By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
It is generally agreed in our society, among the haves as well as among those that have not, that economic growth is greatly to be desired. Business prospers; managers and owners get richer to live more lavish lifestyles, and the workers hold on to their jobs, getting by without too much hardship, able to feed their children, love their women, and have more children. Welfare beneficiaries see benefits increase, thus allowing them to feed their huge families bigger portions of pork and potatoes. Politicians believe economic growth is great, bringing in more tax revenues for their cherished programs. Even charities and the arts profit from economic growth, getting more donations to expand their good works. Except for a few sober souls, nobody wants to quit the party of spending, consuming, selling, borrowing, investing, and growing the gross national product, GNP; they keep GNP going until the inevitable bust arrives–and the hangover, such as the one we have these days. In America, we have been most diligently listening and dancing to the mantra of frantic economic growth, rapidly populating our Western frontiers and industrializing our major cities. With the Calvinist work ethic guiding us, we have built up the most productive and the most wasteful economy in the world, and with it, the most powerful armed forces. I am here to sing a different mantra, to belt out my song cursing the bitch goddess of economic growth, and to ask you to seek out a more benign deity for worship.
You may say now, surely you must be joking, Dr. Gala; what’s wrong with jobs and prosperity for all, a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, a television set in every room, a cell phone in every hand, and electric appliances everywhere to eliminate drudgery? There’s nothing wrong with this kind of prosperity, my friends, if you can keep it up; but you can’t. Our little planet can’t take it any more. Our beautiful blue- white Earth is choking in fumes from our vehicles, furnaces, and factories. The rain forests are cut down, oceans are polluted, and Earth is heating up rapidly with carbon dioxide and methane, turning into another Venus, a hellish place for all living things.
Ah, Venus, such a lovely, romantic place, it was covered with green pastures and lush forests under brilliant white skies, peopled by languid, gentle races devoted to love and dancing; then our cruel space probes revealed Venus to be somewhat hot, with surface temperatures of 850 degrees Fahrenheit, draped in poisonous clouds of methane gas, belting down acid rain. On the other side of the Earth, we had pleasantly cool Mars of the red soils, cultivated by a brilliant race of diligent people, builders of a vast canal system across the planet, bringing precious water from the poles to fertile fields and elegant towns. Gone is that Mars too, destroyed by our lander probes and other pesky tools of our technology, showing a surface of bitter cold, parched land, lifeless thin air, stirred violently by dust storms. Or, were these planets reduced to hellish holes by long-lost cultures of beings that went too far with population growth and exploding GNP, vile technologies burning up vital resources and scattering poisons far and wide, as we are doing here on Earth?
Let’s first take up population growth. Nations want more people on their land, unless, like China, they have too many. National leaders with enough power impose birth control to decrease the population or increase it. Most tribes and nations want to grow in numbers to secure their borders against hostile neighbors. With equal technology, the more populous tribe has a decided advantage over one with fewer numbers of warriors. Organized religions are also in favor of allowing any number of births God blesses, because of the sacredness of human life, especially of their own faith.
I suppose human life is sacred, while animals and plants possess value primarily as food. Yet, our ultimate survival depends on the entire web of living things on Earth. Is there sacredness in human life when we have so many humans on the planet causing ecological disaster? Ten million people on the planet were not a threat to Earth’s health. Ten billion humans soon to arrive on the scene are a deadly threat.
We are beginning to realize the problem of overpopulation in the better educated, and more affluent nations, which are largely democracies, free to decide issues. Most of Europe and Japan have stable or declining birth rates. Italy, which half a century ago had the highest birthrate in Europe, now has the lowest, with the exception of Russia perhaps. Is there a lesson from Italy, a Catholic country? Did the Italians succeed in birth control with the rhythm method? The Russians did it with vodka. The U.S. is growing more populous, because of immigration and the Latino minority. But most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have an exploding growth of human populations. These are the areas where people are poorest and least well educated or trained.
