(Prologue: This is tricky to write about. I am making the claim that there will have to be an acceptance of decreasing amounts of material goods, that human beings who are accustom to choice and excess will have little choice and little to no excess and that human beings who have never had anything, in the most likely scenarios, never will. The feedback that I’ve gotten when I’ve hinted at these ideas has often been angry; acquisitions of blaming the victim, making the assumption that I am supporting an economic elite action to disempower working, producing people. This is in no way my intention. I am not suggesting that the Great Many should remain or become poor so that the rich can stay rich or get richer, though this seems to be happening.
The whole frame of understanding that sees having easy access to literally millions of manufactured goods, services, entertainments, etc. as an unquestioned good has been destructive of not only our environment, but our relations with each other; we have come to select objects over relationships, wealth over mental health and the humanity of our species.
Ideological and disingenuous arguments are made by places like the Heritage Foundation that poverty doesn’t really exist in the US because poor people have more than one TV and eat enough to get fat. These are, of course, much more complex arguments in support of the economic beliefs and behaviors that enshrine the economic elite as superior in both method and being. I certainly don’t support such views; most of the wealthy are sociopathic in either actual psychological make up or they have adopted sociopathology as lifestyle. I am saying that no one should have such excess and that we entering a time when eventually no one will. It is how human beings rediscover living with material simplicity, and regrowing their native biological/emotional/social complexity, that will decide whether this transition is to be the horror that the loss of wealth is presented as or the ameliorative pressure to adapt to Reality yet again after several thousands of years in the wilderness of economic civilization.)
An important conclusion from the first part of this essay is that, at the very least, a serious reconsideration of being poor is warranted. Bringing together all of the various forces moving us into the future seems to make abundantly clear that the amount of energy and material per capita will be less in the immediate future than today; either because humans, through conscious planning, reduce the rate at which, and the methods with which, we take from the environment or because biophysical systems become so damaged from overuse that they decline in function.
This reality runs headlong into the economic expectations, hopes and dreams of billions of people. People are going to be more materially poor, quite a bit more materially poor. How can such a change be accomplished in such a way that humanity is advanced in its capacities rather than thrown back into a totality of “less in all things?”
If damaging levels of deprivation are not surpassed, what does poor mean? When a person, family or community has enough material wealth to be safe and sound, are they poor? When and under what conditions does the collection of excess material wealth (over what is needed to be safe and sound) violate ‘the rules’; and what rules would those be? Would we not be better served by a focus on the concepts of excess and the dangerous consequences of wealth obsession than focusing on an arbitrary need to have minimally more than is required for basic comfort and safety?
A mythology has been woven around the idea of poverty and being poor. First and foremost these are supposed to be undesirable and unfortunate conditions, conditions that a right thinking person will ‘work their way out of.’ Even if a person has adequate and nutritious food, safe and comfortable shelter, and the rest at effective, if not opulent, levels, then they are often considered poor, substandard, even if the person is comfortable, happy and fully engaged in a full range of life affirming activities.
So it is not so much being poor that is the issue, but rather it is not being rich. It is easy to understand how a person could come to be materially poor, they simply need only not devote very much of their time and energy toward making money or other activities that would add to their material wealth. Being poor has a floor, has a clear definition in real terms: so many square feet of shelter, so many BTUs of heat required, so many calories and so many nutrients, etc. Do enough to meet these conditions then physical comfort and safety are attained; it is then possible to do other things (there is literally a world of other things).
“Poverty” is not something to be eradicated, but rather something to be embraced and expanded upon. There is not a single reason that life can’t be lived with great fullness and fulfillment from the platform of poverty. In fact, it is often wealth that defeats the fulfilling of life’s greatest promise by confusing our goals. Mystics and philosophers have been saying this for thousands of years.
But living near deprivation risks entering into it. And so we hedge against it. Throughout most of our history we have hedged against hard times by living in communities that spread risk, supply innovation, support and protect members and serve as the adaptive nexus for communing with the environment.
