We face an uncertain future. I may sound like a broken recording in saying this again and again, but it’s true. We find ourselves having recently passed peak conventional oil, soon to pass peak liquids fuels, and facing down fast-approaching peaks of natural gas and coal. On top of that, we’re putting incredible strain on the environment, depleting the ancient aquifers that provide so much of our drinking and irrigation water, losing unimaginable quantities of top soil every year, destroying our forests, altering our climate, and helping to create a significant increase in the occurrence of extreme weather events. Considering that much of our national and global infrastructure—the sort of infrastructure that both supports seven billion people on this planet and also provides many of the comforts that we associate with an industrialized way of life—is intrinsically tied to various forms of geography that tend to be effected by major weather events (imagine roads, power lines and sewer lines all running along rivers, for instance) we are facing a present and increasingly-problematic future of degrading and crumbling infrastructure. We also are facing a future with far less available energy, far less available resources and far less money with which to rebuild that infrastructure, further complicating the scenario.
That lack of energy, resources and money further means we can’t continue the dizzying economic growth that we have come to expect and depend upon for our way of life, and are thus facing necessary economic contraction. Such contraction will further lead to a dysfunctional and collapsing financial system. This is due to the fact that our financial system is based on debt and perpetual growth. Take away the perpetual growth and the debt can’t be serviced. Take away the availability of credit and the ability to pay back existing debt, and you have a financial system that ceases to function. Projects grind to a halt, jobs become scarce, unemployment rises, profits fall, tax receipts drop, governments take on more debt to keep the game going, social safety nets sag until they’re damn near touching the ground, austerity measures take root, and soon the entire complicated apparatus is teetering and citizens are falling by the wayside left and right.
In other words, we’re facing a world of problems. More specifically, as John Michael Greer has argued, we are facing a predicament. Problems are in search of solutions, just waiting to be solved. Predicaments, on the other hand, are inconvenient realities we must learn to deal with. We’re dealing with the predicament of too little energy, resources and money to continue down the path we are on and therefore we are in need of new ways to live. This is a predicament, not a problem, because there’s simply no way that we are going to be able to find renewable sources of energy that can replace fossil fuels and allow us to continue our energy-intensive lifestyles. This, in other words, is our new reality. It is imperative we figure out effective ways to respond to it.
Some might claim that a cabin in the woods, far away from other people and stocked with freeze-dried food, plenty of water, perhaps some seed packets, and boxes of ammunition is an effective way to respond to an uncertain future. That’s the wrong approach, however, for multiple reasons. First of all, we don’t likely face an apocalypse so much as we face contraction, tumult and lowered standards of living. Our predicament is not likely to lead to a sudden and complete collapse, as that’s not how societies have tended to collapse in the past. Instead, it will be long and drawn out, a stair step process of shocks to the system followed by stabilization, a stretch of relative calm but lowered standards of living, and then another shock to the system. This will happen over and over again until, eventually, we will find a few hundred years down the road—long after everyone reading this is dead—the final ruins not only of the American empire, but of the commonality of fossil-fueled, industrialized societies. Considering this scenario, the proper response is not the aforementioned cabin because we are not facing such a dire situation. We are facing, instead, the prospect of an increasingly poor and fragile society, rent by economic shocks, disintegrating infrastructure, food and energy shortages, the collapse of supply chains, the necessity for far more physical labor, much more local economies, and a general struggle to get by. The closest parallel in recent history, in other words, is probably the Great Depression. Society as we know it is not going to go away over night, but rather keep chugging along, in a highly dysfunctional state, as most all of us become much poorer and find day-to-day life more of a struggle.
Communities will survive, though, and some will surely flourish. This is another reason why the cabin in the woods is not an effective response to our current and future decline. Community, not the individual, is the basic human unit of survival. Individual humans very rarely survive in complete isolation. We are social animals and we make our living at a community level, to some degree or another. We depend on others for many of our needs, even among the more self-sufficient of us. The ability to provide yourself everything you need to live a decent life, all on your own—or between, say, yourself and a partner and possibly a couple kids—is a pipe dream. It doesn’t exist. We need other people—people who care for us, with whom we share an interdependence, who understand the ways in which our fates are tied. We needs friends and family and acquaintances and even begrudging allies. We need a community, whatever form it takes.
