Our Distorted View   14 comments

An entry in the How To Be Poor series

The idea that voluntary poverty is a challenge is one of the more ridiculous realities of our present situation. Yet it’s a reality, just the same. I was thinking of that this morning while reading a criticism of my How To Be Poor series of blog posts by John Ennis over at his blog, Degringolade. John’s right in noting that being poor is easy—you just run out of money, without recourse. But that’s not the sort of poverty I’m writing about here. I’m writing on the voluntary sort, not the desperation of forced poverty.

I don’t have any helpful advice for that sort of poverty. I haven’t experienced it, for one, and it seems there would be a limited number of responses to such circumstances—and that they would generally be dependent on your particular situation. What I can write about, and what I am attempting to write about with this series, is the idea of powering down our lifestyles, for those who are in position to take such a methodical and purposeful approach. I am writing, in other words, to people who are familiar with or living within something of a middle class American lifestyle. Considering my readers necessarily have access to the internet, I assume that most of them have some familiarity with that lifestyle, whether or not they are actively living it.

The problem with the American culture is that it provides a very distorted view of reality. What luxury is, what poverty is, and what a decent standard of living is all have been twisted by the extreme abundance and material wealth that the standard American has come to consider normal. Further, that idea of normality is on a nasty collision course with what I consider to be the likely normality of the future—which is, as John notes in his criticism, probably going to be one of forced poverty for a good many of us.

Again, I don’t have an answer for that forced poverty. If it comes to pass, there isn’t much of an answer, just local adaptation and millions of individuals struggling to get by. That will prove different for everyone and it’s impossible to predict the course of those multitudes of paths. If we are facing that future of forced poverty, though, then one course of action available to us is voluntarily beginning the process of powering down our overabundant lives so that, when forced poverty begins to assert itself, we face less of a fall.

In my opinion, dealing with that fall while having already begun the process of reorienting yourself to a life with less stimulation and distraction, reacquainting yourself with physical work, learning to accept limitations and figuring out what joys will be available to you regardless of your income will be quite a bit easier than dealing with it while still living a standard middle class American lifestyle and considering, say, the loss of your iPod as an epochal event. That doesn’t mean that dealing with forced poverty will be easy, or that it’s going to be comfortable and joyous—it just means that a reorientation of standards cushions the blow.

What I’m therefore writing about, as much as anything, is that reorientation of standards. I wrote in the third part of the introduction to this series that I thought that reorientation was “the more important aspect” of living in poverty. I already look back at that sentence a bit sheepishly, as I think it too cavalierly plays down the hard realities of poverty, especially in comparison to the American standard of living. But my point was that the mental challenges are a huge obstacle to living less abundantly, and that those are ever present in our culture. Since we have such a distorted view of wealth, luxury, and comfort, we have a hard time seeing the comfort that can be available to us even with little money. We also can distort the realities that we should be wary of. The daily drudgery of repetitive, brutal physical work can break you down indeed. But there’s a realm of daily physical labor that’s not so crushing, and that can even be rewarding. Physical labor, in general, is viewed as something to be avoided by a large percentage of our population. That view point is insane, it’s unhelpful, and it’s false. There’s much joy to be found in physical labor and reintroducing it into our lives can both bring about that joy and help to prepare us for a much less abundant future.

When people talk about a decent standard of living in America—and, I imagine, in many other industrialized nations—they are standardizing a very luxurious way of living. And in that standardization, they tend to distort the idea of what’s necessary for a good life. While I have no personal familiarity with hunter-gatherer ways of life, I imagine there have been quite a few hunter-gatherer societies in the past that lived quite lovely lives, and with a lack of material wealth that most of us in industrialized nations would find ghastly. But that was the life they knew, and I’m sure they found their joys in it and dealt with their miseries, as well. Most civilizations throughout human history have had much less material wealth than we do today and they have often managed those realities just fine. They’ve had their joys, their miseries, their many days of passing time, their exuberances and upheavals and desperations. It can be done, and there’s no sense in us not giving it a try if we acknowledge that our future likely includes much less material wealth than we are used to today.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any one of us could be plopped down into one of those past civilizations and be perfectly happy with it. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t find ourselves terribly miserable. But that, again, is as much about a disconnect between expectations and reality as it is about necessity. Trying to close the gap between our current expectations and our likely future realities is what I would consider a useful and necessary task. It’s the task this series on voluntary poverty is about.

