Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Gift of Poverty

Someone asked me recently what actions I have taken based on the types of things I write about here. To answer that, first I'd like to digress a bit.

Back when Roberto Benigni won the Oscar for Life Is Beautiful, there was one phrase he used that struck me at the time, and I have remembered it ever since. He thanked his parents for "the gift of poverty."

The gift of poverty?

Now the reason that phrase struck me so hard is that I could not believe anyone could see poverty as a gift. For me it has been a curse. All my life I have lived with people who have more than me. Sure, many people have less, and I know that intellectually, but the way our minds work, we judge ourselves by our peer group and our immediate surroundings. The fact that people in Africa or Central America live without running water does not register if you live in a city in the American Midwest.

Poverty put me in debt from an early age. Poverty meant that I was bullied and abused in school. Poverty meant that I grew up in rentals with loud downstairs neighbors across from a housing project and next to a cement factory (seriously, I could write a good Blues song about it). Poverty meant I had no dates in high school. Poverty meant I had little choice in choosing a college. Poverty meant my car would break down before it was paid off, and I had to drive without insurance to drive at all. Poverty meant I could not travel the world as a young man they way I wanted, for fear of debt collectors. Poverty meant I could not quit jobs I didn't like, or get decent vacations or benefits.

Poverty meant that I could not get an advanced degree, and my career would suffer. Even in the professional world, you work twice as hard for half as much as the people around you. They live lifestyles you could only dream about. They give their kids every advantage you can imagine. It's a very different world from the one I grew up in. I often say that I feel like I'm behind enemy lines in the class war. The principal I work for, a true class warrior and fanatical Republican, promotes only those who know the "secret handshake" of casual privilege - the loud and boastful self-promoters who have that easy air of confidence that comes from a family background of money and connections. The rest are little more than galley slaves. And let's not even talk about my personal life, which is isolating and lonely. Yes, it's true, women don't like to marry outside of their class, either.

So to me, poverty took my life away from me. I'm never going to get those years back (I'll be 40 this year). So that phrase struck me as so profoundly opposite of my experience, that I could not even wrap my head around it.

You won't hear things like this in the mainstream media. People like me are not in the mainstream media, so you need to keep in mind what the background is of those people when you listen to their pronouncements. That's why they talk about things like the improving jobs report and rising stock prices, and obsess about things like gay marriage and guns in schools.  They live in a bubble of privilege, and always have. To them, we're just an anonymous mass in flyover country. I recommend tuning them out entirely. I hope that bloggers like me, ordinary people who actually live among you - can provide a useful corrective. I think we have  a better idea of what's going on.

But as I got older, I began to understand a little bit what he meant. You see, when you start with very little, it has a couple of effects. One, and it's a cliche but it's true, is that you have to work hard for literally everything you have. You have to be smart, because you can't be stupid. There is no safety net for people like me, no rich parent to bail you out of your mistakes, just the hard hammer coming down on you in a society with no other ultimate purpose than for hard men to make as much money as possible by breaking workers at the wheel. You quickly develop an awfully dark view of human society, one that I still carry with me.

And you don't have the sense of entitlement that you see in so many people around you. People of my grandparents' era had much nicer living standards than people today (even without iPods), but they never felt it was something they deserved. Their grandchildren, however, feel entitled to a comfortable middle-class life. They feel they deserve a comfortable office job with fancy benefits, and that they need a big house in a good school district with a nice lawyer foyer, a new minivan to chauffeur their children to their copious extracurricular activities, Netflix, cable TV, ski vacations, and the like; and they feel they deserve all this because they work harder or are somehow better than the Mexicans tearing up sod in front of the building or cooking their omelettes. I can tell you that many coworkers refuse to really spend the time learning new skills or new software because they have risen up the ladder by virtue of their status, so really, why should they bother? By contrast, people like me have to learn these things just to have a job at all. Getting ahead is not really a concern; your entire life is lived in survival mode.

But mostly, you realize there really is nothing to lose. Because only when you think there's something to lose do you act to preserve it. When you're poor, everything is a gift, so you feel no particular desire to hold onto it. All you have, in the end, is yourself and your relationships. This is the message of spiritual disciplines worldwide. This is why religious people give everything away. Put another way, it's all gravy, or as Scarface put it, "every day above ground is a good day."