Similarly, in rich countries, the poorest and least educated sections of the population produce most of the births. Friends, draw your own conclusions. Desperate immigrants from the poor countries are flooding the rich nations legally or illegally. Since education and wealth are the best contraceptives especially for women, liberate the women, keep them from being pregnant, barefoot, ignorant, oppressed by their men, and help the men also get educated and wealthy. When parents are busy acquiring university degrees and investment savings, seeing to their children doing the same, they haven’t the time to reproduce much. Bertrand Russell pointed out the statistic that two Harvard men have one child. I don’t know if the two men work at it together or separately.
George, my brother-in-law, has a solution for overpopulation—tongue in cheek. Shrink the size of humans as we have done with wolves to poodles, or as far as genetic engineering allows us. A grown human the size of a finger would consume a lot fewer resources. Think how many such tiny humans could fit in a plane, how much less they would eat and pollute the Earth. Unfortunately, this solution only translates the problem of population growth to the time when our engineered species numbers in the trillions.
Biologists have established that when an animal population grows unchecked, it eventually destroys its environmental resources and ends up in a catastrophic decline; that’s true for lemmings in the forested north and rats in the tropical cane fields. It is also true for humans. We had such a catastrophe on Easter Island in the Pacific. The population there was 60,000 at its peak; but when the trees were cut down and the soils washed into the ocean, the population crashed down to the 600 people or so that live on the island today. The great stone heads of their gods did not help the Easter Islanders to survive.
The Earth today is such an island, floating in space, being rapidly deprived of living resources, with nowhere for us to go but to our doom. Let us praise God, ask for His forgiveness, and beg for His mercy.
God is great, compassionate, and merciful. He instructed us to multiply, cover the Earth from the poles to the equator, and be masters of our world. We have done so. Now is the time to become masters of ourselves and limit our numbers voluntarily; otherwise, Nature, God’s alter ego, will do it for us painfully. We see Nature’s disciplinary action in the densely populated areas of Africa and Asia, famine and war ravaging innocent people. How many Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Pakistan disasters do we need to witness to get the message?
Let good people go to scenes of deprivation the world over; let them help the orphaned, the hungry, and the sick. I admire the work of the Peace Corps volunteers, the gifts of the great philanthropists, like Bill and Melinda Gates, George Soros, and Oprah Winfrey. I would be more admiring if these people focused on the more important problem of excessive reproduction in desperately poor countries. When parents in Africa own 100 acres to cultivate, it is enough for the family. Having ten children, they bequeath to each one 10 acres, which is barely enough for survival if the soil is fertile. When the children have ten children of their own each, now there is only enough land to starve on.
A solution for world hunger was offered by Frances Moore Lappé in “Diet for a Small Planet.” The idea was to produce complete proteins and other essential nutrients from plants, which use much less land than animals, thus allowing us to feed ten times more people with the acreage and water available for cultivation. A great solution, provided people would stop multiplying so fast, as they do in India.
If rich nations would donate a dollar for education and training for each dollar they give for food and medicine, we might have some progress in population control and wealth building in poverty stricken countries. Does the world need more places like Haiti and Somalia? Then, on humanitarian grounds, give poor nations more food and medicine with no strings attache. You end up with a disastrous welfare system on a planetary scale. You want some success in your efforts? Give rice to poor people in exchange for them learning practical knowledge and skills, not for parroting Christian dogmas.
Because poverty and ignorance breed more Taliban and the like, who become the tools of bin Laden and the like, fighting poverty and ignorance has to be our first priority, not warring on al-Qaeda.
Now let me turn to the second issue of excessive consumption and production, growth in the GNP of countries in the world. This leads to population growth, which in turn demands further growth in the GNP, a spiral to the precipice of disaster, unless recession intervenes, thank God. Learn to love recessions. They slow down consumption, which saves resources and delays ecological disaster in the world. Recession also slows down human reproduction. Consider what happened in the Great Depression in the United States and elsewhere. Baby making went largely out of fashion. When prosperity returned after the Second World War, we got a baby boom.
We profit from recessions. Traveling and motoring slows down, resulting in less air pollution. People economize on heating and cooling too, which also helps. People buy fewer products, so there is less trash filling our dumps and streets.
