Tag Archives: Capitalism

The endless, futile yet imperative quest for Utopia

My dad always told me “There is no utopia.” I now live on a tropical beach yet lack the mountains. Italy seems like heaven, yet I’ve been told living there can be quite the headache. Does any one place or country have it all?

I just returned from a beautiful paradisaical island, one of the most scenic and culturally rich places I have ever been. Yet the people are imprisoned; unable to leave and forced to live in poverty under a government that controls many aspects of their lives. There is none to minimal internet access and very limited opportunities.

In the United States we enjoy a world of comfort and convenience; luxuries like continual hot water, air conditioning and 24/7 access to shelves upon shelves of food, products, and anything we could possibly desire are so commonplace they are totally taken for granted. However, the streets seem dead in comparison, and our depression and stress rates are sky-high.

The people in Cuba live very rich lives, but in a very different sense of the word ‘rich.’ There, the streets are vibrant and alive with humanity. People interact in the plazas and shelter together under trees in the rain.  Neighbors are lifelong friends. Children play soccer — with a ball that looks like it has been in use for half a century — in the street. They don’t have much, but they have each other, and they disfruta la vida.

Because they are so poor, many grown adults — in their forties — live with their parents. Here, this situation carries an enormous stigma, and of course is widely seen is undesirable. But their family ties are so naturally close that it comes across as rather pleasant. One night, the 60-something senora I was staying with celebrated her birthday. Her 45-year-old daughter bought her a new dress, and together, with several elderly ladies from the neighborhood, danced to Latin music in their tiny entryway, door open to the street, until 3 am. I can’t picture that scenario happening often here in the USA, where most major cities are characterized by strangers shuttling around in their vehicles between big box stores.

World travels and several articles have made me ponder what an ideal lifestyle, and ideal society, looks like. I don’t think it’s utterly capitalist or utterly socialist, but perhaps somewhere in-between; it features a return to a more primitive lifestyle, yet incorporates the best modern advances.

Ayn Rand had a point. Innovators make life better for all of us. Yet at the same time, the linear trajectory of endless growth, consumption and development obviously cannot be sustained without huge cost to the environment. If maximum material wealth and profit is our ultimate goal, we will fulfill the American Indian prophecy that Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

American Indians, like many indigenous societies, lived within a circular paradigm. They did not seek material wealth but to enjoy quality of life and freedom while living in harmony with the natural world. They used what they needed and were not overly attached to material objects.

Many leading thinkers agree that we must reform and re-imagine our current culture if we want to save the earth from ecological catastrophe, and thus ourselves. A recent Aljazeera.com article “The Trouble With Discounting Tomorrow” talks about how nations need to cooperate to achieve a sustainable future. In the latest Discover Magazine, Geoffrey West, an eminent theoretical physicist, remarks:

“We need to seriously rethink our socioeconomic framework. It will be a huge social and political challenge, but we have to move to an economy based on no growth or limited growth. And we need to bring together economists, scientists, and politicians to devise a strategy for what has to be done. I think there is a way out of this, but I’m afraid we might not have time to find it … even though innovations [such as creating new energy sources] reset the clock, from the work that I’ve done, I think all they do is delay collapse.”

Another book, Abundance: The Future is Brighter Than You Think argues the opposite stance, that technological innovations will create a world where all nine plus billion of us will live robust lives characterized by artificial intelligence, genetically modified food and cellphones and laptops for all.

It’s interesting to think outside of the box, to consider what your ideal world looks like: Is it urban, rural or a mix? Do you require a mansion, a fleet of cars, and tons of the latest gadgets, clothes etc. to be happy? Or would you be content in a small, eco-conscious cottage, with access to pure water, food, air, and all that nature has to offer? How much does community, family, and an active and interactive daily life factor into this equation? The question of what constitutes utopia has been on the mind of many a critical thinker unhappy with the status quo, from Thomas More to Jonathon Swift to John Winthrop.

I recently ordered a book from Amazon.com: The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. I was drawn to it because I sense that the way humans have been living in the past century is not really the way they were designed to live, nor is it close to how they have lived for thousands upon thousands of years. Many people instantaneously consider ancient cultures to have hard, short, and disease-ridden lives, but this is not necessarily the case. The native peoples of the Americas were noted as being strikingly healthy, sound and beautiful, and many studies have shown (such as The China Study) that native societies were often very healthy — with minimal chronic disease, perfect teeth, happy minds, etc — until introduced to a more modern, processed diet and lifestyle. They also enjoyed a healthy balance of equality, individual freedom and community. Many diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer are actually far more common now, due to sedentary living, nutritionally devoid food and countless environmental factors.

