July 30, 2010

Is Greed Still Good?

"Greed is right. Greed works."
- Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street (1987)

In Star Trek the ultimate aggressive aliens are The Borg. They fly around space in big intimidating black cubes relentlessly consuming other cultures in order to enhance their own. While going about their ruthless business they repeat a tag line to their cowering prey - "Resistance is futile". The Borg are wickedly efficient at what they do, and are hard to stop. Just like capitalism and its proponents.

Knowing Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, he meant the all-powerful Borg to represent the culture of the 'free market' system. I was reminded of that today when I flipped through one of my old journals and found a quote from a great book I read two years ago. I can see why I wrote the quote down as it sums up my feelings toward societal conventions very well.

The quotation is from Greed Inc. by Wade Rowland. In it he argues that capitalism, as outlined by Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations, is founded on an erroneous basis. In his book Smith states that self-interested behavior can be accepted and applauded if it leads to the betterment of society as a whole. Therefore, as Wall Street boasted in the 1980s, "Greed is good" because a rising tide lifts all boats. Or that is what they would like us to think.

Wade Rowland disagrees about the supposed universal benefits of greed in a capitalistic system, and points out that we do not always act with our own selfish interests in mind. Our current economic system is not as natural as its proponents would like us to think:
"The training to obey the work and consumer ethic has taken place against the grain and in the face of enormous resistance. We now look upon that resistance as not just futile, but immoral. The Luddites are dismissed as criminally obtuse, and anyone who confesses to being content with what is sufficient and unwilling to work and earn and consume beyond that level of sustenance is dangerously antisocial and morally impaired by Sloth."
Rowland goes on to say, "Our economic system was designed to institutionalize and rationalize the vice of avarice, and it does this with wicked efficiency". Avarice is one of the original deadly sins. It means "reprehensible acquisitiveness". It is something to be avoided, not something to base an entire global culture on. Our current system leaves billions behind. Not all boats are rising, and many people are drowning.

Even Adam Smith himself admits that if egoistic behavior does not lend itself to the public good, then it ought to be stopped. Our current system, then, ought to be stopped.

The Borg are wrong, as are the Wall Street suits - resistance is not futile. In the end, I side with philosopher David Hume and his belief that powerful moral sentiments will guide us as we act together for the greater good. The ideals that he says are the antidotes to greed? Love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude.

Is greed still good? Was it ever? If we focus on love, friendship, compassion, and gratitude, everything else will take care of itself. They will overpower greed and change our world. Competition is yesterday's brutal game that manufactured winners and losers. I see us evolving toward a better, more cooperative future in which all can win. Good riddance greed.

July 29, 2010

Simple Pleasures: Nature

"Whatever living philosophy one constructs, it cannot avoid the laws of nature, and the best way to get familiar with the laws of nature is to live simply in natural surroundings." - Wilderdom

Cities are great, and I have enjoyed some beautiful moments in them. Folk Music Festival in Edmonton, roaming the Prado Museum in Madrid, buying spices in Old Delhi from Mr. Singh, and night markets in Kuala Lampur - all were urban experiences I am glad I had. But when it comes to simple pleasures, natural areas are my number one.

I feel like I am following an urge, satisfying a yearning, respecting an instinct when I immerse myself in nature. Huge, glorious, free nature. Quiet nature where life takes its course, wherever that may lead. Nature's magic is everywhere, and probably in more places than you want to know. Our bodies are entire mobile ecosystems supporting a wide variety of flora and fauna. It is wondrous, if not a little shudder-inducing.

Today I am taking a nature break to watch a fledged eaglet that is out of the nest and learning to fly. I can see it from home. It is using one of the tallest trees around, hopping and flapping from one branch to another. Sometimes it points itself into the wind and opens its wings full. The wind lifts the large baby and I silently cheer. It reminds me of getting my own wings, and being guided by my patient parents.

The eaglet's parents are down on the salt flats calling for the baby to come for breakfast. Every once in a while one of the adult eagles flies a short distance with a reddish mess of prey dangling from its talons. Mmm, yummy - come and get it. I have read that the parents do this to entice their offspring to take longer flights and strengthen their wings. Time to grow.

The eaglet, looking down from 100 feet up an old growth Douglas-fir is scared and wants to stay where it is. But it is hungry, too. Which will win out? Fear or food? Nature is taking its course.

I will continue to watch the young eagle today. I am certain that food will win out in the end. The response to hunger is strong, as is our yearning for nature. Regardless of where we are we benefit from frequent exposure to natural places. Parks, empty lots, waterways, cracks in the pavement - this simple pleasure can be had anywhere.

My life without nature would be as wrong as an eagle without flight. Eagles should fly, and I should experience the quiet, peace, and wonder of nature as often as possible. I think the answers are there. Nature is my number one simple pleasure.