I've often been struck by how much of the Peak Oil scene is an upper middle class phenomenon. The Mexicans in the aisles of MiSuper Foods or rolling ice cream trucks down my street probably have no concept of Peak Oil or collapse and don't care. And people have often noted the lack of African-Americans in the Peak Oil movement. In many places like Detroit, the collapse happened a long time ago and is old news. Peak oil just doesn't register. When they grow urban gardens, it's because they need jobs even more than they need oil. I think there is a lesson in that. As I often say, if you want to know America's future, look at Detroit.

When I lost my job after September 11 (I was a Web programmer) and had to sell all my possessions and move home, I realized how totally useless all this "stuff" was, and I permanently lost any desire to buy or accumulate anything. After all, that stuff didn't save me, did it? Besides, one fire could destroy everything you own in an hour, anyway. When you talk to people who have lost everything in a fire, often times they express the realization that their stuff didn't matter, and they often do not repurchase what they had before. If you realize this without a fire or job loss, you will be very much ahead of the game. I still buy things, of course, but I think really long and hard about it. And I don't buy anything I am not prepared to lose or have stolen tomorrow.

So the simple answer to the reader's question is: nothing. Why should I? Why am I so different than the other 315 million Americans, or 7 billion inhabitants of the planet that I need saving? I live my life from day to day, that's all. I don't worry. What happens, happens. This is that attitude the ancients cultivated, and hunter-gatherers for that matter. And I recommend it to anyone. You'll be much happier. As Steve Jobs put it in his famous speech, the knowledge that you're going to die someday should disabuse you of the notion that you have anything to lose.

It’s like death. Admitting your own mortality can take a huge load off your chest. It helps you focus on what you, personally, can and cannot do, with what you really want to do with your life. Any fighter knows that no matter how tough the opposition, you can't spend all your time in a defensive crouch. You miss out on life that way. Yes, I see what's going on, and I write about it. But I am not afraid or worried at all.

I think some people's minds are overly attuned to danger and threats. It has to do with an overactive amygdala, something that was probably beneficial on the ancestral environment. I recognize this tendency in myself. It's the opposite of the complacency and blind optimism so many people live with. but of course, neither extreme is good. I suspect a lot of my readers might have the same tendency. But of course, like the optimist, it's easy to take it too far. So if you , like me, recognize this tendency in yourself, it might be a good idea to observe your own thoughts, and gain a measure of control over them. Perhaps you are overreacting, after all. Meditation is helpful for this. Maybe take some time away from it all (even from here - I won't mind ;), go for a walk, garden, play with your kids, pick up dames, whatever. Look out your window. Right now as I write this, it's a nice spring day and the sun is shining. There is something to be said for that. As Buddhists point out, this is the only true way to experience life. Worrying is just paying for a bill that hasn't come due.

There is a good part in this in interview with Noah Raford about the attitude his colleague from Africa had, which sums up my views pretty well:
Back before Y2K I was really freaking out a bit and had a year’s supply of food all stored up, gas cached away, etc. I was telling people to buy gold, learn to hunt, whatever. I thought that could be the end. And mind you, it might have been if we hadn’t figured it out before hand and poured billions of dollars into fixing it. A lot of people like to dismiss it because we fixed it. But that wasn’t like the UFO story. This was a documented, observable bug that really could have caused some serious damage if we didn’t fix it in time. But thankfully we did.

Anyway, while I was preparing for this, I was talking to a Ghanaian friend of mind, from Ghana in West Africa. He grew up with power outages, civil wars, water shortages, etc.

His responds was, “Ah, worst case scenario I starve to death. So what?”

I’ll never forget that. It sounds crass or fatalistic or something, but there is a wisdom in that statement. It’s not like he was giving up and volunteering to die. Quite the opposite. He had life experiences that taught him what he could and could not control, what he should and shouldn’t worry about. And this acceptance gave him a sense of realism that is really quite liberating.
So what? Cultivate a "so what" attitude. That's the attitude of people who are, or have been, poor. Be prepared to lose it all. That doesn't mean you should seek out that outcome, of course, but you must make peace with it.