Were we to continue growing economies around the world, trash would eventually cover the Earth to the height of Mount Everest. Demanding more goods, energy, and raw materials, developed countries provide capital, technology, and management to undeveloped nations to build factories and exploit their natural resources for raw materials to export. Rich nations get richer from trade, enjoying cheaper imports from China, India, and other places, and the developing nations become less poor; and if allowed by authorities, more populous. Billions of people in these poor nations now want and buy the stuff rich nations enjoy, because in movies and television they gawk at fast cars, fine houses and furniture, splendid clothing, delicious foods, and other luxuries which wealthy people enjoy. Globalization leads to lust for material possessions around the Earth, a world-class appetite. The process does not stop, until a big economic recession arrives.
Thank God for economic recessions. Love recessions and profit. You can profit from a recession by preparing for it, because it will always follow a growth period. During a period of prosperity, save your money, don’t spend it like the rest of your community. When you see prices of assets, stocks or real estate becoming ridiculously high, sell and cash out. The boom may go on for a while longer, you can never tell when its end will come; but it will come. The seeds of economic decline are sown in growth times: higher prices of goods, higher wages, credit overextended, free spending by consumers, industry, and government. When the boom has ended, go shopping for cheap assets. The economy eventually recovers, and you will be sitting on gold.
That’s the game Bernard Baruch and Joe Kennedy, Jack Kennedy’s dad, among other shrewd operators, played in the times of the Great Depression. One quarter of the workers were jobless, soup lines stretched out for blocks in big cities, and these shrewd operators basked in monetary sunshine.
The problem with recessions, or depressions, is that politicians can’t leave them alone to do their good work. If politicians did not react to downturns in the economy, leaders would not stay in power for long. Unemployed voters are not to be laughed at. During the Great Depression, led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, politicians started a slew of social programs to help the unfortunate poor voters and other citizens lacking in foresight, government programs such as social security, unemployment benefits, welfare, and unnecessary public construction. These programs, still saddling us today, did little good to improve the economy then, but they cheered people up. U.S. citizens elected FDR for president three times. These days we have Barack Obama following in FDR’s footsteps.
What is the good work a recession does, if left alone? A recession disciplines workers to produce better and more goods for less pay, businessmen to manage more efficiently, and investors to be more wary and wise. Government officials also tighten their budgets sometimes, not often, because tax collections are down when people earn less. Altogether, people in a recession learn to be thrifty and save for their futures, keeping their families in check both in size and expense. You can profit that way too. Get your family budget ship shape and work harder. Start a new business enterprise, if you are able. You can acquire business equipment cheaply in a recession, hire better employees for lower wages, and be ready for the upturn to turn a nice profit and to grow your enterprise. The misfortune of a recession is an opportunity to earn wealth.
People amuse me when they complain about the lack of opportunities in a recession. Workers say there is no work for them. What they really mean is that there are no jobs, or better still, positions available that will pay them what they have been accustomed to receive in wages. First, work is always out there for people to do if they are willing to do it for no or little payment. Second, a job is work for wages, you perform for results under strict supervision; a position is where you have a desk to come to when you feel like it, rather than call in sick, and where you can put up your feet, light a cigarette, and drink a cup of coffee before starting to shuffle paperwork. Most people feel they deserve a position and the government had damn well give it to them, if politicians want to be elected.
I wonder sometimes how democracy ever manages national affairs in competition with authoritarian regimes. The French political historian Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the new American democracy that people would vote themselves benefits from the state treasury until the nation went bankrupt. We are coming to that, but it has taken us over two hundred years to accomplish it. In the meantime, it is a paradox how democracy survives and on occasion flourishes. The paradox is how people of average intelligence are able vote for people with a high enough intelligence to run the affairs of a nation effectively. The paradox was resolved in democratic Athens of ancient Greece with the patrician Pericles in charge for thirty years, bringing about the golden age of that city and state, a lucky event. In America, we were lucky with the founding fathers of the republic, brilliant and wise men, elected by farmers and tradesmen, and a few times thereafter, with Lincoln, F.D.R., Reagan, and perhaps with luck, Obama.