Note: I invite you to check out my other blog which is devoted to learning about nature and the splendor of the great Pacific coastal forest.

July 26, 2010

Hut or Hot?

We disparage "mud huts", but are they huts, or are they hot?

About 1/2 of the world's population live in homes made out of earth. Not only are they clean, affordable, efficient and sustainable, they can be incredibly beautiful as well. 

Life would be much different living in a home without any straight lines or precise 90 degree angles. Not to mention without off-gassing building products.And 100% biodegradable. How many modern homes can boast that?

Several billion people can't be wrong. See more amazing homes made out of natural materials, and built by regular people, by clicking on caption under the photo above.

July 24, 2010

What Aren't You Buying?

As current economic conditions continue to change our world a lot of people are getting closer to not buying anything. Who can afford it? We're not buying houses or Hummers, cottages or caviar. As catastrophic as it all seems, it is a shift in the right direction. Something is obviously not working in our current system when the few have so much, and the many so little. I am not buying that.

It is always possible to buy less. One persons extreme budget is another persons luxury living. However, if the goal is toward living with less, each small step counts. Wandering holy people get their possessions down to a piece of cloth and a bowl. It is hard to get more basic than that. They are truly not buying anything. It is something I aspire to - to live as lightly as possible, and be free of encumbrances.

Then we can follow our own unique adventure, unscripted by society or the marketplace. You can't buy a life, or be forced into one against your will - you have to make a life of your own choosing on your own. Each of us is writing our own story. For a long time my story has been about working toward not buying anything. It is going to take longer than I thought.

The following is a list of things I haven't been buying the last 5 years, or in some cases, have never spent money on. My life is better without them. When things are uncomplicated and uncluttered we can focus on what is important to us. When we live better with less, others currently scraping by can live better with more.

I'm Not Buying:
  • cable TV
  • individual car ownership
  • meat... still with me?
  • movies
  • new clothes
  • caffeine
  • concert tickets
  • restaurant meals
  • credit
  • inflated real estate
  • vacations
  • big bank financial advisers and the mutual funds they peddle
  • the Wall Street Casino
  • ultra soft toilet paper made from 300 year old trees
  • disposable products
  • popular culture
  • mainstream media
  • granite counter tops
  • processed food
  • having kids, unless you really, really, really want them
  • working a job you don't like
  • christmas presents
  • endless upgrades
  • fast food
  • fashion
  • planned obsolescence
  • non-participatory democracy
  • stainless steel
  • alcohol
Congratulations if you made it to the end of that. You must be a non-conformist yourself.

So many things not to buy. It is a challenge in a materialistic world, but is also satisfying in a way that buying things never can be. It feels like self-control, restraint, and thrift. It feels right, like an instinct.
Are there things you are cutting back on? What aren't you buying?

July 22, 2010

The World Needs More Benches

Returning visitors to NBA will notice the banner change at the top of this blog. It was time for a change, and benches have been a recurring theme for me lately. Therefore I have been thinking about and photographing benches.

I have been noticing benches more often now that I have the time to use them. The other day, while sitting on a new one, I decided that benches would be a great symbol for the simple living movement. Like the Slow Food movement, which is really about the joy of slow living, the bench represents the value inherent in going slow.

Even slow is too fast when it comes to benches. A bench means it is time to stop. Full stop. It is about not being stingy with your time, and allowing yourself the gift of simply being for a few moments. Perhaps to read a book, or bird watch, sit under the shade of a welcoming tree on a hot day, visit with friends and neighbours. Some of my finest moments have been on benches.

The freedom to do nothing is a freedom that is denied to us on the industrial clock. There should be benches where ever there are people, to remind all, invite all, to stop and do nothing. Take a load off, sit down, and catch your breath.

For your mental health visit a bench as often as possible.
Go slow. Stop. Contemplate. Enjoy.

The Environment?

When this shirt was first purchased it was suppose to be funny. With global climate change, and the Gulf of Mexico filling up with a chemical brew, it doesn't seem as funny any more.

Some laugh at the effectiveness of personal actions, saying they will not make a difference. I say of course they will, and do. If we chose to live more like the majority of humanity, and within our ecological limits, things would change rapidly. If we voluntarily limited ourselves everything would change.

The Dalai Lama points out that it does not matter how many police you have on the streets if people can not control themselves. It will never be enough. But if the people are responsible for themselves, you don't need police.

We don't need legislation, or green consumerism. We don't need catastrophe, or bailouts, or bylaws. None of these things will be enough if we can't control ourselves. Each of us, individually. One decision at a time.

Personal responsibility will guide us to a better world. The environment does not have to be fucked.

