Challenging our Faith in Wealth

What's it Going to Take? Challenging our Faith in Wealth

A Tale from the Wealth Gap, by Cecile Andrews, author of Slow is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre and The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life.

What's it going to take? How do we rouse people to get involved in movements for change? We're facing a growing gap between the rich and the poor, destruction of the planet through global warming, an endless war... Yet we go on with business as usual.

For the past several years I've worked with the Voluntary Simplicity movement, a movement which challenges the values of our corporate consumer society. The essential goal of Voluntary Simplicity is to "put money in its place." In this country people believe that if they're rich they'll be happy. Eighty percent of people think that if they work hard enough, they'll be rich. And so, there is no outcry against soaring profits for corporations and tax cuts for the rich because everyone believes that some day they will be rich, and they'll be happy.

But happiness has been on the decline in the US. Why? Because people are looking for happiness in all the wrong places. All the research shows that after a certain point, more money does not make people happier. As the gap between the rich and the poor grows, we have created a cutthroat society.

And a wide wealth gap destroys a society. Research has found that the biggest predictor of the health of a nation, as measured in terms of longevity, is the gap between the rich and the poor. In the Fifties, the US had the smallest wealth gap of the industrialized nations and we had the greatest longevity. Now it's reversed. We have the largest gap and the lowest longevity.

Yes, the suffering of the poor increases. As the wealth gap widens, prices are driven up by the rich, making previously reasonable cities places that only the well off can afford to live in. As the wealth gap widens, the rich have more and more political power and they rip out the safety net for people of low income. Wealthy people's money allows them to undermine our democracy. As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis said, "We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both."

But the surprising thing is that no one is better off, not even the rich. The rich person in the US has less longevity than the average person in Holland where there is a small wealth gap. Compared to Western Europeans, the US ranks worst or next to worst in depression and anxiety. Inequality just isn't good for people. When there is high inequality, everyone is your competitor, with everyone clawing to climb up the ladder, pushing people off as they go. It's every man for himself. Everyone has someone above them that they envy. Everyone has someone below them that they fear. Envy and fear are our predominate emotions in our unequal society. No one is truly happy.

It makes no sense at all for people to accept a wealth gap. But as long as people think riches will make them happy, they'll continue to accept the gap, hoping they'll be one of the "lucky" ones some day.

But what does make people happy? All the research is clear: it's warm, supportive, caring relationships with others. It's community. And there cannot be community in a cutthroat society with everyone out for themselves and no concern for the common good. The social fabric is destroyed. There is no trust, one of the primary ingredients in human happiness.

How do we get people to understand this? It's not enough to just try to tell people about true happiness. We need to give people the experience of caring community. When people experience true caring, they understand that the obsessive lust for wealth is an empty goal. They will see that we're happier when we're equal.

How can we give people an experience of caring? There is an emerging movement called the "relocalization" movement which involves people building community and sustainability in their own neighborhoods. Neighbors are working to to save the planet and helping people understand that we're all in this together. In our North Seattle neighborhood, we've formed the Phinney EcoVillage (www.phinneyecovillage.net). We're urging neighbors to "buy local," to support their local businesses, to come together for community coffees, and to discuss issues of democracy and sustainability in conversation circles. Most of all, we urge them to get out of their houses and meet their neighbors. We call it the "stop and chat" campaign.

Yes, we need to build community in our neighborhoods, but we also need to build community in all that we do. Building community in our social movements will attract people and rouse them to action. In all of our movements we need to take time to get to know each other and connect with each other.

If we learned nothing else from the Civil Rights Movement it was this: there is power and joy when a community of people work together for change. Those of us from wealthier backgrounds felt profoundly humbled by the experience of community in that movement. How many people have that sense of joyful community today? We can do it again. Community will not only bring us greater happiness, it will inspire us to act. No more business as usual.

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