Our nation can best be served by brilliant and able people, a true nobility of aristocrats with Plato’s philosopher king at the head, if we can trust these people to serve out their useful lives, and not to foist upon us the less than savory fruits of their loins.
Let me restate the issue and my position. Economic growth, a larger Gross National Product (GNP), is sought by nearly every person. A growing GNP is good, right? Business owners, managers, and investors love it for it makes them richer. Workers want economic growth for it means more jobs, higher pay, more benefits to enjoy. Government officials and politicians think growth is great for it fills the treasury with cash for their programs. Even the arts and charities receive larger donations when everybody is making plenty of money. Yet, economic growth is a bitch goddess, not deserving our worship and adoration, because it is leading inevitably to the destruction of the planet and the end of humanity.
Still, economists stress that recessions and depressions are terrible for people and their societies, leading to widespread business failures, bankruptcies, deaths of ruined investors jumping out of upper story windows, layoffs of workers, homicides and suicides of desperate fathers, widespread poverty and civil unrest, even revolution and dictatorship. Agreed. Economic recessions should be avoided; and the best way to do that is to avoid economic growth. Each cycle of economic growth sows the seeds of the next recession by encouraging over-spending by consumers and businesses, fostering inefficiencies in production, and fueling inflation.
Monetary inflation from economic growth damages the health of commercial life; worse, inflation of the people around their waists and of childbearing leads to unhealthy people and an unhealthy society needing more jobs to feed more mouths and to employ new workers.
Thus economic growth causes population growth, recession reduces it and the threats to the planet. The best situation to achieve is no growth and no recession, once the population reaches a stable number which allows for a healthy habitat for humanity and other living things.
A no-growth policy for the GNP and the population is best for our future. The simple life, with few luxuries in food, clothing, shelter and transportation will bring us better health. I try to follow this program in my life, and I recommend this to you and your community. Rich, high-calorie, high-fat foods cause individuals to get diabetes, heart-disease, and stroke. People then go to medicines, surgery, and forced idleness from disabilities, while the GNP increases in health care production to take care of them. Easy mechanical transportation weakens our bodies and deprives us of vital sources of exercise, while giant companies keep producing more automobiles, including gas guzzling SUV’s. The GNP gets another boost. We go to gyms and spas to lose fat, instead of bicycling or walking. The sales of the gyms and spas are added to the gross domestic product. The Chinese had it right a few decades ago when their streets were like rivers of bicycles, with only a few cars moving slowly in the streams. Their younger generation now does not exercise so much with bicycling and has turned to gyms with the same ardor as Americans.
Am I proposing a return to the simple life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Henry David Thoreau? Shall we go back to being noble savages, like the Last of the Mohicans, living the tribal life on the open land or in villages, recapturing our ancient communal life? Yes, to both questions with some reservations.
I don’t want to give up on civilization which flourishes in larger cities, or throw away scientific and technical progress that has opened some new vistas, including space, that has enriched and and genuinely bettered our daily lives. Knowledge from scientific investigations is always good to have, and technical inventions can provide us with many good tools for a life in harmony with nature, such as solar power, an understanding of genetics from DNA, and computers–storing, processing, presenting, and communicating vast amounts of information.
I object to the extensive use of medicines and surgeries for diseases which are preventable. Take the simple case of laxatives for constipation filling shelves in our drugstores, constipation normally preventable with more fiber in our foods. How about all the heart and blood vessel surgeries, adding significantly to our GNP, that would be rendered unnecessary with more exercise, less food, and better relaxation methods, such a yoga and meditation? The best way to control our mounting health care costs is not disease treatment but disease prevention. Prevention would cause a reduction in the GNP and unemployment among medical workers, until they switched to health services.
Our doctors and hospitals are often erroneously named health workers and health centers. As a rule, they are nothing of the sort. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and hospital staff workers are not trained to disseminate health, but to treat disease, and that is what they practice; they are disease workers. As a result they earn high incomes, and contribute much to GNP, but people suffer from unnecessary treatments from diseases that could have been prevented by genuine health professionals.