There are people today who are seeking a more ‘primal lifestyle.’ Mark Sisson (check out Marksdailyapple.com) discusses the question of hunter-gatherer longevity here. He espouses sunbathing, walking barefoot, eating natural, staying active — lots of common sense things that a lot of us in the first world have to make an effort to do. David Wolfe is another nutritionist who espouses a more eco-conscious, enlightened lifestyle. This type of thinking looks backwards as well as forwards; it is progressive, alternative and visionary while cherishing ancient wisdom and common sense.

I think my personal utopia would constitute a blend. It would be closely in tune with nature and do as little harm to the earth and its creatures as possible. It would feature composting and gardening. Yet I would also want access to the internet and the world’s knowledge. I would like proximity to people whom I care about, a family and community that supports one another, yet I would want solitude and total freedom. I would like to retain the ability to travel and to experience diverse cultures, Latin, European and beyond. I’m not sure if this personal utopia is possible; according to my dad, it isn’t. Yet you can’t stop the human spirit from striving.

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Are you a conditioned consumer?

I, until very recently was (and probably somewhat still am).

Imagine that you were born in a completely different time and place. Ancient Rome. 19th century England. Or that you lived now somewhere in Africa or the Amazon rainforest. You would have a completely different worldview, set of beliefs, and method of interacting and operating.

So consider that your own mentality and behaviors are not necessarily ‘reality’ or ‘right’; they are partly a result of your immediate environment, the time and place you were born, and your upbringing.

I was raised as a typical upper middle class American, Generation Y. Being such, I was raised to shop, to acquire, and to always want more. We lived in a big house with multiple cars, and we were always (or at least the females in the family; the males concentrated on dirtbikes, boats, model planes and the like) seeking out new decor items, new dishes, and most of all new clothes, shoes, purses and beauty products. IT WAS OUR DRUG.

We are trained to believe we need, on some level, all of these things. And that, therefore, money, and credit, is paramount in life. The scary thing was, none of it was ever enough. Like an addict, it was difficult for me to walk by a storefront display or set foot inside the mall or Target without greedily surveying the wares. Once seen, I had to touch and try on. And if it met my approval, I had to have it.

I had bought completely into planned obsolescence. Last semester’s clothes were not good enough. There was still an empty corner yet to fill, a new lipstick to try, the latest accessory to have.

Not to disparage, at all, my hardworking and generous parents. My mother was the daughter of a much-absent, paycheck-to-paycheck single mother and my father was a Cuban immigrant who also came from a low-income household. They worked their way up and achieved much; the children of Boomers, they came of age in the ’70s and became  young parents in the ’80s. Before the ’50s, people lived much differently. Cheap mass production had yet to fuel the economic boom. And my parents, as I said, worked for years to amass what they had and would give me anything they could, which I deeply appreciate.

But over the past couple years — first out of financial necessity, and now out of greater understanding — I have broken the cycle, shattered the spell, and have seen the whole situation with a new perspective. Now stuff just clutters up the small space I have, rapidly depreciates in value (headed for Craigslist, the trash or the Salvation army), or, worse yet, costs me money to store in a storage unit.

Feng shui teaches us that you are in the best state of mind with minimal clutter, your house filled with only that is useful or truly beautiful. Who hasn’t faced a closet, box or garage filled with ‘crap’ that was once a necessity, and cringed at the overwhelming mess and disorder? Oh, and moving time! Oh, the cumulative crush!

Beyond being expensive, frivolous, distracting and wasteful, this sort of behavior/mentality is downright destructive. Destructive because it destroys natural resources to create all these silly products, and destructive because many of them end up in landfills or garbage patches in the ocean; plastic can last infinitely, by decomposing only into tiny pieces which then can be consumed by sea creatures — and then by us.

It also just feels so much better to live simpler, cleaner and smarter. To not buy into all the advertising (you need far less beauty products than you think!) To mend and repair instead of to throw away and buy new. To say ‘F U’ to the system, the crazed crowds trampling into Best Buy on Black Friday. To do more with less. To be frugal. Your mind is more clear, your pride and identity more intact, your time more free, your house more clean, your transitions that much easier, and your conscience that much more calm.

Could you be just as happy or happier with less? What experiences would you trade for the things you now own? Do you regret going into debt? Can you imagine yourself living in a tiny cottage if it, though humble, had a beautiful view and a garden and your life was filled with meaning and fulfillment? Would you choose to work less hours, be less “well off” but enjoy your precious time more? Do you feel the need to compete with the Joneses?

Watch The Lightbulb Conspiracy to learn more about how we are manipulated by the system into buying more, more, more (this focuses on planned obsolescence, but mass advertising, which is omnipresent, is its partner in crime).

And consider the words of a Romantic, William Wordsworth. Imagine his lament if he were to see the state of things today!

“THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US; LATE AND SOON”

          THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
          Little we see in Nature that is ours;
          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
          The winds that will be howling at all hours,
          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
          It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10
          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
                                                              1806.