In simplified terms, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a lot of work was needed to bring about a healthy redistribution of wealth, and in the decades following the war this goal was achieved to the point that prosperity was probably more evenly distributed than it had been since our species’ long-gone egalitarian hunter-gatherer incarnation. And yet the pendulum of acquisition continued its swing, gaining momentum in the decades following the Golden Age of capitalism. Redressing previous centuries’ social inequity turned a corner into the dim alley of greed.
But while most regular people have no time to contemplate the reason for their hamster-like tackling of the treadmill, with great energy and enthusiasm pursuing their hectic, circular path, what we invest our time and money in is, by default, our priority. We can’t point a blaming finger at the corporate looters who engineered the culture of greed, without acknowledging our own part in the system, which is, our investment in terms of time and money in the cycle of acquisition.
Our ancestors traditionally owned very little, and what they did possess, they valued, because they had to make, or at the least recycle, everything from clothes to tools, further back also having to procure the raw materials. Many people in non-western countries still own very little, but visitors from the west often remark on the generosity in the face of poverty that these people demonstrate, and with what freedom they share what they do have.
In contrast, in the west today we suffer from consumer paralysis, such is the bewildering array of product choices laid before us – but do these choices really bring us the personal satisfaction we hope for, or like sugar molecules, are our purchases empty of real value, only keeping us in thrall to rampant consumerism?
The story of the rich man and the fisherman illustrates the irony of our position. A wealthy man vacationing on an idyllic isle observes a local relaxing beside the sea, feet up and pipe in mouth, early one afternoon after a short day’s fishing. The rich man encourages the simple man to work harder in order to accrue more money, with which to increase his fleet and his wealth, so that in time he may be able to work less hours and spend more time relaxing, feet up and pipe in mouth…
If we stopped the treadmill for a brief moment, we might consider why we are bound to this endless cycle of acquisition. If we, as individuals, continue in this rut, what will be the footprint we leave behind, the impression we leave on life? If we aim to possess only what we value, and value the things we possess, we may find life a lot simpler and more fulfilling. We may even be able to throw ourselves clear of the enslaving treadmill and pioneer a new course for our lives.
Our lifestyle in the wealthy west has implications for people both in our local societies and globally. Healthy redirection is possible if we re-evaluate our priorities, the process of which, contrary to gloomy expectations, is bound to bring beneficial effects not only to the currently disenfranchised, but to our middle-class selves as well, as we rediscover the pleasure of simple things and of possessing things we truly value.