Go to a certified, registered, university trained professional complaining of a pain in your side. After some blood, urine, and other tests, the surgeon proposes to cut and sew your problem; the family doctor will prescribe drugs; the psychologist will offer you therapy; the psychiatrist, analysis, the chiropractor will want to fix your pain with a spinal adjustment; the homeopathic physician with herbs and natural therapies; the minister will ask you to pray for God’s healing; that last one may be your best bet.
With the exceptions of some infections and accidents damaging our tissues, medical treatments are a waste of money and other resources. Eighty percent of disease
is cured by your body’s own healing mechanisms. Doctors simply oversee this process, standing by to intervene, if necessary, with more drastic invasions of your body. Medicine doesn’t have a treatment for the common cold, although again our drugstore shelves are stacked with palliatives for it; but nature does. Nature fights colds, flues and many other infections with a strong immune system, which we acquire eating small amounts of nutritious foods, exercising, sunning our bodies outdoors, being cheerful, keeping good company, and getting enough rest. Such disease prevention would not add much to our vaunted GNP.
The best of all ways to improve the health of the population is to encourage births of healthy babies, with thorough prenatal care and selection of fit parents. Such selection is more feasible in totalitarian regimes, as in Nazi Germany. In democratic societies voters may agree to give more tax deductions and other aid for child bearing and rearing to the physically and mentally fit couples, rather than to the unfit–fitness determined by standardized tests without regard to race, religion, or ethnicity. We breed animals and plants for those merits useful to humans: cows for milk, race horses for speed, dogs for hunting, guarding, shepherding, or loving, corn for larger cobs. For merits in people we don’t own as slaves, we can look beyond superficial characteristics– such as skin, hair, or eye color; bodily size; shape of lips, ears, or nose—we can look to look to health, character, and intelligence. With teachings and customs, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and a few other religious or ethnic groups encourage large families for their members, without regard to the quality of the parents.
If you learn from statistics that congenital diseases and defects are increasing with each generation, in spite of better nutrition, education, training, and medical care, you know we are having problems with our gene pool, the genes in our population.
In the long run, nothing will better our society more than continuously improving the gene pool with respect to intelligence, character, and health of our people; otherwise, no charity, no welfare, no safety net, no social security, no government health insurance, no freedom, no justice, no equality, no full employment, no compassion for the unfortunate among us, none of these benefits will do much to stop the decline in the quality of our nation. The Earth doesn’t need more people; it needs better people.
We’ll have better, healthier, stronger, wiser people, not only with genetics, but also, as I have stated earlier, with disciplines such as those imposed on us by deep recessions. Hard times, in moderation, produce strong people; easy times allow butter soft individuals to float up. Let us begin with you and me. If we lie down on our favorite couch or armchair many hours a day watching television or passing the time idly in some manner, our bodies and brains soon become lethargic, weak, and fragile. We get strong and energetic again, when we get up and work our muscles and brains hard enough.
Next, what is best for our children, grandchildren, students, and other charges is
raising them up, not to a life of ease and comfort, but to the strenuous life, as Theodore Roosevelt called it. If you want your charges to be tough, confident, successful, independent, and free, then give them enough challenges to overcome, suitable to their level of growth. You may appear to be cruel and heartless to them; explain the reasons for your behavior. You can still be there to comfort, encourage, and give them a helping hand when they crash; cheer them on when they fly high in the face of steep difficulties and stiff competition. The steel of heart, mind, and spirit is forged in the searing heat of adversity.
As it goes for individuals, so it is for societies. Even if elected to office, good leaders don’t coddle but challenge the people, applying discipline. If a community enjoys riches, luxuries, and ease, civilization may emerge with culture and fine arts, but soon, grown strong in hardship, barbarians break down the gates of the city, torch splendid buildings, steal or trample priceless treasures, put the defeated people to the sword and ravish young virgins.
Recession, deprivation, pain–bring them on. When competitive pressure eases up, we become slack in our ways. With economic growth, we build more houses and shopping centers, cutting down trees, denuding the land of its vital green cover, wasting the soils, the waters, the breath of life. We waste more, we pollute more, we despoil more of the Earth’s purity.
