July 9, 2011
This morning, while ambling around my gardens, I found myself mulling over an article written by John Michael Greer over at the Archdruid Report blog, entitled, “How Not to Play the Game” http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-not-to-play-game_500.html, in which he pleads for a life of “voluntary poverty” as a response to the ongoing transition in the developed world from what he calls abundance industrialism to scarcity industrialism.
Living on my Social Security income of less than $10,000 per year, I am already living in poverty by American standards. But, looking around at my old house – that, even without much heating or cooling, keeps me reasonably warm in the winter and cool in the summer – my gardens, my grapevines, the big black walnut by the alley and the yard full of edible weeds and berries most seasons of the year, I am firmly, comfortably middle class to that third of the world’s population who ekes by on less that two dollars a day.
Yes, I am working to reduce my reliance on “the game” even further and embrace Greer’s idea of “voluntary poverty”. Yet, seeing those in America who have already lost homes and jobs and are currently reliant on the kindness of friends, relatives and the dwindling social safety nets, I must say, I found the term voluntary poverty as smugly middle class as the term “voluntary simplicity” he hopes it will replace. For, in truth, he is not recommending that we go out into the world with nothing and cobble together the equivalent of a tin shack, comb through garbage dumps or trash piles for food and a few comforts, or serve our children mud cakes to keep their bellies full when we can scrounge nothing else, as much of the world’s truly impoverished do. Though there is a good chance that, as society continues to contract economically and those safety nets our poor are reliant on disappear, many of them – unable to benefit from our vision of genteel “poverty” – will be reduced to the kind of grinding, for-real poverty much of the undeveloped world experiences now. Moreover, I suspect, our voluntary “poverty” will not protect us from the involuntary poor as much as he hopes. For, it seems to me, in the salvage industrialism that Greer sees following the scarcity era, we “voluntary poor” will have, as likely as not, become the new middle class and, if we are not careful, as subject to its prejudices against those beneath us on the ladder as our current class structure sometimes is .
As ill prepared as America is for collapse, I am not questioning Greer’s vision of the stages of our descent, nor am I questioning the wisdom of his advice on removing ourselves from “the game” and embracing a more realistic lifestyle as we move through those stages. But in labeling it voluntary poverty, it seems to me that all we are doing is walling ourselves off from the truly poor behind our own fears, like we have always been want to do as we prosper over others – no matter how relative that prosperity. And, I think it will come back to bite us in the ass as it usually does.
All of our religions have reminded us that, “the poor you will always have with you.” No matter how far down the slide society goes, there will always be those who couldn’t or wouldn’t prepare and end up at the bottom of the pile. (And are we all so sure, as the economy goes belly-up, we will know which are which?)
So, is there really a way to protect ourselves, as the new “middle class”, from those dreadful hoards at the bottom of the pile? Not entirely, I suppose. But, oddly enough, as an atheist, I see only one possible way – the religious precept of “leaving a gleaning,” whether it’s leaving an actual gleaning in your fields and gardens – even my small gardens provides me with some extra food after storing for winter – doing guerilla gardening and shelter building in our parks and open spaces as collapse speeds up and services dwindle, holding a neighborhood “potluck” for the poor passing through, “each-one-teach-one” interventions in city neighborhoods or other inventive ways to create some kind of new safety net. For in truth, as John Michael Greer so succinctly put it in his article, “the easiest way to deal with social conflict is to buy off the disaffected.” (Though I probably wouldn’t have put it in such “secular” terms.)
Well, the garden is beginning to produce, now, after its late and bumpy start. Perhaps that is what drove my line of thinking as I wandered through it pulling weeds along the way. It’s always wise to live beneath your means and within nature in times like these. But I don’t think we can afford to kid ourselves about the differences between being “voluntarily poor” and truly poor in the coming years or about the need to somehow make compassionate responses to that real poverty once the safety net goes down.