15 October 2008

the poverty of affluence

Today is Blog Action Day, a day where bloggers of conscience are encouraged to talk about issues of poverty.

Poverty, by definition, is a lack of the necessities of life. As well as the pressing forms of poverty caused by war and the failure of government policy and global markets, there’s a growing form of poverty that is so sneaky as not to be immediately recognisable as poverty. It is the poverty of affluence, now pervasive in Western society. In exchange for our material wealth, we have a diminished freedom of choice in how to live – freedom of choice being an assumed given in this culture. We are shoe-horned into wage slavery, into bondage to the markets, and sold the illusion of choice, convenience, status, mobility – all things that are certainly not poverty.

Since we no longer have free access to land, we must obtain the provisions for life within a market economy, where our wants – which we mistake for needs – grow in proportion to our ability to meet them. The lure of 'more' is reinforced at every turn. And so we experience life as the perpetual tension of desire.

Robert Dessaix wrote in the recent Weekend Australian magazine that “cacophonous emptiness is the postmodern condition”. Emptiness usually stems from a lack of purpose and meaningful human connection. It manifests as anxiety, frustration, depression – all normal responses to loss of control. These symptoms are never attributed to the all-powerful capitalist-democratic culture; the link between symptom and disease is so heavily obfuscated by glitz, and the power to change one’s circumstances so limited, that ignorance and denial succeed. Besides, to question the foundational assumptions of your own culture is anarchic.

These thoughts are not new. Leunig has despaired the “fake mass wellbeing and prosperity” and identified a “Western deprivation – a new kind of famine”. Bill McKibben in Deep Economy argues the need to pursue a broader prosperity – one that values community, environment and human happiness and chooses localism over globalism and ‘hyper-individualism’. Buckminster Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Bill Mollison, Daniel Quinn, Tom Hodgkinson, Carlo Petrini and Derrick Jensen are a few others.

Every time I return to a city after time spent in uncluttered landscapes, I’m struck by the busy purposelessness, the excess of consumption and waste and the denial of community that defines the urban lifestyle. The more I become removed from this way of life, the more keenly I sense its artifice. Its smells are always the first thing I notice. The deodorants and perfumes, laundry powders, handwashes and hair products. We are masters at disguising reality, dressing up the truth til we no longer recognise it.

I am happy to be bumping along the road out. Real freedom, real choice in how to live, to be able to use one’s skills and interests in a way that is self-sustaining and not harmful, to live in a community… these are the necessities of life. And necessary not just for an ethical existence, but for existence. For biodiversity. It is not a cultural imperative, but an environmental one.


“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it…” Henry David Thoreau

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