That, then, is the final gift of poverty.

We're all caught in something larger than ourselves. It’s not like any of us can prevent collapse from happening. Not you, not me, not Barack Obama, not Bill Gates, not Ben Bernanke, not the Pope. No one is charge anymore. It’s just too big, too fast, and too complex. The best we can do is to live though it, the way so many of our ancestors have done. One of the reasons I like history so much is that it puts everything in perspective. People  throughout history have made enormous contributions, and lived valuable, meaningful lives with just a fraction of what you and I possess. People in the nineteenth century often had no heat or running water. They lived in a world full of pollution and injustices like debtors' prisons, robber barons and slavery. Yet look at what they did. Look at what people do every day across this planet with so much less than us. Get some perspective.

The French have a word debroullier. It's the art of always landing on one's feet, of surviving by the skin of your teeth, of overcoming odds by breaking the rules and slipping between the cracks. The French call this "System D." We should take note. System D ought to be in the toolkit of every Peak Oil aware person. I also recall the advice the Sokka Gakkai Buddhists give to their followers: be prepared to do the things that others don't want to do. if that is your attitude you will do well in whatever society we end up living in.

Philosophically, I would also recommend reading the Stoic philosophers. It seems to be that Stoicism, born of an earlier civilization undergoing collapse, is the ideal philosophy for the Peak Oil era. Try starting with Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and the Enchiridion (the 'manual') by Epictetus (it's practically a pamphlet). I'd also recommend "Man's Search for Meaning," by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Having said all that, I'll include a few more practical and prosaic things I have done. Really, it's nothing more than what everyone else has been saying. When I first read Ran Prieur's famous essay, How to Drop Out (like everyone else, it's how I found his site), I realized that I had independently arrived at many of his conclusions. You don't need to completely drop out; just live on the margins and depend on mainstream society as little as possible. Artists have been experts at this - make friends with some if you can. Buy a bicycle and learn to fix it. Learn to cook good food at home, including beans and rice. Invest in a grill and slow cooker if you're a meat-eater like me. Try and get a skill where you can paid on the side. Keep out of debt. Make friends with people who can help you. Reciprocity is fundamental to our species, and it will work when the big systems fail. Like I said, nothing you won't read on the Archdruid Report or Club Orlov.

I'm fanatically allergic to anything I cannot walk away from. I don't like long-term contracts, and for a long time it kept me from having a cell phone (I now have a no-contract phone). I don't have Netflix. I obviously have Internet service (reluctantly). Everything I do for entertainment is via the Web or the local library. I don't play computer games - I'd rather spend my time creating a blog post, reading a good book, or architectural design.

I buy most things second-hand or at rummage sales except clothes. My entire house is furnished with flea market items. This does two things - not only is it cheaper, but it keeps stuff out of a landfill and prevents the need to add new stuff to the world. 99 percent of the stuff the human race needs has already been manufactured, let's use the last of the oil wisely, eh? Plus, old stuff is often of superior quality.

I shop at farmer's markets, ethnic groceries, and buy directly from local farms. Yes, I pay more, but that accomplishes two things - it gives you better health, and it gives money to people who are farming the earth responsibly. The more money people like that earn, the more people will be doing it. Paying more for good, sustainable food is better than any charity - it is actually shifting the way we do things via the free market. And that's a good thing. If it helps, think of the extra money as charitable donations to promote things like organic agriculture and responsible husbandry.

Unemployment pays one-third of your previous income, so it stands to reason that you need to live on one-third of your income, whatever that is. I studiously do so, and bank the rest.

Last year, I did something I never thought I would do. I bought a house. My savings weren't earning anything in the bank, so I put it as down-payment on a house because I was tired of being a rent mule. I thought of buying a house outright, but I still couldn't find an acceptable one in my price range. But my large down payment (40 percent) means that my house is cheaper than even the cheapest one bedroom rental in my city. I pay as much of the mortgage as I can to build equity in the house. And the repairs I make are all with an eye to energy efficiency - I put in a new furnace to take advantage of the credits being offered (it was a very old furnace). Luckily, I'm well insulated, but if you're not, insulate and weatherize first. Then think about energy independence - wood stoves, solar hot water, photovoltaics, etc.

