This chapter has been published in the book The Art of Gentle Living. For ordering information, please click here.
Economics comes from the Greek word that means "home management." How we manage our material affairs builds the practical structure of our daily lives and affects other people. In this art of gentle living I am suggesting that we can be sensitive to our own needs and desires while being considerate of the impact we have on others and the world. Modern western societies such as the United States have become quite materialistic. While some people have accumulated extensive riches, many others are struggling to survive, especially in poorer countries where nearly half the people in the world live on less than two dollars a day while a billion of them suffer on less than one dollar a day. Millions of children are going hungry while billionaires and millionaires strive to increase their wealth, some ending up in prison for doing that in illegal ways. Some people are content because they have learned how to live within their means; but many are in debt and must struggle daily working to satisfy their desires for material things.
Everyone has the right to decide how they want to live and spend their money according to their own values, but those who want to practice the art of gentle living will consider others in addition to one's own happiness. Some may find that they prefer to have more time for pursuing transpersonal values or social reform rather than working long hours for more pay or indulging in personal pleasures. By living frugally one may have everything one needs without high costs so that one has time, energy, and other resources for higher ideals. The limited resources of the world have to be shared, and some believe that by living simply they can help others to simply live. Giving to charity to help the less fortunate is one way to do this, but one can also give of one's time, talents, and energy to work for the betterment of all humanity. Jesus presented this challenge when he advised a rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. If the very poor are assisted in intelligent ways, the improvements made in their lives from the sharing of the resources can be quite efficient. Even the smallest contribution helps when it is given to those most in need.
We each make decisions every day about what resources we use and how. Those who voluntarily simplify their lifestyles by reducing their use of polluting methods of transportation or the purchasing of extra material things they do not need are consciously producing less waste, which eventually needs to be cleaned up. Many people are finding that they can work at home, or one may live closer to one's place of employment and avoid spending time, money, and energy in long commutes. As the fossil fuel supplies diminish, the costs of transportation will increase. Urban areas are becoming more crowded and polluted. Those who walk and bicycle are saving these energies and the environment. Using public transportation or car-pooling helps. By spending time with one's family and friends at home and by associating with neighbors and local groups, people help ease the traffic and pollution problems while having more time for their activities. In today's global society we can communicate instantaneously with people anywhere in the world by the Internet and satellite at low cost in money and energy.
By choosing to live with others in community, housing can be shared more so that it is not so expensive. The opposite extreme is the very rich who own several homes and travel around. I wonder if any of those places really feels like a home, and how inconvenient it must be not having everything you need and want in the same place! Such luxuries are obviously inefficient and wasteful of many resources. Recycling of resources is very important in order to conserve energy and materials. If those with extra clothes donate more of them to the second-hand stores, those with less income will have even better choices in the thrift stores. If people purchase appliances and other products for their durability and efficiency and have them repaired instead of buying new ones, then even what needs to be recycled will be reduced. Some are "returning to the land" to grow their own food and form communities that are more self-sufficient. Fresh fruit and vegetables are the healthiest food and do not require wasteful packaging. We can buy fresh produce that comes from local growers and so reduce transportation costs. Even the scraps can be composted to fertilize a garden. Try to avoid discarding disposable containers by using canvas or cloth bags for shopping and by washing dishes. First, re-use what you can; second, re-cycle materials; and third, reduce needless consumption so that you throw away as little as possible. Remember we are all on this Earth, and there is ultimately no "away" for throwing things.
We can also keep our minds clear of much useless information by avoiding commercials and advertising that are intended to manipulate people into buying things. One can tune in on non-commercial media such as Pacifica radio, C-SPAN television, public radio or television, local access stations, or other non-commercial cable stations. Remote controls make it easier to mute the sound of any advertisement, or one can change channels. The world wide web can be used to find much information without having to buy newspapers and magazines that are loaded with ads and waste paper. Avoid websites that throw ads at you and find those that are user-friendly. Most books can be purchased used, and especially classics and other popular books are easily available in inexpensive editions. Public libraries provide outstanding books and other resources for free. Today people have easier access to the finest literature and educational materials than at any time in history. Especially because of the Internet, knowledge is spreading quickly and becoming more accessible every day. Soon one will be able to find just about any book or film or music or art on-line. Our opportunities for learning, communicating, creating, and participating in social reforms are greater than ever if we can learn how to manage our time by living more simply with the physical things.
