After the recession


“We were downsized, so we’ve got nothin’ to do but drink.” It need not be that way – there is enough for everyone. As long as we think new, that is. Otherwise not.

It is widely agreed that the recession will end someday, somehow. Things may get horribly much worse before they get better, but we assume that in the end, everything will gradually return to how it was. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen.

That is not because I like to see people suffer. It is because our economy –  our way of life, actually –  was not sustainable. That is to say, it could not continue this way. And it must not. When we emerge on the other side in some way, we must go in a different direction.

To take the purely economic first, we had a flood of fantasy money. Money is not really a thing but a measurement, like inches or megahertz. Money is a measure for value, and our measurements were way off. We counted with future incomes that were not realistic, and then we used them.

Then there is the small question of the environment: Pollution, limited resources, ecosystem extinction, and climate change. Luckily, some of these are opposing forces. For instance, there is no need to worry about what happens to the climate when the entire world uses as much gas as the USA: There is not that much gas. There was barely enough last year, as you may remember. And that was mainly China. Most of the developing world is still developing fairly slowly. But even one billion people having their income grow by 10% a year for some years was enough to make many resources scarce. There are still several billion people left in relative poverty.

And that is another part of it. For much of my lifetime, the economic growth was mainly in the rich world. Our consumption was gradually changing more and more toward luxury. The developing world was not expected to actually develop. That came as a bit of a shock. “Oh no, what will happen if they do the same things as we do?”  Perhaps we should have thought of that before we set a bad example, instead of hoping that they will fail.

Meanwhile we have reached a standard of living where more luxury does not really make us happier. Rather, we have to spend like crazy to keep up with the neighbors, so they won’t think we are losers. It is not the hope of improvement but the fear of shame that powers so much of modern consumption. This may seem reasonable there and then, but it is not reasonable when you compare with the developing world and its very real needs. People who want shoes that fit them, instead of having to wear too large or too small shoes. People who want a bike and a road to connect their village to the nearest town. People who want a separate shed for the chickens so they don’t need to sleep in the same room. People who want clean waters so their kids don’t get sick. And we are worried about being rejected for picking the wrong brand of soft drink??

I heard a news story on the radio Monday morning. Economists had calculated that a normal two-income family in Norway would get around kroner 60 000 more this year (close enough to $10 000) –  if they stayed employed, that is. Even in Norway, unemployment is expected to rise. Luckily for the unemployed, the benefits are generous enough that you can normally keep your house while you are unemployed, unless you divorce (which is common during unemployment) or eventually become disabled. In some other countries, losing your job can be a much more drastic change. From having plenty to fighting for your existence, in some cases. (I am looking at you, Americans. You sure don’t like sharing, do you?)

The truth is that a number of unemployed Norwegians earn more in unemployment benefits than I earn in salary. This is because my income is only around ½ of what is common for men my age in Norway. I can’t say it bothers me, since I have more than I need of all things most of the time. (The exception being the botched move a couple years ago, when I had to pay rent 3 places at once for a while. That was harsh.) I don’t keep up with the neighbors, don’t even pretend to. Since I am not reproducing, I need to impress the local humans about as much as I need to impress their cats.

Obviously that is an extreme example, but seriously: You don’t need to live in luxury to be happy. There are many fairly low-cost things that are a lot of fun. We used to do those things only a short time ago. Playing board games, go skiing (in cold climates) or swimming (in hot climates), paint, cook our own food. We don’t really need as much money as most people make today in the richest countries of the world. And the resources are better used elsewhere, where people have more real needs.

(Of course, a new computer twice a year is a human right. But apart from that, I mean…)

So what I propose is that we should not recover from this recession. Instead, we should adapt to it. We should get used to consuming a good deal less. And we should look for ways to share so we don’t have some people wallowing in luxury while their neighbors are starving, just because of luck of the draw. Those who don’t want to work shall not eat, as the old proverb says (it is actually from the Bible), but there are many who would not mind working but just aren’t needed now. It does not need to be the government that shares our wealth with the poor –  if we had done it ourselves, there would have been no need for the government to step in. But people are not very eager to share, even those of us who like to pretend that we believe in something higher than money. And so in the end a greedy people is punished with a greedy government, what we call socialism or more vaguely “the Left”. Think of it as collective karma.

There are some wild-eyed people who want us to go back to the Middle Ages, or the Stone Age in the worst cases. That is not what I’m thinking of. Actually I am thinking about something vaguely futuristic: Using our most advanced technology to create a sustainable lifestyle, and our most advanced psychology to create a happiness-centered rather than wealth-centered society.

For instance, it is commendable to use electric cars instead of gas-powered cars, and it may even become a dire necessity because the world’s oil runs out. But even better is to reduce driving overall. By enabling people to work from home or from neighborhood centers, and to do most of their shopping in the neighborhood as well, most of the daily driving is eliminated. This is becoming more common, but oh so slowly. People cling to the old forms out of habit and fear. “This is how we have always done things here”,  as you will hear if you propose some improvement in any workplace, church or even family.

We need a revolution of the hearts and minds. Not the old style of revolutions where the oppressed become oppressors, but one where we throw off the oppression of our collective and personal mind parasites and concentrate on what we really want. What we really want is not money, but such things as happiness, safety, acceptance and purpose. The way we go about getting these things is often roundabout and even ridiculous: In order to save time, we get various time-saving devices, which we then have to work overtime to pay for. Unless we love our job, we have basically made our own hamster wheel where we run to stay in the same place.

Well, this is already moving into “too long, didn’t read”  territory. More later, Light willing.

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