The way I see it, you're always going to need a roof over your head. And say what you will about gold, but the value of a house truly never goes to zero. I'm lucky I live in a very affordable rust-belt city, where housing prices are reasonable and have stabilized. And my house is comfortable but humble - even with this year's increased assessment, it is still assessed at under six figures by the city. The best part - I can literally walk to everything I need and bike or bus everywhere else. I realize not everyone is this lucky, though, as jobs change, etc. But often house location is a valuable tradeoff for price.

I've set up my life so that I can purchase food and shelter even while working for minimum wage, since this will be what most of the wonderful new jobs our leaders are creating will pay. That includes my mortgage payment. I highly recommend this for everyone. Anything above that you can bank or invest.

The stuff in Mr. Money Moustache also sums up a lot of my advice. I don't think you need to be afraid of investments or stick your money in a mattress. I think banks will remain solvent and some investments will still increase in value. Again, as always, don't gamble with what you can't afford to lose. I have not invested my savings, because I want them liquid in case of job loss (the house being the exception). My money is in my credit union, and I went through them to finance my house. Keep you money out of the big banks. I think savings in credit unions are safe, so that would be my primary method, with investments being above and beyond that. I don't think FDIC will fail, remember, we can always print money - we're doing enough of it already.

And definitely get involved in your community. Kompost Kids and Victory Garden Initiative are two I've been involved with in the past, but certainly your town is looking for help and volunteers, whether they are "officially" for peak oil or not. Homeless shelters and food banks are worth more in the coming collapse than cob ovens and windmills (not there's anything wrong with those). I roll my eyes at Transition Towns a little, because it seems like more of a networking group for upper class green liberals. What we really need are ways to get homeless people into foreclosed houses and jobs rather than solar panels or biodeisel at this point. As I've said, fossil fuels are still around; it's their cost that's going to kill us, along with their environmental impact. I think one of the benefits of gardening is that you realize how much of human life is dependent on the climate. Anyone who doesn't get that is not worth listening to.

Say what you will about religion, and I'm the harshest critic there is, but it often motivates people to help others. But you don't need religion for that. If Peak Oil aware people really rolled up their sleeves and got involved, rather than just endlessly pontificated about the apocalypse, we would really make a difference, and that is how movements are born, not blogs (yes, I'm damning myself here a bit too). Christianity took over the Western world not through its nonsensical theology, but because it gave people a helping hand in tough times. The Peak Oil movement needs to take a page from that. By doing so, people will start listening to us instead of the corporate media. Occupy is good start, but it's just a start.

I've said enough, I think. It seems as though poverty is a gift that more and more of us are going to receive, whether we want it or not. Seeing it, no making it, a gift is something that we can and should cultivate. And finally, I would close with the words of that great American sage, Kurt Vonnegut: "Goddamn it, you've got to be kind."

Twenty-First Century Stoic -- From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic (BoingBoing)

Drawing Blood: Being a Poor Person in America (Post Swag Poetics). I recognize a lot of my own story in this terrific essay.


  1. Ah.... Thank you for this post.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for the essay answer to my query.
    Very good.
    I may respond with a longer comment later.
    My own path has been somewhat different, both in terms of how I grew up (better off in terms of money, but pretty bad in terms of home psychological environment and family dynamics), and that might be interesting. Or not.

    I have also become something of a stoic. That can get me in trouble at times, especially with the spouse. They often don't appreciate stoicism when they are expressing their frustrations with the lack of money or luxuries that they see their friends enjoying: vacation houses in Mexico, etc.

    Being married with child has been a real challenge, because my family is not into frugality, hardcore gardening, and homestead-type life that I would embrace, even in the city. So compromise.
    We also got a house for the first time. Good thing: we aren't in debt to a big bank, or even a bank. Bad: we are in debt, student loans, etc. We live in a city, so the property taxes are high.

    My biggest fear is that my spouse is not able to imagine how difficult things could get. Maybe I shouldn't even try to educate her, but let her educate herself. That would be the stoic way. Let people make their own mistakes, learn for themselves.