Again in hard times, when jobs are scarce, family members are brought close together as of old, extending the reach of love to all in need, supporting each other. In poor Bali, Indonesia, extended families build compounds for children, brothers, sisters, and their children, with a communal kitchen in the center to share whatever food is available. The country is clean, unspoiled, and peaceful, no structure rising above the level of the trees. That’s not such a bad life; at least it’s free of loneliness.
Surely there is much grinding, horrible poverty in many parts of our world: people starving, sick without medical care, open sewers, hovels for housing, men, women, and children digging in garbage for their livelihood. We don’t want that.
But there is another side to poverty. That’s people living close to the land, getting their basic needs cultivating the soil in homesteads or villages, serving each other in trades as in ancient times, doing much for themselves: cutting their own nails and hair, making clothes, cooking their own food from simple ingredients, making baskets, carpets and pottery, preserving foods by drying or salting for the winter, building their own simple houses with the help of neighbors, making their own repairs, riding donkeys, horses, and carts for transportation, using simple home remedies for illness and injury.
I remember a documentary about a pigmy family in a simple hut with a leafy roof. It ‘s raining and the wife says to her husband, the roof is leaking. He gets out, cuts a couple of big leaves and patches the roof. They go back to sleep.
Agreed, the GNP for such societies is low, the average income in dollars is measured in a few hundred each year, but that does not mean such people do not survive, thrive, and are happy. In America, of all places, the Amish live with reasonable security and happiness, relying largely on eighteenth century technology. They gain little from economic booms, and suffer even less from recessions.
You can live well and in good health with beans and grains, wild greens, a few vegetables from a garden patch, some eggs from your own chicken coop, and milk from a nanny goat. All you need is two good acres of land and independence.
In America, back in the sixties we had a movement away from consumerism. Young people resisted the siren song of Madison Avenue for more goods, luxuries, cars, and perfumes. In Berkeley, California, students buried automobiles in the dirt. Elsewhere, youngsters built domes for housing with old car tops, inspired by Richard B. Fuller’s geodesics. A counter culture of communes, anti-war sentiment, and anti-materialism arose, giving hope for the greening of America. The Beatles sang, “All You Need Is Love,” and young people turned on to flowers, romance, and high hope, dropping out of the rat race of the consumer society. What happened to the greening of America? Where did we drown our aspirations for an ecological society? When did we forget our vision of a green Earth, and learned to love the SUV?
America led the world in the green revolution back in the sixties. We are leaders on this planet for good reasons: we are a diverse people from all corners of the world, we tolerate all religions if they are tolerable, we have freedom, democracy, education, dollars, gold, natural resources, land, ingenuity, resourcefulness—we have what the rest of humanity wants. We are the hope of the world or its disappointment in what we do with our assets. Other nations took up the lead in the green revolution: Germany, Denmark, and Holland; we went on to unprecedented wasting and polluting.
In 1973, after a waging war on Israel, a country allied to America, Arab countries imposed an oil embargo on us, from which other countries suffered also. A severe economic recession followed as well as inflation. Richard M. Nixon fell from power after the antics of his minions at Watergate, and his successor in the presidency in 1976, Jimmy Carter began a program of energy independence for America, and a switch away from fossil fuels to renewable sources of electricity with subsidies for solar power. People didn’t vote for him a second time, weary of stagflation, malaise, and interest rates in the stratosphere.
Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, launching a vigorous program of tax cuts, deregulation, and arming against the Soviet Union in the midst of a severe recession. Oil producing states and companies started playing a different game, providing cheap energy, and hooking us again on their black liquid—gold for them, opium for us. The economy boomed. Detroit flourished anew, providing us with muscle cars, huge gas guzzlers, culminating in the obscenely wasteful Hummer SUV. These days the Detroit culture of waste and pollution is sinking. Should we not be cheering this event, instead of throwing lifesavers of our tax money to Detroit?
