An average middle-class individual may be conflicted in these days of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, by feelings of deep sympathy for the perceptions of a nation gone haywire and in need of remediation, and the externally-imposed, time-consuming requirements of meeting one’s financial and personal obligations. One understands very well the answer to the question Why should one occupy something, as a personal statement of patriotic concern and dismay at the way things have become. Answering the question: How can one make a personal contribution to the movement without jeopardizing everything one has worked to build, is a serious challenge. Each of us must answer it for ourselves, and do so within the bounds of what we are prepared to risk, for risk is certainly involved, if the needed changes are ever to come about. Anyone who insists on avoiding sacrifice is probably not in tune with the prevailing harmony, and will need some convincing. I feel, respectfully, that I must try to convince them.
If disinterested polls or instinct are to be trusted, and I believe they are, there are a lot more supporters of than will ever be found in the streets at any given moment. None of us who support this extraordinary movement are directly afflicted with all of the ills that the movement purports to remedy, but the indirect effects are universal. It is about the quality of life as we know it. It’s a loaded phrase, “quality of life”. Most of those, this blogger included, who have spent an entire lifetime as a citizen of Middle America, may think of it as meaning having things we want, to the limit of our buying power. More buying power equals better quality of life.
Much as we intuit that life requires more than purchased goods for its quality, the other elements can be elusive, and at the mercy of forces we may think are not susceptible to comprehension or remedy. We may ask ourselves, as we sit surrounded by our stuff (in those brief moments left to us by our hectic schedule and breakneck pace it dictates) Is this all there is? I propose that our quality of life would improve by a power of ten, if we could agree, as a free people, to define it in terms other than our ability to consume.
Our habit (in all senses of the term) of consumption is produced by the economic philosophy that every transaction must provide an increment of material increase to the initiator, i.e. the seller. It’s called “making a profit”. For those who pursue it to the exclusion of most other interests, it is the chief article of faith, and living any other way is unimaginable. “I love doing it, so it must be good!” It is an approach to “quality of life” that has held sway in human affairs for a long time. The impulse became so strong in ancient times, as populations grew and the empires that accompanied the growth of civilization expanded, that money had to be invented to facilitate the smooth exchange of items of both necessity and luxury. And (face it) gaining a margin of profit from an exchange is a lot more satisfying than losing one’s ass (or dog or wife).
For the overwhelming majority of us, every “necessary” product we use is delivered to us at the end of a trail of profit. It accrues in increment steps along the product’s way to us, from the producer, harvester, storer, mover, sorter, broker, banker, wholesaler, retailer. This is the modern “marketplace”, and many of us, most of us, take for granted that there is no other and conceivably better way for necessaries to reach us. We should keep one thing uppermost in our minds as we work out such notions, however. It is that our need is not the most significant determinant in the equation of “supply and demand”, the watchword of the modern marketplace. The (today) almost sacred drive for ever-increasing profits, is the determining element of greatest significance.
Profit margins are flexible and depend on variable criteria that have nothing to do with an individual’s or a family’s needs. We can sell that stack of plywood today and make 20% on what we paid, or we can wait for desperate hurricane evacuees to triple our investment. So we ask ourselves, Is there no other way to live, whereby the element of profit can be minimized at the same time as improving the quality of life. The ready answer is, emphatically, Yes!, if we are prepared to A) re-define our sense of quality to exclude the drive to own “stuff” far beyond any rational need for the stuff we own, and B) evaluate more highly the social and personal elements of quality that are unrelated to consumption. In simpler terms, stop buying things for people we love as a substitute for spending time exchanging real, affectionate values, i.e. sharing time and space.
Stop buying things you don’t need and won’t want if you wait long enough for sound of a braying TV pitch-model to die away. Sell off, or better yet, donate to charity, anything unused for a year or longer. Re-use as much as possible. Stop growing lawns and build your soil with available organic material to the point where any seed you push into it will be the source of delicious food in 2-3 months with a minimum of care. Watch less sport on TV and play more sport at the local park. Trade with neighbors and others the things that you can. Car-pool or bicycle whenever you can. Get healthy by eliminating fast food, snack food, high-calorie/low nutrition foods, and walk the dog (more like him walking you, for the first 75 pounds of weight loss.
Watch TV less and read more, especially history and science. Build your opinions of fact; don’t simply parrot the ideas of others because it’s easier to memorize a catchy phrase than it is to learn about issues. Teach children by example; attraction is always more convincing and long-lasting than promotion. Respect those who provide public services through agencies of government, if you expect services like fire, safety, transportation and communication to be there for you when you need it. Don’t let employers forget that, without you, their employee, they have no business, and when that employer responds with better pay and conditions, spare no effort in helping them reap the deserved rewards. Don’t settle for jobs that exploit citizens, or ruin natural places, or leave a mess behind for others to clean up, or violate the right of the public to know their goods and services are as advertised, and give fair value. The list goes on, but each person must extend it to suit their own notion of life’s quality that doesn’t rest on spending and consumption. Godspeed.