Voluntary poverty

Voluntary poverty could very well save your life, but it is a hard sell

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Simple living can be comfortable, but are we ready to voluntarily seek out poverty just to survive after peak oil and other calamities that climate change and whatever else may bring?

DepressionChildrenPoverty is finding middle class families these days these days through unemployment, bankruptcy and home foreclosure, whether they like it or not. And mostly, they don't like it. However, those who haven't found poverty yet might want to seek it out for their own good as, when things are ging to get scarce, as they will, it will be the only way to go.

Poor and lovin' it

Preparing we must for the eventuality of the end of the world as we know it and in order to do that I would recommend preparing our households for a future of doing with fewer products and services from the marketplace once peak oil puts an end to our current age of abundance.

In order to do that I would suggest “Survival Games” to be played at home, aside from generally cutting down on things and making things ourselves more than we have been doing in the last decades.

As we look forward to an economy of "scarcity industrialism", if looking forward to can be the right word, and whether industrialism actually still will be part of the equation is another story as even the UN is stating that the industrial age if coming to its end and we are entering a port-industrial era, we must develop the kinds of DIY skills that could be found in issues of Mother Earth News from the 1970s and which would be referred to as “Green Wizardry”.

Also in the list of study materials should be How-To books such as used to be published by Odhams in the UK in the first third of the twentieth century, as well as books such as those by John Seymour and the Australian Bushman crafts ones by Ron Edwards and also the Foxfire Books. I am lucky enough to have a number of Odhams How-To books in my collection as well as a couple of Foxfire ones, some of John Seymour's books and the two Australian Bushman ones by Ron Edwards.

Knowing how to grow and preserve our own food is only the start. There is learning how to cook with the haybox, how to insulate and weatherize and to provide the small amount of energy one may need from homescale sources. Those who know the latter will be able to ignore the decline of the electrical grid.

Those who learn how to get the things they need from salvage, instead of relying on global supply chains fed from rapidly depleting resource stocks, will be able to stand aside as what's left of the global economy circles the drain and goes down it.

The idea of voluntary poverty – or better the term – was coined by Henry David Thoreau. The founders of the modern movement of "voluntary simplicity", however, backed away uncomfortably from the noun in Thoreau's phrase, and thereby did themselves and their movement a huge disservice as it is all too easy to turn "voluntary simplicity" into a sales pitch for yet another round of allegedly simple products at fashionably high prices. The concept of voluntary poverty does not lend itself anything like so well to such evasions. The idea, Thoreau's idea, is to deliberately embrace being poor, in every material sense, in order to avoid the common fate of being possessed by your possessions. And this commercialization has happened, as we must all be well aware, to the term “green”, “eco” and “environmentally friendly” and thus “greenwash” came about.

Without many modern comforts you can still live a comfortable life when your food comes from a backyard garden, your heat comes from a wood stove, and your job comes from refurbishing salvage. But it requires the proper mindset to be able to do so.

Free your mind

A thrifty, self-reliant life – I refuse to use the term self-sufficient, as it is simply not possible, complete self-sufficiency that it – may be comfortable physically, but it is certainly not a middle-class lifestyle. And it is also a lifestyle that is not liked by the powers-that-be who, not so long ago in Britain, declared that people who did not buy enough products would undermine the economy and were, in fact, terrorists.

True household self-reliance – homesteading or its urban variety – is more like monasticism, the lifestyle of a Benedictine or Zen monk who has taken a vow of poverty and committed himself to simple living for a higher cause. And what especially is not comfortable about living in poverty is the loss of status.

I know that plenty of people like to claim that they don't care what other people think about them but it is clear from the way most Americans act, and not just Americans, that they care very much about status, reflected in conspicuous consumption from Versace to Nike to Apple. Big brands are not just on our bodies; they are inside our heads, defining the good life.

Even for people interested in prepping for peak oil (and peak everything) and open to a message of simple living, I don't think, if we are honest with ourselves, this message is a hard one, and many of us are not quite ready yet to leave behind all the ideas of the “good life” that they have known since childhood and embrace what society would define as personal failure. But, the problem, so to speak, is that we must.

Indeed, corporate marketers have done so well at getting inside our heads that most of us judge the good, the true and especially the beautiful by what brand advertising has taught us.

I like the idea of transitioning out of the money economy for philosophical reasons, and many others around the world do too. Some have even done it and gone into the “money strike”. I would like to free my mind from money, status-seeking and corporate brainwashing, and personally I have been able to do that to a large extent due to the way I was raised (we will come to that later). Many in our Western world who are in financial distress right now also might find it appealing to find some relief from the stress of juggling bills that get harder to pay each month as the economy continues to stagnate, despite of what we are being told by governments and media (who have become but a mouthpiece for government).

But to get to a life beyond money, and to do it with joy rather than resentment, will take a huge mind-shift. And here looking to the past might help.

There is a long tradition of simple living or even voluntary poverty in the West going back before today's Amish and Old Order Mennonites through Tolstoy and St. Francis of Assisi all the way to down to the ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Diogenes. The latter was such a showboat that he lived in a barrel in the agora of Athens, the agora being a central spot in ancient Greek city-states, the literal meaning of the word is "gathering place" or "assembly", just to make sure everybody knew how much he was doing without.

But none of the great ascetics of the past embraced poverty merely as a way to survive in a difficult economy. Instead, there was always that higher motivation: to get closer to God, to reach enlightenment, to discover absolute truth.

Survival is a surprisingly very bad motivator

For modern Americans were to do something so opposed to the country's national character as to go beyond the fashionable slow food, slow work and slow sex of the simple living movement to brand themselves with the straight-up shame of poverty, there would need to have a better reason to do it than mere survival.

A people that have been brought up on the Horatio Alger dream of hard work, equal opportunity and upward mobility won't soon walk around in sackcloth and ashes even if it means their very survival is at stake and that of the Planet. Sad to say, but it would appear that many Americans would choose to die first than to give up on their middle-class identity.

Indeed, it has been shown that they are perfectly ready to give their lives in the cause of maintaining our social status. It is not only the Japanese salaryman who is drawn to harakiri when he loses his job. Plenty of Americans have also sought refuge in an early grave to avoid the ignominy of bankruptcy or otherwise appearing to fall out of the middle class, and also many bankers in recent times, though with the latter one may wonder as to whether they were suicided because they knew too much about the economic collapse that was engineered by the banks, on behest of our governments.

But whether we like it or not the path to voluntary poverty will have to be taken by us all in order to be able to cope with the inevitable coming of the peak oil and peak everything.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

© 2014