I am against burning valuable and irreplaceable fossil fuels for energy to run automobiles or plants, when the sun and earth’s core provide plenty of nearly free energy for all our reasonable needs. There is something inherently unattractive in oil or coal burning engines. Think of the beauty we see in old windmills, watermills, sailing ships, and horses used in our past for transportation and processing. We sense in these old artifacts and animals something right with the world we live in. They don’t force things. They move in harmony with wind, water and soil, causing no destruction, no wasting, no pollution.
In a Greek island village where I live summers, most people drive automobiles now; but one old farmer, Barba Antonis, goes up and down the hills on his donkey. He parks the animal outside his house, roped, to fuel up on grass. The hardy animal never needs repairs. It doesn’t pollute, but fertilizes the ground it feeds on. The donkey doesn’t go fast or far, but Barba Antonis doesn’t either. We could go that way too, with a deep enough recession.
Cheer the recession on then, love it and profit from the opportunities. House prices collapse, so housing for those who are employed becomes affordable again. Unemployed professionals start new enterprises, as they have always done in recessions, some of which enterprises will become the Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Xerox, Microsoft, Google, of the new economic re-birth. But let us not forget to stop the growth in the economy before it begins to wreck our hard-won disciplines of thrift and efficiency, before it resumes the wrecking of our human habitat.
I have shown in what ways economic growth can be a bitch and recession a blessing for our people. I now come to the argument for growth based on the ability it gives us to be strong militarily and diplomatically, in the sense of giving other nations money to make them our friends. True, a military establishment is costly, but some nations do fine without a defense force or a small one, like Costa Rica, Sweden, and Malaysia. We can manage with a much smaller defense apparatus, if we are willing to forgo a dominant position in the world. We can then defend ourselves with worthy alliances and the promotion of an effective world government.
Moreover, safety comes not only from strength but also from cleverness. We don’t need to possess massive forces which cost a lot, but advanced weapons in the hands of small but highly skilled and motivated group of citizens. Instead of placing large, expensive armies in harms way as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can strike enemies from the air or from space when the situation warrants that we punish them.
We should not keep forgetting the lessons we learned about the limits of our military power from Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan. When facing determined enemies who have no regard for human life, we would do better to keep our distance and fight them with unconventional weapons.
So much for what I am against in economic growth and for what I like in recessions. I am not against all growth, progress, and technology. I don’t believe we have to have recessions to profit from self discipline and challenges. If the economy and the nation are going smoothly, that is the time to choose new challenges for ourselves from an inner need to achieve, such as our goal to land astronauts on the moon set up by the Kennedy administration. That was a glorious period in our history when our rockets went higher and higher into space, finally landing our astronauts on Earth’s moon. We have not followed up that great achievement well enough. We never realized Arthur C. Clark’s 2001 vision of moon colonies, although his idea of stationary satellites for communications, surveying, spying, and weapons platforms was more than fully exploited, with thousands now circling the globe, including much space junk.
We need some economic growth to support such glorious achievements as space exploration. What is the right kind and amount of economic growth that satisfies our essential needs without polluting or wasting, growth that improves our bodies, minds, and spirits–phenotypes and genotypes–growth that allows us to be as good as we can be now and what we can become as a species? There is an economic growth that may not show up in GNP, but it improves the quality of our lives, protecting our planet, for many more years our only livable home.. That is the growth I would like.
I like growth in the fine arts and sciences, not contributing much to GNP; growth that preserves our precious and precarious civilization so far advanced by a few rare individuals around the world, our cultural heritage of many forms in different lands; that protects the unique and irreplaceable resources of the Earth, including animal and plant species rapidly approaching extinction; that saves the purity of Earth’s air, water and land; that recycles the valuable minerals in the soil and rocks, necessary for our continuing technical and scientific progress.
