Which has greater value: 18 ponchos or more hours of time with the people we love? To a woman living in a poor South American village, it was the time. It isn’t clear which held greater value to the group of Peace Corps workers. It would be poetically beautiful if they walked away with a revolutionary new understanding of work and the reasons we do it. Of course, they just as easily could have left the woman’s house thinking, “How stupid was she?”
The world has lost perspective. We’ve devoted ourselves to the pursuit of greater efficiency and increased production apparently without giving thought to why such a pursuit serves our own interests. We’re quite literally asking the wrong questions, each based on a faulty assumption.
We ask everyday variations of the question, “Where can we find the resources to maintain our current rate of consumption?”
1. “Where can we find the food to allow us to continue eating the same amount?”
2. “Where can we find the gas so all our cars can stay on the road?”
3. “Where can we find the wood and stone so we can build bigger houses?”
We ask these things without first verifying that they’re even necessary. In effect, we seek more food without ever asking ourselves if we’re hungry. Corporations have been built, self-help books written, and an army of young workers raised to continue the wanton growth we’ve come to believe is necessary for civilization to flourish. We’ve done so in vain and the results will be far different than expected.
Manfred Max-Neef, the Chilean economist who recounted the story of the woman who made ponchos to support her family, spoke on this topic in his interview with Amy Goodman, drawing a distinction between growth and development:
“Growth is a quantitative accumulation. Development is the liberation of creative possibilities. Every living system in nature grows up to a certain point and stops growing. You are not growing anymore, nor he nor me. But we continue developing ourselves. Otherwise we wouldn’t be dialoguing here now. So development has no limits. Growth has limits. And that is a very big thing, you know, that economists and politicians don’t understand. They are obsessed with the fetish of economic growth.”
Humanity has given itself over to greed, a greed which neither satisfies its seminal cause nor accomplishes its declared end. What’s more, the First World stands poised to repeat the mistakes of empires past by allowing its greed to create an unsustainable reality which will lead to inevitable decline.
Max-Neef sees this possibility as well:
“I’m the author of a famous hypothesis, the threshold hypothesis, which says that in every society there is a period in which economic growth, conventionally understood or no, brings about an improvement of the quality of life. But only up to a point, the threshold point, beyond which, if there is more growth, quality of life begins to decline….
“I mean, your country is the most dramatic example that you can find. I have gone as far as saying — and this is a chapter of a book of mine that is published next month in England, the title of which is Economics Unmasked. There is a chapter called ‘The United States, an Underdeveloping Nation,’ which is a new category. We have developed, underdeveloped and developing. Now you have underdeveloping. And your country is an example, in which the one percent of the Americans, you know, are doing better and better and better, and the 99 percent is going down, in all sorts of manifestations.”
There will come a point when humanity will be forced to ask itself where it has been going. It’s a simple question, really: Where are you going? Yet, in a wide-spectrum view of all people, it’s impossible to answer. The mistake that so many have made is to believe that work is a journey to a particular destination. The reckless rat race for boundless efficiency and productivity will lead only to ruin, which is why we must, as a civilization, reexamine the reasons we work and pursue wealth.
Resources are not limitless and the day will come when all Men will be forced to acknowledge that our current model of civilization will not last forever. Unless we come to that realization now and make the necessary changes to ensure that we have sustainable prosperity, we will be taking a plunge into the unknown, one from which we may not return.
Human beings were not created to be cogs in some vast economic machine. The mere notion of regarding humans as “capital” is offensive to their divine nature and a flagrant disregard of the underlying reasons people live and work. We do not live to work; we work to live. Once we’ve planted that realization in our hearts, it might just begin to make sense to us why a little woman in a remote village saw greater value in more time spent with those she loved than in 18 extra ponchos.