We are responsible for the consequences of our actions. Therefore it is wise to consider the effects of the work we do on other people. In choosing our vocation and before applying for employment we can evaluate the work we are considering to make sure that we will not be contributing to harmful consequences. Does our work help make people's lives better? If we are intending to work for a large corporation, we may need to do some research to determine if they have high ethical standards in their corporate policies. Otherwise we may find ourselves in a difficult position later on and may have to resign for reasons of conscience. Just as the conscientious person will not invest in businesses that exploit workers in poor countries or pollute the environment in order to maximize profits, one may not want to work for such a corporation. Those who work on weapons or related systems that kill people share in the responsibility of those consequences. If more people refused to be a part of war profiteering, not only by not working for them but also by boycotting such companies, the democratic process of disarmament would be much easier to achieve. We are responsible for what is within our control, and by doing our part well with wise consideration we are contributing to the well being of all.
As we go about whatever work we do, we can be considerate of others and conscious of the effects we are producing. We can offer people choices, give them helpful information, and cooperate with the efforts of others that are constructive. Good teamwork makes everyone's job easier and success more likely. Safety is an important concern, and the ethics of nonviolence is not to hurt anyone, including oneself. Honesty is especially important in business. Those involved in sales may be tempted to manipulate their customers with deceptive information in order to make more money, but how can it really be good for one to make a gain for oneself by taking unfair advantage of others? People who cheat may escape the repercussion of the law, but deep inside they will not have the same happy feeling as the person who is honestly doing one's best to help others as well as oneself. Eventually people will usually find out what the character and ethics of a person are, and then that person will have to live with that reputation. People who cut corners or do questionable things to make a personal gain often end up having to go a long way around to correct the problems that resulted. Gentle living is doing what is right and good each step of the way. Thinking that one can use a harmful means to achieve a good end is folly, because what is a means for us is often the result for others. Those who try this may never reach the end but get stuck with the bad means. Everything we do defines who we are as a person. Let your light shine and your good deeds express how you wish to be known and regarded.
Our work is more than any job, and we can do much good outside of our employment too. Volunteers are needed in charitable and educational associations. Although we may not be paid in cash for this work, the joy inside one gets from knowing one is contributing to making life better is worth more than any pay one might get. Working hard can be good exercise for our minds and spirits as well as for our bodies. By working conscientiously we become better at what we are doing and expand our abilities to do more. Each step of success opens opportunities for us to move on to greater work. We then have more experience and wisdom to share with others who are coming after us.
Perhaps the underlying value system that motivates people to develop a militaristic society is materialism. People are afraid of losing their economic security, want to hold on to the wealth that they have accumulated, or are greedy to obtain greater riches. Socrates said that the love of money is the major cause of wars and that the root motivation for the love of money is the desires of the body. The Buddha also taught that the cause of suffering is craving. A society's desire for luxuries and extra resources, which are often taken from other countries, causes that society to become feverish and unhealthy. To feed this disease of consuming more than they can produce, the government is obliged to create an extensive military to protect its goods and expand its economic prerogatives in other territories. Thus when justice is lost, the government becomes chaotic and may degenerate into tyranny or fascism, as is described in Plato's Republic.
To anyone whose values are spiritual or human, materialism turns everything upside down. When out of selfishness things become more important than people, then spiritual values of truth, love, charity, goodness, wisdom, justice, faith, courage, etc. take a second place to the prevalent "bottom-line" mentality. The bottom line, of course, represents the financial profit to the individual or corporation. When the largeness of that number takes priority over every other consideration, then hedonistic materialism reigns supreme. Selfish people will lie, cheat, rob, steal, exploit, manipulate, and sacrifice their other values and their friends and other people for this single-minded objective.
The ironies of this are several. Usually the rich tend to become more caught up in this game even though they are the ones who need more things the least. Yet because they are so discontent, often their lives are unhappier than the poor they are exploiting. The societies with the most luxuries seem to be most obsessed with buying more things. Partly because of this greed the poor within the society and in other societies do not have enough of even basic needs. Since the 1980s a few people have become much richer while those living in poverty have increased in numbers, many of them young. Living below the poverty line means that a person or family must choose between basic necessities, because they do not have enough funds to meet all their needs by that society's standards. Of course the poorest people in the United States would be average in the poorer countries.
