An entry in the How To Be Poor series
Friday morning, I found myself sitting on the back patio of the town house my mother’s rented here in Sedona, Arizona, basking in a warm February sun with a good book and a hot cup of coffee. This proved quite the pleasure for me this time of year, being used to Oregon weather. Finding myself lucky enough to have access to that pleasure, I was taking full advantage, enjoying the easy comfort of a morning with nothing to do but read and think.
The good book in question was The Winter of Our Discontent, which is perhaps a subtle irony considering how contented I feel this winter. Early in the novel, the bank teller, Joey Morphy, tells the main character, Ethan Hawley, the one sentence that sums up everything he knows about business: “Money gets money.” The passage struck me as quite relevant to my discussion here of voluntary poverty and, I believe, gets at a deeper truth that helps to obstruct our responses to the future.
Money does get money in our society and I think most people understand this, consciously or not. Much of our economy these days is about money making money, using money to make investments which then return more money. This is a form of making money very removed from any actual physical goods or services. Think CDSs, derivatives, and the like.
Of course, this entire system of money getting money is dependent upon a growing economy. Money can’t get money in a steady state economy—it can only change hands or take different forms. The sharp observer will note that this correlates to the first law of thermodynamics. The sharp observer will further note the correlation between money and energy. The sharp observer will still further note that we’ve been mining and burning fossil fuels for the last few centuries, layering the energy from that on top of the sustainable flows of energy this planet has available to it, acting as though all that extra energy is permanent, and are right around now facing the peak and beginning of the decline of that extra energy. Due to the correlation between money (or economic activity) and available energy, that means we’re facing the end of economic growth and the beginning of economic contraction.
While that’s a simplistic summary of a complex reality, I do believe the general outline to be correct and that economic contraction is the near-term future we face. In such a future, money will no longer get money. This is true in a few different ways.
First, without economic growth as a widespread, standard reality, the system of credit and debt service we’ve come to think of as normal will no longer function. Debt won’t be able to be paid back with interest because people’s incomes won’t be growing. Rather, they’ll likely be shrinking. This presents an entirely new reality and is going to necessitate new forms of economic and financial activity.
Second is a deeper reality behind the idea that money gets money, and that’s rooted in the belief that money equals wealth, resources, and security. This is an assumption that most all of us in industrialized nations make. It’s the sense that you can always buy your survival so long as you have enough dollars in the bank. Money equals food, shelter, heat, clothing, water, everything. That’s the assumption, and it’s a fair one to make because it has tended, in recent and industrialized times, to be true.
Under this rubric, we could restate “money gets money” as “money gets security,” or “money gets comfort,” or “money gets your very life.” And this idea—so prevalent in our society—works very well to limit our response to the future. For those who can’t move past this idea and expect it to be permanently true, the goal continues to be to make a certain amount of money—and often, for that to be more money than they’re currently making. This is often done at the expense of building any kind of resiliency and alternate options into their lives. If they’re right about the future continuing on much as the present (or perhaps I should say the past, as the present isn’t a particularly good argument against economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system) then their response is a sane and logical one. If they’re wrong, though, then their response is at best painful and at worse deadly, limiting their ability to respond to a dramatically different future.
My view, of course, is the one that says we face a future of economic chaos and a dysfunctional financial system. I feel comfortable in that view, based on the simple deductive reasoning that we are running our economic system on stores of energy that we’ll never get back; that we’ve hit the peak of those stores of energy; that those stores of energy will be declining in the future; that all the plans thus far conceived to replicate those stores of energy in a renewable fashion have had fatal flaws, with the most common one being a complete reliance on the stores of energy that are going away; and that economic contraction is, thus, almost certain to follow. How that plays out is not a prediction I’m willing to make. Economies are incredibly complex, and they often function in surprising manners. But in general, I imagine we’ll face a lot of chaos which all relates back to contraction and the end of growth. And that chaos is certain to make the money that we’ve come to think equals our very lives much less reliable and potentially worthless.
But because so many of us are locked into the idea that money gets money and that money gets security, even those of us who believe the future will be erratic and uncertain in economic terms still too often turn to ideas of how to lock in our money. So we look at buying gold, or investing in TreasuryDirect holdings, or buying ammo and freeze dried food, or buying farm land. But none of those things are guaranteed. We don’t know what’s going to happen to the value of gold and if we find ourselves going through a stretch in which economic chaos strips money of its value, gold may be considered largely useless, as well—at least in terms of our day-to-day survival. TreasuryDirect holdings could be seized by the government or the federal government could default. Ammo and freeze dried food only last a short while, and the future we face is not going to be about sticking out a couple bad months or finding your living through domination and violence. Even farm land is vulnerable, as valuable as it is. A floundering government could slip into authoritarian control or raise taxes to the point of being unpayable, and could then take your land. Alternately, your farm land is not particularly valuable if it isn’t surrounded by a coherent and resilient community. Now, granted, if I had money myself, I would happily look for some good land to buy, but I wouldn’t consider that any true guarantee for the future.
