Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, famously said that seeing houses well stocked with fuel wood was a better measure of the real wealth of an area than GDP.
Lately, I’ve been studying “wealth,” what it means to different people, and the paths they use to get it. It’s certainly an idea that a lot of folks find motivating, and accumulating it’s even a core principle for many people’s lives. In fact, the pursuit of wealth is one of the key organizing factors in our society, that defines the “right” American way of life and forms many of our most important norms and mores. But for most of my life, the common notions of “wealth” I was taught by society didn’t seem very useful or desirable to me. “Wealth,” as society defined it, was just a thing that seemed to keep people from accumulating the things I considered valuable, and generally kept people from thriving.
“Screw wealth,” I used to say, “it just costs too much.”
The concept of wealth I was taught was very much like the definition you’ll find on Wikipedia: the accumulation of valuable resources and possessions. Society makes that seem very straight forward, but for me it always seemed a lot more complicated than that. I think a lot of people feel that way on some intuitive level. That’s probably why more and more people are rejecting the “right” American way of life. Pundits on TV and Paternal figures in churches love to scorn and judge these wayward sons, but they’re simply no longer tempted by the cheap plastic chochkies, stress, and stagnation that supposedly rewards us for “good behavior.”
One apparent problem is that wealth accumulation is affected by “diminishing returns.” If somebody gives you a sandwich, you can have lunch. A second sandwich is a sort of luxury. A third sandwich probably won’t taste as good and you’ll probably end up paying for it later, either by working it off at the gym or paying for the negative health effects of over-eating. So, maybe you have a friend close by who also wants lunch. Ten sandwiches, and now you’ve got to waste your time to call your friends or go knock on doors and see who wants a sandwich. One hundred sandwiches and you’ve probably got to get some helpers to distribute your sandwich surplus. Of course, you’ll need to pay them, so you’ll need to start charging, so you won’t be making any friends this way. 1,000 sandwiches? 10,000? Each step up creates more work to do, more time and resources to manage, and most importantly, at each step, the amount of sandwiches that will inevitably get wasted goes up, giving you a pile of stinky rotting sandwiches to deal with, too.
A second problem with “wealth” was that I often disagreed with my society about the “value” placed on various things. So many of the “resources and possessions” society considers valuable seem like dirty diapers to me, not something I really want even one of, let alone something I’d want to accumulate. This is different than “diminishing returns,” which is too much of a good thing. Even one dirty diaper (or Hummer, or private jet, or private golf course) isn’t really something I’m exactly yearning for. All of those things seem to come with lots of “negatives” like smelling bad, or making you look like an asshole, offer very little added utility, and require lots of additional resources, time and money for upkeep, even when you’re not using them.
Anyway, I will be writing a few posts about what real “wealth” means to me, how I’m going about accumullating it, and some tools I’ve discovered for getting there.
To start with, here’s a quick list of some “resources or possessions” that I highly value and want to accumulate. But I also keep in mind that all of these are affected by the idea of “diminishing returns,” which implies that a kind of “balanced portfolio” is an important part of what real wealth means:
—Peace of mind, a calm and relaxed, yet energized and happy mind that’s naturally predisposed to good intentions and realistic but compassionate mental narratives. This is the most important resource and possession we can have, as state of mind influences our ability to appreciate and use all the others. There is no activity, resource or possession that is worth sacrificing this one.
—Time to “spend” on things that are important to me: friends, family, community, life-enriching activities, silent contemplation, nature, art, and play.
—Valuable “intellectual property,” skills, experience, ideas, sets of knowledge that can improve life for me and other people.
—Freedom to do as I like so long as I’m not hurting other people. This implies a certain amount of control over your own basic necessities such as food, water, clothing, shelter…. So, a certain amount of:
–-To be a part of a respected member of a healthy, happy community and biome.
—Relationships: friends, family, love…
—Rewarding work where I can contribute something meaningful and positive.
—A deep connection with nature and my biome.
—Dirty hands and muddy boots, the feeling of “working” as the “keystone species” in my ecosystem as a natural human. “Obtaining a yield” from working with nature is an extraordinarily rewarding experience.
–-A beautiful and comfortable “home” where I can express myself and be surrounded by beauty. This does not have to be done with expensive things, in fact, the most beautiful homes are humble. To paraphrase Thoreau, people live in big, expensive houses with shiny new things while they romanticize the painting of the rustic old cabin on their wall. The important thing is the restorative and joyful experience of being in a beautiful place. In many spiritual traditions it is considered important to make one’s home like the home of the gods! This is old magic….
—A healthy, flexible, strong body. Secure access to good healthy food and natural medicines. A healthy home environment free of toxins. High quality, rewarding exercise. Comfortable levels of heat and coolth. Secure access to clean water.
—A fair say in the politics and policies of my community, especially when they affect me.
—Security. By this, I mean the feeling that–within reason–some “insurance” that I wouldn’t be too negatively effected by external circumstances beyond my control. For me, some of this is external, and a matter of having resources and possessions that can be “protected” in some way. It’s especially important mentally to make sure your ability to meet me needs is protected. But I also recognize that the bigger part of this is “internal.” There’s never any perfect insurance or guarantee you won’t lose something. Loss is part of life. So true security means having a mental state where these inevitable losses don’t overly impact your happiness, health and contentment.
—Simplicity. As few tangible physical possessions as I can get away with. As few responsibilities and obligations, as well. Do less, better.
—Compassion for all beings. Compassion makes life richer.
Of course, any idea of “wealth” has to include “luxuries.” The list above provides me with most of the things I’d consider true luxuries, and most are experiences that you can’t buy with money these days, a roaring fire, connection to nature, ripe heirloom fruit just picked from the tree….
I feel like if I can design my life to accumulate these resources and possessions in the right amounts, then extra money would just be a bother I’d have to deal with, another responsibility I’d be burdened with, and a detraction from real wealth. Sure, I might like to travel a little now and then, mostly to see friends across the country, but perhaps with some creativity I don’t need monetary wealth to do that.
When I envision a life with the right balance of those things, I see true wealth.
So, what’s valuable? What truly makes a person wealthy?