July 17, 2010

Living In A Hole In The Ground

Our excessive consumption and sense of entitlement these days makes me wonder if I am even on the same planet I was born on. It was with a sense of curiosity, then, that I read here of a family in Colorado that lived in a hole in the ground.

It reminded me of the Monty Python skit where a group of old men are reminiscing about their childhood poverty - "A hole in the ground? Luxury! We used to dream of living in a hole in the ground. We lived in a cardboard box in the middle of the freeway... all five of us." Except that the Colorado family really did live in a hole in the ground.

The unusual basement house was built in Colorado Springs in 1947 by Raymond Baskett. He intended on building the main floor of the house when the family could afford it. They never did get around to it. Mr. Baskett's wife lived in the house for 50 years until her death in 2002. The hole in the ground house is still being used, and is still in the Baskett family.

Mr. and Mrs. Baskett raised two children in this unconventional house that for a time had no indoor bathroom. The kitchen sink drained into a bucket. The family raised chickens and rabbits for food. But rather than memories of hardship, the children, Marvin and Esther, remember the simple underground abode with fondness. "We have nothing but good memories," they remarked.

Wow. That is a far cry from McMansions with marble counter tops, industrial kitchens and triple garages. Which makes me wonder - why build the whole house when just the basement will do? Why buy a car when a bike will do? Why buy anything that does not make us truly happy? Who are we trying to impress? Certainly not the Baskett family.

How many people today could live happily in a hole in the ground?

July 13, 2010

Simple Tips For Staying Cool

Many homes these days are built with energy intensive central air conditioning, making hot summer days a major drain on the power grid. In the current heat wave that is sticking to a sweaty North America power use is approaching all time records. Due to high demand and an aging infrastructure power outages have been widespread. It is time for some simple alternatives to power hungry air conditioning.

In 2001 my partner and I spent several months in global hot spots such as India and Malaysia. Although these areas tend to be hotter and more humid than most, air conditioning was not prevalent, except in retail stores - it was the only way to keep shoppers in the stores and spending.

The most common device for keeping cool was an ordinary circulating or ceiling fan, and even then the power to turn them was intermittent at best. Mostly, it seemed, people just acclimatized to the hot, and conducted themselves accordingly. Between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm things just slowed down to a torpid pace. Think hammock rather than hard work.

With cheap energy on its way out, we are going to have to do some acclimatizing of our own. Here are a few ideas for staying cool, and saving money on your power bill at the same time:

  • close windows and coverings during the day - keep the heat out
  • open windows at night, use fans to move cool air in, hot air out
  • migrate north (a high of -2 C in Alert, Nunavut, Canada today)
  • take a cool bath or shower
  • sit in a forest or treed area (the coolest place in New York on a blistering day is Central Park)
  • go swimming at a lake, river, stream, pond or pool
  • use ceiling/circulating fans to increase evaporation off your skin - save up to 40% on a/c
  • learn to enjoy the heat (winter is on its way)
  • go slow, or stop
  • get high - it is cooler at elevation (The Brits built mountain 'hill stations' in India to escape the stifling heat of the plains)
  • sit outside in the shade, eat meals in the yard, use your BBQ instead of stove or oven
  • stay hydrated - drink lots of water
  • get away from the concrete jungle - it is hotter there
  • eat cold meals like egg salad, fresh fruit and veggies, sushi, sandwiches, cold soups...
  • hang out in your basement
  • do hard labour early morning or late afternoon
  • go to the seashore - it is always a few degrees cooler near the ocean, plus there is usually always a breeze
  • adopt the Spanish custom of a siesta, or mid-day rest

Stay cool. Conserve energy. Save money.

Have a nap, and enjoy your summer.

July 10, 2010

Change In Money Consciousness Required

We have grown use to abundance in the developed world. An abundance that has failed to make us any happier. All our big pile of cash has got us is record levels of depression and an environment falling apart at the seams. So why are so many people continuing to spend?

We need a radical change in how we make and spend our money. If more is not working, we should try less and see what happens. It seems counter intuitive, but it may be that the best thing that could happen to us is having less money to spend.

My favourite financial guy, Garth Turner, recently posted on his blog The Greater Fool: "The recession we thought was behind us is actually reappearing, and it will take a serious attitude adjustment on the part of many to survive." Ouch.

In 2008/09 household wealth was evaporating faster than a puddle of alcohol in a heat wave, and people were thinking about changing their financial attitudes and habits. Some actually did. For example, there are groups dedicated to not buying anything new for a period of time. Most members find they get hooked on their new simple life and never go back to shopping. But they are a rarity.

