rich
countries via a process of economic development beginning with export
assembly manufacturing, for example. So why not Nicaragua?

Anthropologists in the theoretical tradition that I belong to, on the
other hand, tend to think on the level of the world economy (maybe we
have this luxury because we are not often called upon to participate
in economic decision-making.) From this perspective, we see that the
system, as it is set up, depends on their being both rich countries
and poor countries. (Where were your clothes made? Do you think they
would have cost the same if they'd been made in your hometown in the
U.S.?) We see that yes, Taiwan and Singapore moved from being poor
countries to being rich ones. But this doesn't much matter to the
system as a whole, because there continue to be plenty of poor
countries, so we're not destabilized. But wealth seems to be, in the
long term, a zero-sum game. From this perspective, I can understand
the efforts of any given poor country to compete with other poor
countries and try to get out of poverty. But the efforts of the World
Bank, for example, which has the mission to work for the development
of ALL the poor countries in the world within the confines of the
current system, seem futile at best, hypocritical at worst.

This is all very disempowering and depressing. Sure, even if it's
true that our wealth depends on the poverty of others, what should we
do about it? Even if we gave up all worldly possessions, the world
economic system would stay the same, right? Well, I've been feeling a
renewed commitment to lower my consumption levels, for example
thinking about how we might be able to avoid acquiring a car when we
move out of New York City (it's easy to be an environmentalist when
the subway system is way easier than driving anyways). Maybe our own
efforts won't make any difference at all, but I feel like it's at
least a morally defensible position. And it's also comforting to find
that we're not the only ones in the U.S. thinking along these lines: is one example (if I'm remembering the URL
right—I'm on a plane and can't check. If this is wrong, try googling
"voluntary simplicity".)

Ursula LeGuin has a short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away From
Omelas" which I first read in a high school literature text book, and
I think it's very relevant to the current discussion. It's only four
pages long, and I would absolutely love for everybody reading this
entry to read the story, if you haven't already. I found it a while
ago in a number of different places on the internet, so I assume it's
in the public domain. You can read it by clicking here .
And let me know what you think.


1 comment:

Burns Fisher said...

I refuse to believe that standard of living (poverty/wealth) is a zero-sum game. That's not the same as saying that I think we should consume consume consume, and that we don't have to conserve and that we can pollute all we want. I just don't believe that in order for some people to be comfortable others must be destitute.

The obvious example is that in the past (say AD 1200) we had only a few kings etc who lived well, and even they, by our standards, had relatively unpleasant lives. It seems to me that the total sum of the game has increased considerably between then and now.

I suspect the difference is technology. A two-edged sword, but I believe an overall positive.