The other day my youngest son, now in his late-twenties, was very proudly telling me how he was living within his means. He had an account for all his various bills, one for unforeseen expenses, he had his play account and… Basically, he’d bucketed his money.
He felt he was saving and was asking what I thought would be the best type of investment given his age and where the world was going. He had of course already decided how he was going to invest in a combination of cryptocurrency, shares and eventually, his gold standard, property.
And good on him.
It was a proud moment for a father to hear his son getting his shit together. Particularly after several years of it looking a bit dodgy as to what would happen.
That notion though, of living within your means, is rarely extended beyond our personal affairs.
A COVID opportunity
The pandemic has given many people pause for thought. The time to think about their own personal means and for many, it’s been a horrific and very scary time.
Job losses and uncertainty around income causing problems for families all around the world.
What we haven’t done yet, but we should, is to see what this pause means for jurisdictions and countries living within their means.
Why can’t we extend the concept to whole economies?
The kneejerk has been to assume when COVID is over that the old normal will return, as though we’re all just desperate for it to be like it was before. You know, a life full of problems and constraints and difficulties and working all hours God sends just to pay the mortgage. As though that situation of stress is the one we want for the new business as usual.
Meanwhile, governments rack up debt levels never before seen, not even in wartime, and whistle along as though printing money was actually what they had in mind all along.
In Australia, the politicians are desperate to return to pre-COVID neoliberalism. They are planning everything as though it’s what everyone wants, even to the point of ignoring the opportunity to ramp up structural change to energy, agriculture and what to do when the country can’t sell any more iron ore, coal or gas.
The immediate challenge is not so much what an alternative normal should look like, more that leaders don’t seem interested in looking for alternatives. Or even imagining what those alternatives would be. And yet this is essential if we are to move forward.
This is all at a time in human history, the first when resources do not match demand, when we’re already living way beyond planetary means.
As one measure of this overreach, the day on which the renewable resources of the world are used up for that year has been creeping earlier and earlier for decades.
Source: Global Footprint Network
All those severe lockdowns when most of Europe stayed at home, global travel came to an abrupt halt and tourism tanked, changed the date for overshoot day 2020 by just three weeks.
Despite a pandemic slowdown we still need 1.6 planets worth of natural resources to get us all through the year.
Self-sufficiency for countries
Perhaps the numbers for earth overshoot day are too daunting.
More realistic perhaps is to extend the personal means test to countries or jurisdictions, a city or a county for example. These smaller, more compact economic units should be easier to handle and have more autonomy than the global economy.
Attempts at country level self-sufficiency start with a mindset of wanting to live within means. This will require a shift from a growth model to something that is more about what happens if we didn’t try to live within our means. Collapse is the extreme but shortages and strife are nasty precursors. There has to be a desire to mitigate these risks.
Next would be the inventory of needs and necessities together with the current modes of delivery for goods and services. Then some thoughts on the efficiency of these modes asking what sort of changes would be required? What resources are essential, what resources are a luxury that we could easily live without? Resource use decisions would also require a focus on what is understood by well-being.
Much of what happens in the West is unnecessary for human well-being. We are over-consuming and stressing out whilst failing to think about and utilize the resources that we have. We don’t imagine resources being the limiting factor because the only limiting factor is our desire and our greed.
The conversation about living within means requires a shift in thinking away from what we could potentially have, the yacht and that 10-story apartment block bringing in enormous amounts of passive income to fund the luxury villa on the coast.
Instead discuss and decide on a semblance of what we understand by well-being, especially how well-being can be enhanced by being people rather than consumers.
Any discussion on economic self-sufficiency quickly ends up at the individual. It is self after all.
It may be that a top down sufficiency is not possible, only from individuals can a collective living within means happen.
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