A Capital Idea Part 120: More is not Better, except for Love
On Monday, I ran into Michael, my student from last year who has Asperger's Syndrome. It turned out that he needed to interview some professors for a class assignment, so I volunteered to let him interview me. During the interview, he asked why the school had never made me a full-time professor, to which I replied that I had never asked to be full-time. I told him that in fact, with all of my activities, I had never really wanted to be full-time even if my pay was restricted. Michael seemed surprised, but only for a moment, then seemed to think that made sense.
Sadly, we in the U.S. have been sold a sort of "more is better" mentality -- more work, more money, more toys, faster cars, bigger houses and yards; all of these things are draining us and draining our resources as they pollute our environment and imbalance our lives. That probably has something to do with why so many Americans seem to be opting for alternative lifestyles in which work is not so central to them, even if it means less income. The "more is better" mentality also probably has something to do with the fact that psychology researchers estimate that depression rates worldwide have doubled in the past few decades. Economists inform us that more people have given up looking for work over these past few years, which is seen by them as a really bad thing; however, this is not neccessarily a bad thing. As long as people can get by financially, even if it means scrimping and being very thrifty, perhaps they are better off than being wage slaves. Perhaps their unpaid activities are actually doing more good, even, than they would be doing with a paid job.
I have seen this coming for a long time, although in the past I have generally framed it in terms of my own life situation. After all, I have had to justify my unusual and idiosyncratic life decisions to a large host of more conventionally minded people. This has helped make me somewhat immune to the opinions of others, if I wasn't that way already. I told people, quite honestly, that I didn't wish to move far away to take a university job elsewhere, due to family ties and especially, my wife. I also confessed, quite honestly, that I wasn't sure how I would handle the time demands and pressures of a full-time academic job, since I wasn't built metabolically for long hours and little sleep. Furthermore, I told some people quite honestly that when I compared my personality and lifestyle to that of the professors I knew, I felt like a poor fit in their culture -- not worse, in fact perhaps superior in some ways -- but certainly, I wasn't the status-driven, hypercompetitive type I was encountering among most of my professors.
However, the most important influence on my lifestyle choices is probably a sense of balance -- a sense which seems lacking in the lifestyles forced upon employees by the typical employer here in the U.S. After all, a healthy personality has many interests and productive pursuits. An all-consuming interest in work, money and material possessions is not only psychologically unhealthy, but is destructive. Yet this is what essentially an economic system of financial capitalism tells us is best for us. As a result, we have overworked, overstressed (usually both husband and wife) adults who are locked into a system and lifestyle which serves both them and our world poorly. It requires massive exploitation of natural resources and labor with little foresight or oversight; the system is clearly unsustainable.
It is well documented that the more "industrialized" a society is, the more resources it requires and the more it contributes to environmental destruction and global warming. Our general justification, as consumers who depend on industrial products to maintain our lifestyle, is that since technology created all these amazing products which enhance our lives, all we need to do is invest in more technology to provide us with solutions to the problems which technology has created. In a sense, this is another example of the "more is better" syndrome. The thinking seems to be that all we need is more technology to fix the flawed technologies of the past, and therefore, we must rely on those with the money to do the investing, to develop these technologies. I don't doubt that technological solutions are possible for many of the problems modern human culture has created, but this is only part of the long-term solution. Clearly, many useful technologies such as cleaner forms of energy, are being developed, but to this point, we have really done little to abate the destruction of our world's environment or climate change. I suspect that we will not until humanity's priorities, lifestyles and more to the point, economic system is changed. As long as the profit motive prevails, people will tend to continue down the greed-greased path of exploitation and hoarding of resources regardless of the consequences. Having technological solutions available, and actually utilizing them, are two different things. If they are too expensive for the average consumer to implement, we will never make much progress through this route. It may take catastrophic events in order to convince the public and to create government policy which neutralizes the effects of financial capitalism, but if we are smart enough to create and utilize all these wonderful technologies, we should be more than smart enough to figure out how to change the way we live.
After all, living better does not always mean having more for oneself. Nature creates a balance, and so should we in our lives -- individually and collectively -- as we nurture a well-balanced environment. If there is anything there can never be too much of, it's not money, land, power, or material things. It is love. I can think of nothing better one can say of a person than that said person did it all for love -- expansive, all-encompassing love. Let us love our world and nurture it rather than abuse it.