John Michael Greer, author and cultural critic, noted that changing our relationship with money is not that popular, despite the proven dividends it would pay:
"The problem is that the changes in consciousness that would actually do some good are changes that next to nobody in the industrial world is willing to make: for example, a shift in priorities that deliberately embraces poverty, accepting a rich personal, intellectual, and social life as a substitute for, or even an improvement on, the material extravagance that the industrial nations currently offer their more favored inmates."
We are our own worst enemies when it comes to cash. In our pursuit of more we open ourselves to the 'Wealth Effect'. It states that people will increase spending as household net worth increases. And this in spite of 88% of us thinking that life is overly materialistic. Net gain? Zero.

Other people are shifting the way they think about work and money. The ship is slowly turning back toward our frugal roots. The wealth effect works in reverse, too - the less wealthy we feel, the less we will spend. Perhaps being less wealthy is the answer then. Make less, spend less, live more. This is the new money consciousness, and it just may save our sanity and our environment.

Greer gives hope by reminding people that the "change in consciousness is certainly accessible to each and every one of us". However, "it requires a rare willingness to step outside of the approved habits and ideas of modern industrial cultures."

We can be brave, and step away from habits we know to be harmful. We can quit spending. We can stop the futile attempt to prove that money can buy happiness. A better, more simple, sustainable life lies ahead, and we will be happier for it. But it will require a change in money consciousness, and for some of us, a radical change.

July 5, 2010

Bicycles Are Perfect For The NBA Life

My bicycle is the perfect vehicle for a not buying anything lifestyle. I acquired it about 20 years ago for $500 dollars, and since then have spent no more than $100 dollars keeping it going. Operating it has kept me fit, and in touch with the surrounding environment. My bike has covered thousands of kilometers and produced 0 tonnes of harmful gasses.

I bought my 1995 small truck in 2000 for sixteen thousand dollars. Gas, maintenance, insurance, parking, fines, and taxes for roadways have cost me many tens of thousands of dollars. Driving requires very little physical effort - it does not promote healthy living. While driving everything outside our rapidly moving cells of glass, plastic and steel flies by largely unnoticed.

My truck has rolled over 189 000 kilometers, and has spewed many thousands of tons of poisonous gases into the atmosphere. Then there is the high speed insect slaughter on the grill and windshield. So violent. You may not think about that, but I bet that Jains do. Jain monks and nuns walk barefoot and sweep the ground in front of them to avoid killing insects and other small creatures.

To be fair, my murderous truck has taken me to many beautiful places. But I wonder at what cost? First of all, owning a vehicle puts a huge dent in your wallet. Then there is the whole Gusher in the Gulf thing that each of us has contributed to through our demand for oil products.

Unless you are living in it, owning your own personal polluting vehicle doesn't seem rational. It is feeling like a scam that we have all fallen for, and are now addicted to. We are starting to make efforts toward alternatives, but the best alternative already exists. It is technology from the 1800's. The bicycle.

The bicycle can go a long way to freeing us from our addiction to cars. Although it may not be appropriate in some cases, the majority of our vehicle trips can easily be replaced by cycling. Or walking, bus, taxi or train. If a personal vehicle is required for a trip the need can be met by car-share cooperatives. These have been implemented world-wide, and are convenient to use. They have been shown to cut the cost of car use dramatically.

But my favorite solution remains the humble bicycle. I hardly have to buy anything, it is the most efficient use of energy in the known universe, and being on a bicycle is good, plain fun.

July 2, 2010

Seven Miles Of Beans

Although I am no Henry David Thoreau cultivating seven miles of beans, I can tell you about my 144 square inches of beans. As far as gardens go it is a bit on the small side. However, it is pure growing magic just the same.

This spring my gardening partner and I discussed planting more vegetables in some of the containers on our porch. After talking about buying some seeds we decided to see what we could do with what we already had. "Well", we thought, "all those beans in the kitchen are seeds. Why not use some of them?"

I grabbed the kidney beans and took them out to the back forty. With thumbs hooked in suspenders I viewed my square foot of rich, dark soil. I planted a handful of beans. A few days later they were poking up their greens heads and reaching for the light. Then, before the sprouts were barely established, I discovered the results of what Thoreau called the "enemies" of the garden.

Crawly things were eating great chunks out of the beans' beautiful, broad leaves. They were eating faster than the leaves could grow. It was a race, and I was not sure who would win. I decided to leave all the creatures be. I wanted to see who would win this life and death battle unencumbered by blunt human intervention. It was hard to sacrifice the fresh new growth, and possibility of a few cups of dried beans in the fall.

So far it looks like the beans might win, but the experiment is not over yet. If my square foot of beans bears fruit at all I doubt I will have Thoreau's problem and have more than I want. But like him, this tiny plot of beans is attaching me to the earth. Seven miles, or one square foot - it is all green fuse magic.