Now, all this flies out the window if we’re looking at a poverty in which the necessities of life are hard to come by. We may very well be facing that poverty. But even in that case, I’d rather be closer to that future reality if forced to deal with it then falling into it head on with no experience of anything other than middle class luxury. I’d like to go into it having some of the skills necessary to make my own living and possibly craft my own survival than go into it having never gained myself food outside of a grocery store. I might still be screwed, but at least I’ll have a bit more agency in it.

So if our culture’s distorted view about what is a decent standard of living is one of the road blocks to downsizing our lives and learning to live with much less, then what’s our response to that road block? Well, it would seem to me that we must first start better seeing what is and is not necessary for a good quality of life. Of course, that view point is relative to a certain degree, so for the next post I’m going be talking about food to try to understand some of the ways in which we mix up luxury and necessity.


14 responses to “Our Distorted View

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  1. I agree that our culture has a distorted view of what’s necessary.

    I think the low-hanging fruit on the pathway to voluntary poverty is developing self-reliance skills. Trying to change our viewpoint is all well and good, but when we develop self-reliant skills, our viewpoint changes naturally. The more we know how to live a low-income life, the less frightening it is.

    • Yes! This is a great point, John. And I suppose that may prove to be one of the shortcomings of this series. These viewpoints do indeed change naturally as we change our lives and become more self-reliant. That’s been my experience, anyway. I suppose, then, that as much as anything, these posts will be something of a cheerleading for making the effort to become more self-reliant. As you become familiar with this way of life, you become less scared of it and are better able to see the benefits.

      As a small example that may work itself into a future post, the first time I shoveled out a stall of pig manure, I found it a bit gross. Pigs do seem to be the foulest smelling of the animals I’ve so far worked with. Yet, before I had finished that first day’s work, it didn’t seem that big of a deal. Subsequent shovelings have been even less worrisome. And at this point, I kind of enjoy it, in the sense that it’s the sort of repetitive physical work that, in the proper proportions, I really do enjoy due to its simplicity and its ability to provide me plenty of time to engage my own thoughts.

      It’s a matter of perspective and familiarity. Many of the things that we consider, in modern society, to be terrible, really aren’t. They’re just a different way of life.

  2. Hi Joel,

    Good point about the manual labour. As energy availability inevitably winds back, it will become more important and people aren’t really used to it.

    Your description of Diner eggs sounds pretty scary. I think I may have seen these things – they come in logs? I saw one on the film Clerks 2 and couldn’t believe that they were real. Industrial food. Yikes!

    As to what the basics are, who knows? I’ve read Depression era accounts of people sewing clothes out of grain sacks – they had shame about it, but they still did it and sent their kids off to school in them. People are generally pretty adaptable.

    The shed is coming along nicely and is now clad externally, but I haven’t joined or painted the exterior. Whilst talking about the basics of self sufficiency, I’m in the process of collecting herbs and medicinal plants plus books on alternative medicines. Some of the writing that I do gets paid for in books, so there’s always more coming in. I’ve been planting lemon balm and feverfew recently and they’re doing really well even though it’s well over 100 outside in the shade today.

    Regards. Chris

    • Sometimes diner eggs are just industrially produced eggs. But some diners are really bad and those, I think, must use some kind of boxed egg mixture when they’re making scrambled eggs because they come out in this flat slab of extremely pale egg. It’s fairly disgusting, having approximately no taste.

      Then there are those little disk-like slabs that McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants use in their breakfast sandwiches. I don’t even know what’s going on there.

      No doubt adaptability will win the day when all is said and done.

      I really am interested in getting more into herbs and medicinal plants. That’s on the unending to-do list. I’m not sure much will happen with that this year, but perhaps next. I think, though, that there’s going to be a class here at the farm on that topic, so I’ll likely take that if it does indeed happen. Nice work on the planting, as well as the shed.