Of course, I don’t have any real money, so I don’t speak from complete experience here, but I can understand why those who do have a decent chunk of money saved would like to keep it from disappearing. That feels like security, and you want even more to hold onto it in the face of bad times. But the bad times likely coming are exactly the sort of times during which money may lose much of its function and utility. Again, how that plays out is anyone’s guess. Inflation, deflation, a combination of the two, national default, cratered confidence—it’s all on the table. But likely it will be some chaotic mixture of all these potential outcomes and the end result is that the money economy probably won’t guarantee you much of anything.
In other words, future security isn’t about money—it’s more likely about skill, flexibility, adaptability, the ability and desire to do real work, and community. Future security is not guaranteed under any circumstance. We’re facing a time of instability—the sooner we all get used to and accept that reality, the better we’ll be able to deal with our future realities.
There’s also a dirty little secret here that few want to talk about, but that I think is critical to address. Money shouldn’t get money—at least, not when money has been so divorced from good work, and not when cruelty and bad work so readily makes us money, as is the case today. We’ve created a corrupt and diseased system in which money tends not to go to those who do good work or make the world a better place or simply earn an honest and nondestructive living, but toward those who exploit and dominate, deal in violence, and act ruthlessly. That’s a godawful system to hand our livings over to, and we can readily see the effects of it all around us. The environmental devastation, social injustice, enslavement, murder and desperate miasma that so many wade through every day is partly a byproduct of the money system we have today. Its collapse, therefore, opens up new avenues to make ourselves a better world, even though the transition is likely to be painful.
That doesn’t mean, I want to make clear, that the collapse of our current money system will make for a better world. It simply will help clear some of the decrepit social infrastructure and institutions that help maintain the system of destruction. To make this a better world is going to involve a lot of hard work, contemplation, consideration, awareness and probably a good bit of luck. It, much like our future well being, is in no way guaranteed.
This, however, is the hope in voluntary poverty. If money will no longer guarantee your future, then voluntary poverty is a fine way to begin eliminating your dependence on and belief in money. It opens up new avenues for a better way of life, before the outside happenings of society, politics and the economy impose those new avenues on you, whether you’re ready for them or not. It also allows you to begin to explore better ways to live, and they are abundant. Stripping yourself of the trappings of wealth while you reacquaint yourself with the natural world around you, the enrichment of honest community, the deep satisfaction of good and healthy work well done, the time to think and relax, and the pleasure of clear-eyed observation makes for a particularly good life—and one that, after what can admittedly be a rough transition, proves radically reaffirming in our very disturbed world. Learning new skills and beginning the long process of taking back the responsibility of your own living provides a meaning and purpose that the industrialized, exploitative economy almost never offers.
Learning, in fact, that you are an actual, unique and beautiful, joyful, caring and thoughtful, talented and living and vital human being—someone who enriches this world and can provide so much to so many—and that you are a part of a broader world containing billions upon billions of other creatures that are as unique, as beautiful, as heartening and mystical and compelling as you; learning that all of us have the capacity to be something more than identical pegs to be slotted into identical slots to keep the machinery of wealth-via-destruction functioning—and that, goddamn it, this world that constantly exists and functions and breathes and beats with a pulse more powerful than any of us can comprehend is so filling and engrossing and substantial and nurturing, providing so much happiness and connection; learning that this world—our world—is there, waiting, and will fill us up if only we go outside and confront it honestly and let it in and begin the process of understanding it, and our true relationship with it, and all the ways in which we can break and betray that relationship, and all the ways in which we can stop that betrayal; well, learning all that provides the actual life that we so desperately try to purchase with money every single day.
And so you know what? It’s time that money no longer gets money. Not money as we know it today. It’s time that we transition to something very different, to a life that is built on skill and good work, community and friendship and the constant, honest evaluation of our place within and behavior toward our world. That’s a transition that’s coming, by necessity if nothing else. It may go bad. It hopefully will go right. Either way, there are no guarantees other than that the transition will be harsh and painful at times. But this world as we know it today is harsh and painful and to be afraid of walking away from it is not only an abdication of responsibility, but it’s a cruelty to ourselves. It’s a condemnation. And at this point, I don’t think we can afford any more condemnations.
A society and economy built on the work of uniquely skilled people, on caring community, even on the travails of being human in a challenging but joyful world, is better than one built on ill-gotten money. A society and economy with dramatically less material goods and comfort but with the predominance of good and necessary work, and the honesty of getting by and making do, is better than one brimming with luxuries bought with ill-gotten money. A society and economy built on skills that provide the means of life, physical labor, and the ability to work within the planet’s natural flows of energy and resources is better than one in which ill-gotten pieces of paper determine who lives well, who lives poor, and who dies or is murdered.
Voluntary poverty offers a way for those of us living in the very distorted world of industrialization to begin moving toward that better world. It’s a way for us to learn a new sum of our business knowledge—a sum that doesn’t state that “money gets money,” but states something very different, something much more humane, something much more caring and honest, and something that provides a good life which can’t be casually purchased but instead must be gained through good work and community.
A life, in other words, that must be gained not through money, but through our humanity.