I must at this point add another item of context (number four) fleshing out the nature of community and the individual in community.
There is a type of person – a personality if you will – that will take from what is available all that they can get so long as what they take doesn’t single them out for retaliation by the community. Community expectation is the limiting agent. There are others, most others, who self-regulate; they maintain an awareness of how those around them are using resources and generally attempt to match the community. A much smaller number attempt to take much even in the face of community condemnation and a still rarer number who try to use even less than the community standard.
These four styles of functioning within a community can easily be understood as adaptive options. The community functions best when all the members are consuming environmental resources at sustaining levels. It is useful then for most members to pay attention to the consuming patterns of others and try to match them – useful so long as a community process is measuring the community’s impact on the environment.
Those who attempt to take as much as they can to a point just before community condemnation tend to push community consumption up; a useful adaptive design in good times. Those who tend to use less than community standards suggest serve as a reservoir of austerity behavior that is useful in tough times. Those who are sociopathic, whose consumption is as unrelated to community standards as is possible before they are expelled or killed are useful in conflicts with others as well as representing the random process tendency to fill out possibilities; that is, for there to be variation, occasional examples outside the adaptive range will occur. For most species these die; humans commonly find uses for them in the social structure.
What is essential to recognize is that community standards control the behavior of the members, and it is the adaptation of the community to the environment that creates the standards. When there is no longer a community to guide behavior, people will create an ad hoc “community” from whatever organized or organizable structures there are available. This results in an essentially unlimited number of and forms of structures that take on aspects of community function; these are not actual communities.
A human community is a collection sufficiently large to be fully heterogeneous for the major variabilities of the species and low enough for a member of the community to recognize and develop some knowledge of the other members. Clubs and other voluntary groupings can be of the right numbers, but fail the test of heterogeneity. Common purpose groupings like business associations, many religious organizations and others also fail for the same reason. This is not to say that these groupings don’t attempt the functions of communities, just that the results are often disorienting rather than orienting of the most basic human and environmental relationships .
Individuals have no private means to orient themselves in the world; that is the role of communities. Communities, groups of the different sorts of people that typically exist, adapt an overall behavioral solution to living in the environment in which they are found. Individuals express their differences in the context adapted by the community.
When communities become special purpose, when they are no longer heterogeneous and when they are no longer adapting general behaviors to real environments, then there is no longer any inhibiting or guiding order other than the expedience of the moment. Religions have attempted to take on many of the functions of communities as these functions have disconnected from the environment and as they have mutated into other forms, but without success in maintaining the most primary and essential functions. Only real communities can perform the functions of communities – this is both obvious and simple.
The point of this diversion from the topic of poverty is as explanation for the dysfunctional associations that have become the rich, the poor, the economic elite, the intellectual elite, the red-neck, the bigoted and so on. Ultimately these groupings and the destructive forces that form around them can only be addressed by the power of real communities, adapted to real environmental realities. But we are a long way from being able to produce them.
One of the first things needed is a new, more accurate language and understanding of materially simple living. Poverty is too associated with deprivation to be a good choice. I like the idea of living in equanimity. This expresses both the material and the spiritual designs of living simply.
The struggles of our time have been about having more not less, though it is absolutely clear that there is no devilishly clever nuance that will let the human species continue increasing either our numbers or our consumption of the earth’s productive capacity. The conflicts that animate our activity are about the poor and the less-than-rich “improving” their position. But what is required is the rejection of concentrations of wealth, the distribution of existing concentrations to the proposes of educating as much of humanity as possible about our true condition and to the formation of social and economic systems that will allow for, first, the survival of the present ecological structures and then the development of the human species as both an organism integrated into native ecologies and as the repository of the Consciousness System of Order, a process that requires the recognition of consciousness processes and their relationship to the evolutionary processes of the Living Order.
We, in the near future, can either be living in poverty or in equanimity. This is the only decision that we will have the opportunity to make; continuing on as we are is out of the question.