Culture Change e-Letter
Why money and materialism
aren't the answer
by Jan Lundberg
Having extra cash
and being able to live on property that one owns outright is assumed to be the ultimate in
successful, comfortable existence. Such a state is
the ideal, according to the constant messages hitting us from mainstream media
But some facts intrude even upon a
simplified "American dream:"
(1) When one lacks love or
experiences the pain of loss, it often becomes clear that money and
property don't mean much.
(2) When a life is led according to
material success, what happens when one is dying? The money and property
don't help then, especially if control slips away and loved ones who are to inherit turn out to lose their right to the inheritance,
due to some clever scams.
(3) Assuming one gets to keep one's
property and is to "die with his boots on," there is at least the ongoing
requirement of paying the property tax. Just when are we too
infirm or out of touch to deal with intrusive entities, that's when entanglements and
society close in. People
just want to be left alone, but no matter how many decades one has worked,
there are no guarantees. We become more vulnerable, so our
cash, weapons and empire lose their power to make us feel secure. When
one bequeaths property to an heir, the tax must still be paid in perpetuity,
and insurance may be equally obligatory.
(4) When one goes through times of
having money and not having it (or having too little), one may notice that the
daily outlook on life is not all that different between the state of having wealth and
This last circumstance (4) is not quite
as easy for many to relate to, if one is leading an unexamined life. A constant paycheck
is often achieved by
selling one's soul to work in a bureaucracy. If one is so focused on
having money or getting rich, it is hard to meditatively grasp the state-of-being beyond the materialist world of making purchases.
There is no substitute for a supportive,
extended family. That is the basis of community, although almost all U.S.
towns refer to themselves as communitieseven when the institution of the
family has been decimated and relegated to a few isolated relationships.
With truly sustainable living as safeguarded by a strong community, one's wealth
would be safeprovided it is not excessive and that it is shared.
Strength and individuality are protected by a strong community if it is
based on respect and continuity instead of economic growth and
A new study from Claremont Graduate University, California, has found that
statistically trust works better than competition and individualism. Our
brains have evolved to cope with group living. Along with our so-called
Machiavellian intelligencewhich allows us to outwit rivals for mates, food
and statusour social brain is adapted to be cooperative. Individuals
can benefit by working together. That requires trust, which is why,
according to the study, we have a biological urge to trust one another.
One man's way of freedom
Some people come to realize that
reducing stress, and achieving simplicity are their real goal in today's
world. Others even more "saintly" are only happy if they
can be giving to others all the time. This is where activists and charity
workers have found their calling, even if they have little material security. Some of these "selfless" people do enjoy
or require a modicum of physical comfort and beauty in their environment, but
this can only be lauded as sensible and of good taste. We will assume that these people do not include
people evading their responsibilities elsewherealthough it is debatable what those responsibilities might be these
Wes Roe "works for the community,
not for a wage." He lives near Santa Barbara, California, and
involves himself primarily in Permaculture, a refined
form of sustainable agriculture that involves living close to the land over
letting go of materialistic security which he deems false, Wes finds he has
greater peace and support. He has lived in intentional communities, or
communes, that try to provide for the basic needs of resident members.
Such groups of people pool their human resources and strive to get along without
hierarchy, patriarchy, matriarchy, or subservience to the government.
(Some such groups may be cults, but most intentional communities and communes appear to have the main goal of
living together in mutual support and adopting or developing sustainable, ecological practices.
Wes got married a few years ago to a
professional woman, and told her at the outset, "I don't work for a wage, I
work for the community." Their marriage works, and it is not a matter
of his being supported by his wife, although she brings in more money.
However, he told me "Sometimes over the years my wife and I have struggled
over my working and getting no money." Wes
obtains material (albeit usually less tangible) support through his ceaseless organizing for
community agriculture and other causes. An example is the free lodging
he obtains in his and his wife's travels to communities where like-minded people
appreciate his input and energy. A more basic form of ongoing "payment" to
Wes for his "labors" is food coming to him and his wife from the many gardens and farms that he
has aided. Food is indeed expensive, especially
the most nutritious organic fare.
Trading and bartering is something that
has vast potential, especially the more people get to know one another.
The U.S. Treasury Department wants a piece of transactions, but barter deals are
usually untraceable and informal.
It is confusing and irritating to many a conventional,
mainstream worker that someone like Wes can exercise liberty that people have
forgotten exists. Wes is fairly low-profile. But when a group of forest
defenders, who are usually anarchistic, is confronted by loggers and law
enforcement people, jealousy and confusion often crop up starkly. It is amusing to see
again and again the lack
of comprehension toward a leaderless group of free individuals. Typically, a
representative of the authorities asks or demands to speak and negotiate with
"the leader." "There is no leader," the activists reply, and it is
almost always true, and always disbelieved. Voluntarily participating in a group executing something for the public good is
increasingly rare today.
The conventional worker on duty
(chopping down ancient trees or arresting people trying to nonviolently oppose
greedy and/or illegal "forestry") often regards the presence of the protesters
as suspect: How can these people, most of them young, be there in the
woods instead of
being in school or at a job? Are they paid to live outside and
protest? Are they rich kids, "trustafarians?" Are they pagans and hedonists, having as much sex as they want,
flaunting morals? The empty, repressed daily life of many a worker aspiring
to a bigger SUV results in difficulty for his or her relating to free people who think for themselves and
who pride themselves on having no boss or big bills to pay.
Will non-materialism get you sex?
In response to our last column on Food Not Lawns, a reader requested, "Could
you please speak to the flaunting of material possessions to compete for the
more desirable of the opposite sex? I ask this because I think it is a
major prop of the materialism in our society." The writer's email
subject was But, blondes prefer lawns.
This column will go further into sex and materialism in
future. For now, to hell with attracting a materialist! Few
people can or want to heed that advice, but many more will suffer from obtaining that
lover or spouse whose priority turns out to be material security. Love is
what people really want and need, and in its absence the vain attempt is made to, in
effect, buy it.
The young are said to be idealistic in rejecting
that value system, but the raging sex hormones of youth cancel out much of the
non-materialism: one wants that car and nice apartment in order to improve
chances for obtaining sex.. But when one matures and loses much of the
horniness of youth, the desire for material security increases even though
simple living and spiritual values may have ascended. For most citizens
who say they've grown up, dreams and adventure gave way to conservatism and
conformity. Liberation from materialism and money-based values is not a matter of age or
even education: it is a matter a culture or awakened person needing to surmount (1) the rampant
reliance on material possessions and (2) the commodification of basic
We need not money per se, but whatever
is supposed to obtain. It is more socially just, efficient, and rewarding
when we obtain directly what money often buys, and we cut out the money
aspect. When petroleum is no longer available to ship things long distancethings we usually don't
needthen we will recreate local economies
that rely on everyone's participation and cooperation. That time is
getting very near, due to history's global peak in oil production and the reaction
that the market
will instantly have to the intensifying constriction of oil supply.
See our webpage on the Fall
of Petroleum Civilization.
For more on peak oil and related topics, see Colin
Campbell's foreword to The Party's Over
(2003) and various Culture Change Letters.
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