America is a young country, and consequently its citizens have short memories. We don’t think about maintaining an established culture because we don’t have one. Such a lack of tradition has functioned as a catalyst for powerful and positive changes in a short time: increased voting rights, desegregation, accessibility of information.
However, we often lack the wisdom of previous generations. None of them lived as we do now. In practical, logistical terms, the global middle class lives in far more luxurious environments than royalties of just a few hundred years ago. Running water, climate-controlled interiors, refrigeration, and grocery stores are all recent developments in the course of human history. In a single generation, lifestyle and standard of living can change considerably, even within the same family—such shifts happened in my family twice in the twentieth century. As a result, Americans have paved a comfortable road of overconsumption and materialism for the world. We live easily—the drastically unhealthy life of the privileged. We don’t take care of ourselves, but our marketing brilliance has fooled everyone, including ourselves, that our life is preferable to a healthy one of effort and action. We have yet to learn that more is not always better.
Thus following this idea that more is better, the (unobtainable) most is the (unobtainable) best, many people live well beyond their means, which I define as consuming more than you produce. Not a literal, equal exchange—I certainly eat more food than I grow. Rather your consumption is more than your contribution. For example, when spending outpaces earning. When ingestion outpaces physical activity.
Living beyond people’s means has happened on micro and macro levels. On an individual scale, many people live beyond their means, in constant debt and avoidance of collection calls. When you “buy” an $800 couch and don’t pay for it right away, you start paying full price for it often years later, when it’s hardly worth half that amount anymore. Same with many other purchases, whether cars, flat-screen TVs, or apparel. As any sound financial planner could confirm, a poor investment strategy. We’ve created the means to live off credit, to delay responsibility and payment.
Yet larger institutions have done the same, from the government to banks to companies. A recent survey showed that our $13 trillion debt could afford 9 iPhones for all 6.5 billion people on earth. We spend billions (that we don’t actually have) on multiple wars that kill, maim, impoverish, and generally worsen the lives of thousands of innocent people—in other words, whatever victories gained have costs beyond pure financial currency. Meanwhile, people (citizens and others) within our borders suffer from poverty, inadequate education, and inaccessible healthcare.
Our current financial depression exemplifies intake trumping output, particularly the housing market. Bigger homes were always preferable, rather than honest assessments of how much room buyers actually needed. Half a century ago, my father’s family of five shared a 3BD/1BA house. Nothing notable at the time, but most Americans would consider that unacceptable. I can admit it’s not ideal, but also concede that it’s livable. (Certainly far from intolerable, considering that billions of people live without access to adequate water.) A European family of the same size often shares a 3BD/1BA apartment, not considered a massive sacrifice.
The obesity crisis illustrates how deeply our bad habits are ingrained: we literally consume too much and that consumption is literally killing us. The scope of this problem has become as socially large as the physical size of the people who create the statistics. Studies have shown repeatedly that as healthy populations grow more affluent, their spending and food consumption habits change accordingly. People often acquire poorer health habits, ironically, as their standard of living improves. Higher wealth in the US, Europe, and Asia has been accompanied by growing waistlines and cancer rates. Yet despite all the sobering evidence of this unhealthy lifestyle, people often remain unmotivated to consume less.
On any scale of measure, these cycles root us in just-short-of-enough: we don’t work enough, thus don’t make enough, thus don’t work enough. However, the problem is actually the contrary: we do/have/make too much. Thus the irony is not that we suffer for lack of better, but that we suffer in our excess, our affluenza. This disease perpetuates suffering, and the American coping mechanism seems to be escapism via consumption, in its many potential forms. Most people would accept more [fill in the blank] without lengthy consideration and deny less [fill in the blank] with the same lack of thought. Yet everything—money, material luxuries, status symbols—has its cost, whether financial or otherwise. Living beyond your means doesn’t create any buffer for life’s inevitable tides. Frequently, financial obligations prevent people from moving or changing jobs because of the expense. We all bitch about working too much, yet most people live month to month or paycheck to paycheck, which only ensures that they can’t afford to stop working. Living beyond your means can make you that much more of a slave to that which you’re trying to avoid.
I am fortunate to have grown up a frugal family. Minimalism and scaling down are my preferred lifestyle choices, and consequently I live without debt, due to spending habits (as opposed to earning a high salary). I only purchase what I can actually afford at that time, which is mostly not much. I’m also very picky about employment, and my savings in combination with the help of family and friends have enabled survival of (short) stints of unemployment while job-hunting. I continually find more freedom with fewer possessions. I earn less money than nearly everyone I know, yet I don’t feel any less able to be happy.
I don’t advocate that we all start living like the Amish (unless you wish to do so); however, I do believe that lives will only improve with deliberate efforts to live within our means. Yes, the solutions are a lot of damn work. At first, they’ll probably feel like huge sacrifices. But things worth having in life, such as good health, aren’t easy. People say being a parent is one of the best jobs ever, yet it’s certainly not easy to be a good one. Takes a lot of time and energy, which don’t detract from its value.
Without such efforts, we will continue to live in crisis-du-jour. The Gulf oil spill is a gut-wrenching example of the consequences of living beyond our means. Clearly we consume more than the planet can provide. My only consolation about the oil spill is that it has the potential to illustrate the consequences of our lifestyles. Hopefully we can recognize the importance of reduced consumption and alternative energy.
In October 2008, I taught in California on a temporary assignment. Staying in a hotel meant access to TV (which I’ve never owned), and I remember the newscasts when the economy tanked, with footage of lines at gas stations. Despite the impending difficulties ahead, I remember my accompanying relief for the powerful lesson that the recession has afforded us: scale down. Live with less.
SK © 2011