“We end up buying stuff we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know, for feelings that don’t last.”
Paul, quite taken by Lua’s story, explained that the free market economic system, to its credit, does often direct the dreams and desires of individuals toward the common good without the need for coercive social institutions to get work done. But the value and contributions of caring and community life and the health of ‘the commons,’ like the environment, are exempt from market rewards and feedback mechanisms in this myopic, short-sighted system. Over time, this systemic blindness puts social and ecological stability on a path of mortal danger.
Indeed, long-term social well-being and biospheric integrity are traded off in myriad daily choices — a tyranny of small, local, and immediate individual economic decisions — driven by short-term individual 'wants', family and household stability, and in some cases, desperation and basic survival. In time, large and severely damaging ecological consequences emerge from the cumulative effects of innumerable individual economic actors making simple individual choices for simple individual reasons.
Homo economicus, the individualistic unit of economic activity in this free-market model, is a rather cartoonish and absurd economic actor. The model assumes that individual tastes and preferences are fixed and given, and that the core 'economic problem' consists of optimally satisfying those fixed preferences once and for all. But, in reality, preferences and desires change quickly at the whim of a powerful and influential advertising industry, an envy production factory working around the clock to perpetually manufacture new wants and desires.
Desire, status-envy, and greed are what fuel conspicuous consumption, I, thought to myself, with the sad result that we end up buying stuff we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know, for feelings that don’t last.
As Lua liked to say: mainlanders value belongings, while islanders value belonging.
And even more important to mainlanders than their belongings, is their ability to acquire even more belongings. And that takes money:
“You mainlanders are caught in some strange collective trance in your obsession with MONEY — a truly false god of value. It distorts your reality, limits your freedom, and will soon likely take you over an ecological and financial cliff. We, on the other hand, are deeply connected to Earth’s ever-evolving community of life. We observe life moving, for its own deeply mysterious purpose, towards ever increasing awareness and beauty and complexity. We live every day with joy and wonder in our hearts at its full range of new possibilities. We worship healthy living systems, not money, and measure our success in the health of our communities and in the well-being of our citizens, not on the frequency of monetary exchange or the size of numbers in a bank account. For us, business is not about money, it’s about relationships of trust and belonging. We nurture and protect our culture as the fertile soil for growing trust and tolerance among our citizens. Well-being is grounded in the quality of community, not the quantity of money. I do not understand why so many honest, hard-working, intelligent mainlanders accept such an artificial and spiritually-impoverished economic system.”
At that moment, I imagined the ghost of Voltaire whispering into Lua's ear (with a delightfully snobby French accent, of course): ‘It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere, my dear.’