In a world lacking in energy, resources and money, however, the scope and composition of that community is going to be significantly different than it is today. Whereas today most of us depend on massive, globalized, industrialized supply chains to provide us most of our living, in the future we are going to have to relearn how to provide most of that on a very local level. Whereas today, we can always buy our survival so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a reality in which cash is much less valuable than skills and knowledge. Whereas today, we don’t have to resign ourselves to the messy workings of a community to guarantee our survival, so long as we have enough of the aforementioned money, the future promises to require quite a bit more communality from all of us, and to require that we deal with all the messiness and annoyance that can entail (as well as the joy, companionship and conviviality.) Whereas today, we can buy all the comfort we want so long as we have enough cash, the future promises a great deal less comfort for everyone, including those with abundant cash, and is going to reward those who both figure out how to create comfortable lives without money and those who redefine what comfort means in a way that requires less energy and resources.
The future, in otherwise, is looking cash-poor. It will likely provide less comfort and far less material goods, but it will provide some comfort, perhaps even a significant amount, so long as we are capable of reevaluating what comfort means and have some idea of how to create it while working with local resources, within our local community, and without much money. That can be a challenge, and living well while being poor is something of an art and a skill. It is entirely possible, though, and it’s an art and a skill that we would do well to begin learning now.
Most of us are either out of practice with these skills or never learned them in the first place. This is a result of the insanely rich and overabundant society that we live in and the loss of culture that it has demanded and entailed. Peering into our uncertain future, though, it seems clear we’re out of time. We must learn these skills now. There’s simply no more time to delay if we want to increase our chances of living a good life in the future, relatively rich with comfort and stability even if extremely poor in cash.
This, then, is the core of my argument for voluntary poverty. If we are going to live in a world that necessitates we be poorer, then it makes perfect sense to learn how to live well in poverty now. However, there’s another important dimension to my advocacy—one that goes beyond the practical nature of my core argument. We also have a responsibility to scale back our lives. We live in a time of incredible, abundant energy and resources. We have a standard of living that is otherwise unknown throughout the history of humanity. As John Michael Greer noted in his latest writing over at The Archdruid Report, “A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War.” That is an incredible reality, and it’s a sobering one.
The majority of Americans have access to a level of resources that is insane and unsustainable. This access is also murderous and destructive. We are tearing apart our planet in service of this outsized lifestyle. We are destroying many of our fellow creatures, engaging in a level of genocide that is unfathomable. At the same time, we’re enslaving other human beings, destroying communities, polluting drinking water and food supplies and devastating the livelihoods of billions of people in pursuit of this abundance—in our sense that it is fair and right for us to have this impossibly large share. We—all of us reading this, even if to varying degrees—are destroying our world and so many of those, human and otherwise, who live in it in a maddening pursuit of wealth and comfort and distraction far beyond what we need, far beyond what is fair, far beyond what is reasonable, and far beyond what will soon be realistic. If we’re to confront and recognize these facts—and rest assured that they are indeed facts—then we have the moral responsibility to begin the process of scaling back our lives, of impoverishing ourselves so that we may ultimately live better, so that others may live better, and so we may become reacquainted with an honest understanding of what it is to be human in this world.
And again, this is not just a moral imperative, but a perfectly logical reaction to our times. When I say we must impoverish ourselves, I don’t mean we must make ourselves miserable. One of the problems we have is that we equate poverty with misery. While that certainly can be the case, it’s just as possible to exist comfortably in poverty and to live well with little money. It’s a challenge, yes, and it takes much work. It’s a long process. It’s a struggle. But that’s what this life is, after all. We’re not here just to party. We’re here to learn to live well. I don’t know what other point there is if it’s not that. Why else could we possibly be here if not to learn to live and work well? What else makes sense?
The simple reality is that living poor is a much better way to live well in this world than is living rich. The lifestyle that many of us here in America and in other industrialized nations have come to view as common—that many of us have come to see as an entitlement, so long as we do the right things—is not living well in the world. It’s living destructively. It’s outsourcing our lives and destroying other people’s lives in the process. It’s taking without giving—receiving and returning it with a slap in the face. It is a cruelty, and we have to walk away from it.
The good news is that to walk away from it doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. It can instead be incredibly rewarding and provide a return to a way of life meaningful and fulfilling, engaged and joyful. In Part Two of this introduction, I’ll talk about the potential rewards that await in a life of poverty and attempt to break down the middle class myth.