Another irony is that the fear and insecurity of this value system causes wealthy nations to spend a tremendous amount of their financial, material, technical, and human resources on the military to defend this way of life. Yet what the military are being paid to do, and all the weapons and equipment they use and stockpile, do not really improve the quality of anyone's life, and in wars they make many people's lives much worse. Of course the salaries these people receive do help them, but this would be the same if they were given the money as welfare. What consumer is benefiting from the billions spent on Trident submarines or cruise missiles or stealth bombers or nuclear weapons? Though the money people are given to spend privately is good for them as well as the economy as a whole, the work and products that the government obtains by its military spending provide no services to anyone except for this so-called "protection." Do we really need it? Would not everyone in the world be better off if none of the nations had to spend all this effort for fear or aggressive greed? The military industrial complex may be the biggest "welfare fraud" ever. Consider the salaries that are being paid to the engineers, scientists, technicians, and corporate executives in the defense industries. Some of these executives receive millions of dollars per year plus millions more in bonuses. Yet some people think that a single mother or unemployed person going through the humiliation of receiving and using food stamps is some sort of abuse.
We can examine our value systems individually as well as collectively and ask ourselves if we are devoting our lives to pleasurable activities and the collection of various toys, or are we giving of our talents and energies for the good of humanity? Can we share some of our possessions to help others and allow ourselves the time to work more for peace and justice? How can one or two people take up a large house when there are homeless people among us? Do we buy expensive new clothes when we already have more than we need? Do we need to make so much money that we have to pay federal income tax to a government that is preparing to dominate and perhaps destroy the world? To live at the maximum income without owing taxes, we are living at the poverty line in solidarity with the poor people of the world and are not contributing to their exploitation and the threats and use of violence in our name. This requires sacrifice of phony values and false needs, but by living communally in order to share goods and limit expenses you may be surprised to find life much more interesting and personally fulfilling. About half of US income tax is spent on wars and the military. We can conscientiously refuse to pay for this massive violence by donating our excess income to non-profit organizations that are helping people.
The use of military force is the opposite of freedom and respect for self-determination, because it is a violent attempt to force one's will on another. The military is the mechanical arm of the state and is sworn to obey its commands. It is like a great machine with many human cogs to operate the technologically sophisticated instruments of killing. In the past warriors fought each other courageously face to face. As weapons technology has advanced and killers operate from greater distances, war has become impersonal and more devastating. Modern wars are often waged more against civilian populations. Many more civilians were killed in the First World War than ever before, and by the end of the Second World War, entire cities were being destroyed from airplanes. Now a nuclear war threatens to kill hundreds of millions of civilians. Even the "low-intensity" wars in the third world attack civilians because of the confusion in fighting insurgent guerrillas. The insurgents in Iraq target civilians, and the occupation forces have difficulty distinguishing the insurgents from civilians. The military has become more cowardly in hiding behind their sophisticated weapons while the war-planners and generals sit behind their desks. Missiles can be sent great distances, and pilotless airplanes are now being used to kill people by computerized remote control.
Basic training for the military reveals how dehumanizing the military life is, as people are stripped of their individuality and independent thinking skills, natural feelings, and are turned into efficient killing machines programmed to take orders without question. In many nations military service is compulsory. In capitalist societies, such as the United States, the poor and less educated join the armed forces for the economic security or educational opportunities that are offered. This "poverty draft" insulates the upper classes and educated from the militarism that has been growing steadily.
Militarism is the dominant characteristic of fascism, whether of the right or the left. Power and authority is taken by the leaders of the state, and everyone else is compelled by threats and fear of violence to obey their orders. Independent thinking is discouraged as is the spontaneous expression of feelings. Only in this way can humans be conditioned to kill other humans so easily.
To liberate ourselves from militarism, we must live according to love and respect people as individuals and groups, living freely ourselves according to our own conscience and allowing others the same right. In the way of nonviolence, which treats everyone with love and understanding, individuals are encouraged to think for themselves and question authority, to learn as much as possible about the issues and share that knowledge with others, both with those who agree and those who do not. Group organization is not usually hierarchical with leaders and authorities above giving orders, but effort is made to treat everyone on an equal human level. Everyone is encouraged to participate in discussions which result in group decisions. Individuals are free to join or leave groups according to their conscience and interests. By trusting in human freedom to choose and by demonstrating the power of love in action to transform individuals and eventually societies, through nonviolent action we can learn to dissolve the militarism in our society by showing that it is not necessary in order to protect what is good for the whole society. In this way every individual can be empowered, instead of just the leaders at the top.
