I’ve been trying to coalesce my thoughts lately into finding some kind of grand paradigm of life. What does it mean to live in this world, to have, to act, to be. How do I justify my existence on this planet? And, perhaps here’s the rub – do I even need to justify my right to live?
I feel (and of course I’m not the only one to feel this way) that our society can’t be as fragile as economics would make us think it is – that we all have to justify our right to live by working. By having a job. By contributing to the economy. By producing. Haven’t we decided that it is this very drive to continually produce that has brought us to the breaking point, in terms of the environment, in terms of poverty in the Global South, in terms of our increasingly fragmented and separated lives? That most of us in the “developed” world work simply for the sake of working? That we consume simply for the sake of consuming?
I, for instance, currently work at a property management company. The whole thing is an unnecessary apparatus built around making money on the human necessity of living somewhere – of housing, of shelter, of having a place to put down your burdens and hide from the weater. But while shelter is necessary, property management companies are not. Even within the flawed system that we have built, property management companies are arguably unnecessary. We happen to own some buildings and people pay us for the privilege of taking shelter in them.
How is it, that in this wide and beautiful world, we can’t simply find a lovely place to set down and live? Why is everything owned? Why must I pay someone else for the privilege of having shelter, a basic human necessity? Because the systems were set up well before we arrived on this planet. Your ancestors carved out a piece of land in a desirable spot. My ancestors, for whatever reason, didn’t. So today, because your ancestors defended their piece of land and kept it as their own, I must pay you for the privilege of existing on that land? I just can’t understand a world where this makes sense.
Hundreds of people are employed at my company, a company whose ultimate role is unnecessary in the normal course of human existence. But! you say, But, but, but! If those hundreds of people weren’t employed by your company, they wouldn’t have any money to consume, to live, to even exist! My answer (which is a question) is why do we need to pay to exist? Why do we need to justify our right to exist by working? I don’t understand how working at something unnecessary gives me the right to more resources than someone else. I don’t understand how people making a subsistence living, directly providing to themselves and their families only the basic necessities of life, through farming, scratching a living on the land, are entitled to less than I am, because I have a fancy job.
And then there’s growth. Not only does my employer exist for the sole purpose of giving hundreds of people jobs and making a few people a bunch of money. It also exists to grow itself. I’m constantly reminded that income has to increase every year. That operating expenses increase every year. Thus, we have to make more money every year, not only to keep up with the increasing costs of operation, but also to make a larger margin of money. One: why do we need to make more money every year? Aren’t we already providing hundreds of people with jobs, as well as investors with money? Why does this need to grow continually? And two: why do operating expenses increase?
Operating expenses increase every year because everyone expects to make more year after year. But! you say, But but but! things increase in cost every year! Why? I ask, in answer. The earth’s resources are still there. None of them have inherent value – a rock is a rock, it will always be a rock, until it weathers and turns into sand. Then the sand is still sand. Nothing increases or decreases in value, it’s all just matter. Value is something that we have ascribed to specific things in our environment. Oil taken from the ground is still the same oil one day to the next, but we ascribe different values to it depending on the day, or even the hour. When there’s lots of oil, there’s lots. When there’s not very much oil, there’s not very much. We ascribe value to scarcity, but that doesn’t mean that scarce oil is inherently more or less valuable than plentiful oil. It just is. It exists. It doesn’t have to justify its own existence.
My problem is that everyone is trying to make money from necessities, and trying to make more money from scarcity. But this is a paradigm that can’t continue to exist – it doesn’t take a lot of work to see that! We ascribe more value to scarce oil, so more people try to make money off of it, taking more and more of it out of the ground. What is the end result here? No more oil.
And I can’t quite get past the fact that everything we need for everyday life is monetized. You pay a water bill. A gas bill to keep you warm through winter. You pay rent/property taxes/mortgage to keep yourself sheltered. You pay the grocery store for food. And you pay all of this through money that was given to you in exchange for working at a job. You pay this money to other people who are paid for working at a job. Thousands – millions(?) – of people are given jobs and paid for managing the oversight of payment between people. Similar numbers of people are employed and paid for overseeing these people, and others for overseeing the overseeers. Who is actually providing the necessities of life in this system? Who is growing the vegetables? Who is pulling the water from the ground? Obviously some people are, but they are a vast, vast minority within the overall population.
I’d like to suggest an alternative model to the way we currently live. But I can’t. I can’t come up with a grand unifying theory for the way that society should be organized. I can’t change the fact that we are all given jobs, that we are all given value, that every resource on this planet is given value, that some people own resources and other people don’t, that we are allowed to exist because we participate in the system.
However, I think I can try to find a way not to be a part of the system itself. But even that might be too difficult. Perhaps I can find a way not to participate in the system as much as possible.
The first, and most obvious step, would be to find a way to subsist without reliance on money, on working, on justifying my right to exist. But even this seems impossible.
The fact that I still cooperate with the system, by working at this job, makes me an integral part of the problem. But the problem is, I don’t know how to separate myself; and even if I did, I don’t know if I would want to. Giving up a privileged position in an unequal society is difficult. Otherwise everyone would do it. And those who don’t have the privilege I do might be unable to separate themselves from the system, because everything they do, every moment of their day, is focussed on keeping themselves and their families alive.
The only thing I really know is that when I look around, I can see that the system we have built isn’t worth the toll it is taking on the planet and every living thing on it, including humanity. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it isn’t this.