I don’t admire economic growth based on cosmetic expensive surgeries, gambling casinos, liquor, cigarettes, pornography, cruise ships with no practical destination, fancy clothing, fattening foods, diet centers, nose jobs, tummy tucks, expensive drugs for otherwise manageable conditions, new cars every three years, wasting of fuel and other energy sources, water-wasting lawns, bigger houses cluttered with furniture and bric-a-brac, idiotic television, radio and theater shows, gaudy jewelry, fifteen-hundred dollar bags for women, million-dollar sports cars for rich men, and French perfumes and gowns. Why are we installing wall-to-wall carpeting on our floors, instead of tile, wood, or stone with throw rugs? Why do we put up with cheap unrepairable appliances, electronics, a thousand other items from China with ninety-day warranties, which quickly end up in our dumps or back in China for their materials?
I liked the lifestyles promoted by Mother Earth Catalog with inexpensive products and techniques for sustainable agriculture, housing, and transportation. Why did Mother Earth Catalog close down? Who bought the operation? Who bought the electric trolley cars in our cities, ripped up the rail, and built freeways? We bought the automobile and a life shaped by the automobile. Our cities spread and sprawled, eating up good green land and spewing out asphalt roads, houses, offices, factories, shopping centers, and malls. It was Capitalism in action.
We have seen the failure of Fascism and Nazism, the failure of Socialism and Communism–thank God! Now we have seen the failure of Capitalism from an orgy of greed, from a concentration of money, power, and influence in a few hands around the world. What social system shall we now trust with our lives, happiness, and aspirations?
Our Western, commercial, capitalistic, materialistic culture has serious fractures. The Muslim fanatics are shaking its structure; it may be ready to fall mostly of its own weak weight like the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
We will not find the best social system in authoritarian ways, or in communal attempts, or capitalistic greed. I too was once carried by the greed for money, which took me beyond need. I was in such a period in my life where I had achieved financial independence by means of hard work and shrewd investments. I had financial independence, income for all my reasonable needs with a simple lifestyle.
The Reagan recession of 1981 and my prior uncontrolled ambition and greed caused me to lose everything I had achieved financially. I resolved then that if ever again I acquired enough wealth for my family’s needs, I would never be seduced by consumerism, the lust for more money, more power, more fame. Enough would be enough then; and so it happened. Now I seek and try to practice the simple life with my modest but safe financial resources. I would not go as far as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but simple enough.
I want to sing in praise of simplicity, even moderate asceticism. I don’t mean to flagellate my body, beat my back with chains, to punish or humiliate the body for the glory of God and the spirit; no, not that kind of asceticism, but an asceticism to toughen, strengthen, and energize the body with a lean, enterprising lifestyle, while giving it all it needs to grow strong and supple. Think of the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, fasting for long days, meditating, but not reaching Nirvana, until he had received good nourishment from a kind woman.
My brother and I cultivate an orchard and vegetable garden on a small piece of land for our own use and enjoyment. We live in modest houses without mortgages or expensive furniture. We drive old cars in good repair. Our produce is not enough to live on, but it saves us some money, and it is fresh, organic, and delicious. Our entire nation would do well to follow a simple way of living, instead of mortgaging its future for expensive cars and houses, fancy foods and clothing, trips abroad, and silly luxuries. Bank the income you save thus, and invest it in solid companies. You will profit, your family will get ahead, and your country will be solvent and prosperous, if your countrymen follow your example.
A country is no different from a family, a business, or a city in matters of finance. If citizens of a nation work hard, creatively, and efficiently the nation makes good profits trading with other nations; if officials manage the earnings well, not spending to excess, saving, and investing the surplus, the nation acquires capital and other assets, and prospers. A good example of such a nation is Switzerland. But if a nation squanders its earnings, borrows too much to spend on wars, unproductive giveaways, and other foolish ventures, then that nation inevitably becomes bankrupt, and defaults on its debts, either openly, or by inflating its currency, that is, printing more money than is sufficient for trading. We in America are becoming an example of such a nation.
As a country goes, so do inevitably most of its citizens. Instead of economic growth, instead of the fear of recession, I value freedom of action and thought; I value independence, the satisfaction of the basic needs for all our people through their own individual efforts, if they are able: simple, healthy, fresh food, a simple shelter, safety from criminals, clean streets and towns, fresh air and pure water. These things we had in our villages; we traded them for money, growth, and our so-called progress. May the giant recession to come bring them back to us.