    I still dream of moving up north, to a village where people know each other, and where traditional skills are practiced and learned. I intend to do that, if I can. I want my child to experience the freedom of living near the wilderness, as I did. The city is too controlled, too dense with rules, to constricted.

    The biggest obstacle will be giving up, and convincing the family I am responsible for and live with to give up, the supposed benefits of the system we are overly enmeshed in.

    My spouse continues to dream of things like "endless pools" in the backyard, and vacations to remote Mexican resorts, while I deal with barely being able to pay the bills and try to pay down debt.
    So it goes... hey, didn't Vonnegut say that? More later. Great post.

  4. excellent post. i think "self-reliance" by emerson is also worthy of mention here.

    now, has anyone found a viable online network or real world community where peakers will congregate and cooperate? i know full well that the idealist model (commune/hippie haven) is a bust, but it certainly seems that the more like-mindded people who come togther to co-operate, the higher the odds of success for all... strengthe in numbers. any leads, anyone?

  5. Gregg: the "hippie" or commune model wasn't really the bust that its detractors like to claim. There is one such commune still up and running, over forty years later. Check out "the farm" on the web. They still have programs and workshops. You can visit them.

    Regarding a viable online network: they exist, but I, like you, have as a main goal finding people in the "real" world to connect with. It's hard, unless you expand the idea to just connecting to everyone in your neighborhood and community you really like or connect with. That may be the way to go. In a bad situation, the next door neighbors are you most useful, important connections, whether or not they believe in peak oil, climate change, etc.
    Where are you located, at least vaguely? I (like the author of this blog) am in the midwest.

  6. I wanted to comment a bit more, as I thought of something. I pretty much agree with you ideas, and have implemented many of them.

    It's funny - you see and hear about lots of suburban "survivalists" who stock up on supplies and weapons, but if they lose their jobs, they'd lose their houses, where those supplies are stored.

    So it sounds like you aren't the "survivalist" type. I understand the stoic mindset combined with not getting too paranoid or anxious, and thus missing out on the joys of living. That said... couldn't one also use that philosophy, and say "so what" to the system itself? Here's an extreme example, but because it's extreme, illustrates my point well.

    Someone like us who is worried by the idea of collapse, named Bob, sells his house. He buys a little plot of land way out in the boonies. He makes his own yurt, sewing the canvas and building the frame. He installs a small solar system and wind generator, to charge a deep cycle battery. He builds a small greenhouse, so he can start gardening early in the spring. He even grows some grains: corn, millet, some oats. He becomes a handyman and light carpenter in the area, getting there in his old Volvo, which he drives only to get to jobs or the occasional trip to the local store. He's considered a harmless eccentric, but trustworthy and useful. He lives on about two thousand dollars a year. He heats the yurt from his woodlot, of course.

    You get the idea. He takes the idea of "so what" further, becoming more resilient than a survivalist or prepper, by needing very little from the grid. He enjoys this life, though it is hard.

    Extreme example. But really, what ties any of us to the "system"? Your story was very poignant. Might I ask a question? Why do you struggle so hard, to be part of it? Why do I? Why do you tolerate those annoying corporate types, instead of telling them to screw it, and doing your own thing?

  7. This post got a lot of attention in /r/simpliving

  8. thanks for the feedback, publius. i know of the farm... there was a good documentary about it i saw sometime back, the gist being that the 'anarchist' model is very prone to invasion by the power seekers for the same reason: people who believe there will be no central power are very prone to takeover by an authoritarian. quite a conundrum.

    i 'wwoofed' for a while, which enlightened me quite a bit to the reality of the modern hippie / boomer who's been conditioned by decades of propaganda. same shite, different scene... every man for himself... less for you = more for me. neo-feudalism, is what i observed.

    i now reside in the heart of collapse... detroit. moved here about a year ago from chicago to see what's up. i'm capable in civil engineering, architecture, various trades, and not bad with growing food. the obvious problem in collapse is no capital to make these things happen, unless of course it's a rising dictatorship funded by industrialists, which detroit, now, ain't.

    but i agree with you, and the taoists, etc... make your peace where you are, there's no place like home. small acts of kindess go a long way, even more so in rough times.

    rock on, g


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