Thursday, July 02, 2015

What Choice Do We Have?

As systemic solutions fall short, we must grasp the nettle of making our own arrangements in a time characterized by burgeoning demands and diminishing resources, capital and security.
The idea that our large-scale problems could be fixed with systemic reforms is enticing: replace the thousands of pages of tax code with a simple flat tax without deductions, for example, or the replacement of too big to jail/fail banks with community-owned banks that served the public, not shareholders.
But the attraction of reforms is a siren song, because our system is run by vested interests for vested interests, period. Any real reform is Dead On Arrival (DOA) because any real reform threatens the swag and security of vested interests.
One person's livelihood is another person's vested interest.
Toss in The Enchanting Charms of Cheap, Easy Credit and Our Spoiled-Brat Economyand we have a toxic resistance to systemic reforms that require any degrowth, direct democracy, writedowns of debt, devolution of centalized power, i.e. any real reforms of the unsustainable status quo.
So where does that leave us? With no choice but to submit? No, it leaves us with private solutions, by which I mean arrangements made on the individual and household level that do not assume the unsustainable status quo will magically continue to issue us our "we wuz promised" share of the swag.
Private solutions subdivide into practicalities (securing multiple income streams, choosing where to live, arranging access to healthcare, food and energy, proximity to friends and family, like-minded colleagues, etc.) and what we might term self-fulfillment: aligning our internal goals, priorities, personality traits, values and skills with the practical externalities of daily life.
Longtime correspondent Bart D. recently responded to an email in which I expressed the all-too common sense of being overwhelmed--by work, duties, responsibilities.His response gives us a starting place for choosing our priorities and goals:
"At the suggestion of a 93-year old relative, I spent a bit of time thinking of myself as being on my death-bed and considering what I’d wished I’d spent more time doing in my life. Then I went out and did it (and still am). That way, hopefully, when I eventually get there, I won’t have any need to ask myself that question because I’ve already resolved it. (It’s a minor form of ‘time travel’ in my way of thinking.)
After that, I stopped worrying about lots of mundane life things and focused on the next really excellent thing I wanted to do. For me, that meant doing a great holiday with the kids, taking them (and myself) to an interesting and inspiring place, getting out into the wild. As a result of that first inspiration we travelled 3200km across the continent and spent days swimming and soaking in a thermal river in the top end of the Northern Territory. I ended up talking to heaps of people from all over the world as they drifted past ‘our spot’. Each had a little piece of wisdom to pass on.
During that time I completely forgot to think about any of my mundane life troubles and I remained changed after returning home.
Holidays are now my stepping stones through mundane existence. It’s the great luxury I wanted but never had as a child.
Where once I was an ardent ‘saver’ I’m now a moderate spender on things that provide a good life experience. I’ve also cut back on my sense of ‘duty’ to achieve certain things for others. My outlook now is that I’m a part of a greater social machine and there are others in that machine that can (or should) take a turn in bearing the load. I will now let others fail if they don’t want to share the load. We can’t keep everyone happy all of the time. Just some people happy some of the time. And that includes our own selves."
This reassessment of duty and what is possible is especially critical in times of decline/decay, as the process of decline is essentially one of burgeoning demands and diminishing resources: there simply won't be enough to meet everyone's demands.
This means we have to pick our priorities wisely, so we 1) don't get dragged into the abyss by over-committing our limited time and resources in a vain effort to meet the demands of everyone around us, and 2) by keeping our expectations realistic, i.e. within the boundaries of what is possible without extraordinary effort, wealth and luck.
This process of reassessment implicitly holds the promise of a fulfilling life even in times of turmoil, instability and diminishing resources. As author Michael Grant noted in his history (referenced in Part 2 of my Collapse series last weekThe Fall of the Roman Empire, many people opted-out of the decaying Imperial system by joining monasteries that were by design self-reliant and self-supporting. It was not an easy life, as the religious organizations operating the monasteries demanded piety and plenty of hard work. But the order provided security and purpose--precisely the qualities lost as the Empire frayed at the edges.
Some families of great wealth exited Rome and set up self-sustaining private fiefdoms in the countryside--manor houses supported by farms. Tradespeople and merchants impoverished by rising taxes found refuge as laborers on these sprawling estates. Once again, it was not the ideal setting, but it offered security, protection and purpose.
In our era, the questions that present themselves are: where shall we devote our limited resources of time, capital and effort? What is the payoff of our choices, and what are the opportunity costs, that is, what other choices must be abandoned to pursue this path? What trade-offs are we making, explicitly and implicitly? What must we forego to pursue our primary objectives? What is the balance between practicality, duty, risk, security and fulfillment?
Modern life in advanced economies implicitly promises order and security stretching on into the future. That order and security might fray is troubling, for it upsets the foundation of our decision-making and prioritizing.
I place Bart's family vacations in this category. We cannot assume limitless growth, security, wealth, resources, etc. Rather, we should align life today with what we have concluded (after much consideration) to be our life's work, purpose, priorities, goals, limits and yes, pleasures, for the essential characteristic of fulfillment is a sense of doing what is most meaningful, what Ralph Waldo Emerson referenced in his famous phrase, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."
Yes, we must make a living, or have the means of a living. Yes, we must care for others as well as for ourselves. But as systemic solutions fall short, we must grasp the nettle of making our own arrangements in a time characterized by burgeoning demands and diminishing resources, capital and security. Fulfillment is not precluded by decline; rather, it gains in importance with each passing day.
The Mobile Creative credo: trust your network, not the corporation or the state.
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 26. The Musings are sent weekly to subscribers and major financial contributors (those who contribute $50 or more annually).

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