      Over 100 degrees in the shade? I must say, I’m mighty glad I don’t live in your climate. But then, I don’t imagine too many people would be excited to live in a place that gets 100 inches of rain a year. Trade offs, I suppose.

  3. As usual, fine work.

    I began this as a comment, but then decided to be a might sleazy and work a little harder and turn the comment into a post over at my shop.

    I look at this as frugality of effort, or two birds with one stone.


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  5. Voluntary poverty before the fact of necessary poverty (i.e.; lack or absence of funds) is a good idea and workable if one pays close attention to one’s actual needs rather than being seduced by desires before the fact of necessary poverty. It isn’t an easy mind-state to produce in this culture prior to the fact of necessary poverty, but it may become, and possibly will be, an essential thing to accomplish in order to exist in the days to come.

    As for self-sufficiency, I’m not certain what you mean by this, Joel. But if the ‘goal’ is to become truly self-sufficient, then I submit that this is impossible – which is largely why people formed tribes so long ago. For example, I know for a fact that I have, at times, been largely self-sufficient for production of my own food; that I have been able to do that for myself, by myself – but little else outside of trading my time and training for $$. However, in my current situation I am no longer able to do that single thing of food production either, much less produce my own clothing, shoes, outerwear, shelter, transport (other than walking – not so easy barefoot), etc., etc. So, what this points to is becoming self-sufficient in one particular area and then using this expertise to trade or barter for all the other stuff one cannot produce for oneself – which sort of brings us around to where we are anyway, just in a slightly modified form.

    • Agreed on all counts, Martin. Voluntary poverty in anticipation of necessary poverty is hard, indeed. I’m only a small bit of the way there, myself, though looking back on my life four years ago it’s amazing just how far I’ve come. Part of what I’m going to be writing about, which I referenced in the new post I just put up earlier today, is creating a context in your life that pushes you more toward a voluntary poverty. It’s tricky, because you have to choose that context, but at that point it can then help create the sort of restraints that make scaling back easier.

      I agree with you on the self-sufficiency aspect, as well, but I don’t understand where you got that from my post. I wasn’t advocating self-sufficiency in the sense of providing all your needs, as I agree that’s impossible. And I’ve been careful to make that clear in past posts, that the basic unit of human survival is the community. Perhaps you were referring to “I’d like to go into it having some of the skills necessary to make my own living and possibly craft my own survival.” If so, rest assured that I don’t think I can have all the skills to fully craft my own survival. No, as you mention, it’s about gaining some good ones and then parlaying those into trade and a community-based survival.

      • Don’t know where I got the self-sufficiency thing from – I went back and reread your post (twice) and it isn’t there, so I must’ve dragged it in from some other blog or perhaps it was intended as a response to your reply to John Wheeler way up there at the top of this string – I reckon you can chalk it up to an old guy’s brain-fart.

        • No worries, Martin. I had to look back over the post myself to make sure I hadn’t written that. It probably was my comment reply above—that could be easily misconstrued. In the actual posts, I’ve tried to be careful not to suggest we can provide our living all by our lonesome.

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  7. Great post, Joel. I’m glad you’re writing about this important subject. And it’s timely too, as I’ve begun the process of summing up my life in monetary, material, and energy terms to get a sense of how I can radically scale things down.

    The first thing I did was determine, based on my costs, how much I live on per day. I’ve heard that something like 1.5 billion people live on $1.25 or less per day. Well, I’m middle of the middle class and I can say I live on much, much more than that. But I’m starting to make changes in my life that will decrease that figure precipitously. My wife’s on board so far and it’s been an opportunity for us to talk about some of these issues at length.

    Anyway, thanks again for blazing a trail. This is the first of the series I’ve read so far and look forward to getting deeper into them as time permits.

    Keep up the good work – writing and otherwise!


    • Thanks, Glaucus! I appreciate the kind words. I’ve been liking your blog, too, though I’ve only read a bit so far. Like you, my time hasn’t been quite as permitting right at the moment. So much work and gardening! But you seem to have a methodical and detailed approach to your writing, which I’m typically a fan of.

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