Feeding the beast: Why economics doesn’t equal wellbeing

Years ago I read a book called The Good Life1, which endorsed a life of frugality and the rejection of established concepts around work and money. The idea that one could reject wealth and a traditional working week was life-changing to me; as was the notion that I was engaging in certain practices only to suit some model of ‘normality’ in which I was defined by my work and position. The book changed my life, and was my introduction to the constraints of capitalism.

For years since, I’ve had a notion that something is inherently wrong with society: with our attitude to work, our consumption patterns, our perception of money, and our disregard for health and wellbeing. My response was to retreat from much of mainstream culture and adopt a lifestyle that does minimal damage to myself, others and the planet. I moved to a small farm where I freelance part-time from home and grow vegetables and animals for meat. I farm using permaculture principles of working with nature, not against it, always considering each part of the ecosystem as an element of a greater whole. If a chicken is sick I don’t medicate it, I look to its flock or environment for the cause. If a plant is overridden by bugs I don’t eradicate the pest; I consider issues of water, light or nutrition. In nature, everything is connected, but by far the most important element is soil. It is responsible for feeding me, my livestock, and the myriad microbes and insects that keep the whole system growing and decaying. Without soil there is no food. Without food there is no life.

Like a garden, there is no one lens through which we can view the social world. And no big issue − be it racism, religion, media, gender, class, age or consumption − that can be understood or solved by approaching it in isolation. Only the most simplistic view believes you can solve world hunger by growing more food. Similarly, we cannot understand gender or consumption issues without knowledge of how these things are reinforced by structural forces and mass media. We can’t understand inequalities across race, age, or class without consideration for education or the machinations of power and governance. And we can’t comprehend the increase of fundamentalism or terrorism in our communities without deference to issues of religion, globalisation or ethnicity. In society, as in a garden, everything is connected – and if you treat a symptom and ignore the root problem you will soon be overrun by pests and disease.

Society’s garden is suffering infestations of hatred and intolerance, along with disease manifesting as depression and obesity. At the root of many such woes lies one concept: ‘the economy’, and our insistence on treating it like an animal or plant that requires constant feeding, nurturing, medicating and protecting. One could even say modern society is treating the economy as soil – as if this human-made concept is the force from which all things grow and flourish. This notion is clearly false. In society, people are the soil, as without them there can be no economy. To solve the root problems of society then, you don’t mollycoddle the economy; you look at the health and wellbeing of the people that constitute it.

The economy has become the ocean to which all individual human problems return. However, the issue more likely lies in the triumvirate of economics, capitalism and neoliberalism2. Society’s internalisation of these three ideological concepts, and its prioritisation of their doctrines over all other factors, has left us vulnerable and deficient. Capitalism has depleted our sense of responsibility to the planet, turning its resources and offerings into mere commodities for profit and pleasure. Neoliberalism has depleted our sense of responsibility to each other, evidenced by how once-respected protections such as unions and welfare are now viewed as pests in need of eradication. The reification of the economy, meanwhile, has depleted the sense of responsibility that governments and organisations should have toward the health and wellbeing of people, those they serve and represent. Without the balancing influence of other important ideas – such as humanity’s need for social, environmental, psychological, and cultural wellbeing – we have found ourselves relying too heavily on unnatural inputs, unable to sustain healthy growth.

Economically, Australian households are among the wealthiest in the world, but we are nation living on debt. Our household debt is now four times larger than in 1988, and up to 39% of households find themselves unable to pay bills and seek assistance from outside sources3. Our encultured attitudes to work and money have left us physically, mentally, and financially stressed, with their influence felt across almost every area of our lives. For instance, second-wave feminism ostensibly gave equality to women, but perhaps the biggest winner was capitalism, reaping an increased workforce who were more time-poor and reliant on convenience and consumable goods4. Physiologically, humans are wired to be hunter-gatherers5, but in a world of easy debt and convenience items we turn instead to consumption, becoming hunter-gatherers of materialistic goods such as fashion, furniture and property6. Our health too is suffering. We no longer rise and rest in tune with our bodies and nature, but adopt inflexible schedules that further favour capitalism and economics through increased productivity, expanded business hours, and pandering to stock markets. Our subsequent lack of time, and reliance on fast-food and supermarkets, has distanced us from our food until we no longer recognise the processed, pre-chopped, plastic-wrapped products we put into our bodies. Interestingly, we now treat religion as dismissively as we treat food. Megachurches are spiritual supermarkets, with consumers loading their trolleys with convenience items from whatever faith suits7. Finally, the triumvirate has allowed racism, ethnocentricity and terrorism to thrive, having failed to address basic cultural differences in the quest for bigger, more lucrative global markets.

At centre stage, though, is the economy: the insatiable beast that requires us to work, produce and consume in order to feed it. If we feed it enough, we are taught, there will be a nirvana at the end of the retirement rainbow in which we will receive our reward – all we need to do is continue to work and shop. But humans are the soil that keeps the economy growing, and if you pillage the soil long enough no amount of artificial inputs will keep it productive in the long run – the repercussions we’re reaping from over-farming and the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides are testament to that8.

A thriving economy will not make us healthy, productive or fulfilled. A thriving society will. And while fear for the planet’s future may tempt us to withdraw from others, it is clear that solitude and retreat are not the answer. Change comes from the masses, and only by engaging with and rallying the masses can it be effected. Tending our own little garden isn’t enough. It’s only by acknowledging how entwined we are with the people and things around us, and rallying others to go out and get their hands dirty, that we can improve the current system and make society physically, mentally and spiritually well.

Featured image at top by Thomas Skirde from Pixabay

References

1 Nearing, H., & Nearing, S. (1989). The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living. New York: Schocken Books.
2 Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press
3 Phillips, B., & Taylor, M. (2015). Buy now, pay later: Household debt in Australia. AMP. NATSEM Income and Wealth Report. Retrieved August 21, 2016
4 Chaiken, J., Dungan, S. (Producers), & Kornbluth, J. (Director). (2013). Inequality for All [Motion Picture].
5 Mare, C. E. (2002). The Economics of Sustainable Leisure. Retrieved August 16, 2016, from Village Design Institute: http://www.villagedesign.org/vdi_writings.html#essays
6 Newby, J. (2007, April 26). Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. Catalyst. ABC.
7 Germov, J., & Poole, M. (2015). The sociological gaze: Linking private lives to public issues. In J. Germov, & M. Poole, Public Sociology: An Introduction to Australian Society (Third Edition ed., p. 13). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
8 McKinlay, R., Dassyne, J., Djamgoz, M. B., Plant, J. A., & Voulvoulis, N. (2012). Agricultural pesticides and chemical fertilisers. In J. A. Plant, N. Voulvoulis, & K. V. Ragnarsdottir, Pollutants, Human Health and the Environment: A Risk Based Approach (pp. 181-206). Wiley Online Library.

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