The field of politics is more in need of the art of gentle
living than any other aspect of society. In the United States
and other countries that claim to be democratic the civilians
are supposed to control the military; but George W. Bush calls
himself a "war-time President" and as commander-in-chief
has ordered the US military to invade and occupy Afghanistan and
Iraq. US forces also brought about the abduction and overthrow
of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in
Haiti. The people of the United States need to re-assert their
control and end these imperialistic policies that are causing
many deaths and much destruction at great cost. We need to restrain
the excessive nationalism that leads to such imperialistic adventures.
Many people and politicians believe that policies should be based
on what is in the national interest of the people of the United
States. Although I admit that the interest of the people of one's
own country should be our first concern, we also need to take
into consideration the people in other countries that are affected
by what we do. To do what is to our advantage as a country that
causes harm and is disadvantageous to others will eventually bring
consequences that are not in our long-term interest either.
Let us use the analogy of games to evaluate various kinds of social activities. In my view there are three kinds of such games. In many social interactions both or all sides benefit from the activity because value for all is being created or produced. An example of this is free and fair trade in which each side benefits by exchanging products or services they have in excess for other products or services they need or can use. Most economic activity has this goal and usually benefits both sides. Other activities, such as actual games, have results that can be called zero-sum. In these games some win while others lose. Betting is an obvious example because one wins and the other loses while no real value (except perhaps a little entertainment) is created. The worst kind of activities or games are those in which both sides or most people lose. War is the most obvious example of an activity in which efforts are made to destroy and kill. Since both sides are attempting to overcome the opponent by making things worse for them, the usual result is that both sides are harmed. Thus even the side that claims to have won the war really has just not lost as badly as their opponents. Thus spiritual wisdom and even common sense tell us that war is an irrational activity or a foolish game.
In our nuclear age it is imperative that we learn how to use democratic processes to prevent wars and establish justice that can maintain peaceful relations among all people. I believe the greatest challenge facing the "gentle" people is to bring about this transformation from a militarized world of violence to a peaceful world community that respects and benefits everyone. I believe that the 21st century will be one of disarmament. We can begin with the weapons of mass destruction and then move on to the military forces. Eventually people will realize that weapons such as guns have very few legitimate uses. The main effort needs to be keeping guns out of the hands of those who would use them in unlawful ways to do harm. I personally am not an absolute pacifist. I believe that in very limited circumstances an officer of the law designated by a democratically elected government within the jurisdiction of that government has the authority to bring violent criminals into custody for trial, but this should be done as nonviolently as possible. A disarmed society will be much more peaceful and gentle because arms will not be available for criminal acts. Police will not even need to be armed unless someone gets a weapon and needs to be captured for trial.
Our criminal justice system also needs major reforms because punishment is usually counter-productive, making people worse instead of better. By replacing punitive justice with restorative justice we can recognize the rights and compensation due the victims while also holding to account the violators. Spiritual counselors, psychologists, and social workers can be involved in the process of rehabilitation that helps the person who has committed a crime learn better ways to rebuild one's life and find productive activity to pay people back for the damage of the crime. Warehousing millions of people in prisons wastes lives and the resources of society, which pays more to keep convicted criminals in prisons than it does to give someone higher education. These institutions should be educating and rehabilitating these people with job training so that they can move back into society, knowing that they can redeem their lives and may be separated from society again if they do not. Nonviolent crimes especially need to be treated in this way. The violent may need to be separated until they are safe; but as society becomes disarmed and more just and gentle, the number of violent crimes will be greatly reduced.
People can use democratic methods to replace bad leaders with those who will solve human problems in humane ways. If we continue to allow those who use military forces to try to dominate the world for the benefit of the wealthy, the gentle living of everyone is threatened. If we want to live gently ourselves and help others to have that opportunity for a good life, then we may need to participate more in politics and civic organizations to bring about the changes needed. The current political system in the United States has been corrupted by the influence of money, corporate lobbyists, and two-party domination that blocks opportunities for real change. We can stop supporting this corporate warfare state by not paying federal income tax, and we can also work for nonviolent alternatives and democratic reforms. My ideas for the major reforms that we need will be discussed more fully in my next book: BEST FOR ALL: How We Can Save the World.
This chapter has been published in the book The Art of Gentle Living. For ordering information, please click here.