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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

A Careless Life (p. 139)

From chapter "Economics"

One of the problems with our economic system is that money is valued over all else. That is enough to guarantee widespread misery, degradation, and ultimately the destruction of most, if not all, life on this planet. It is axiomatic that people will not pay for that which they can get for free. This means that with certain notable exceptions—professional athletes, many of the self-employed, creative workers such as artists, scientists, members of the helping professions, and so on—most people will not get paid for doing what they would otherwise do, what they love: why should someone pay if you will do it anyway? Another way to say this is that as with grades, if implicit motivation is there, there’s no reason for external reward. The counter of this is also true, that oftentimes monetary rewards substitute for implicit motivation. What this means is that so long as money is valued —and in fact necessary—a great percentage of people will end up spending a great deal of time doing things they don’t want to do.

Prior to contact with our culture, it was common for members of indigenous cultures throughout the world to live “a careless life.” Indeed, the Khoikhoi were said to “scarcely admit either force or rewards for reclaiming them from that innate lethargick humor. Their common answer to all motives of this kind, is, that the fields and woods provide plenty of necessaries for their support, and nature has amply provided for their subsistence, by loading the trees with plenty of almonds . . . and by dispersing up and down many wholesome brooks and pure rivolets to quench their thirst. So that there is no need of work. . . . And thus many of them idly spend the years of a useless restive life.”

Because our cash economy is predicated on the idea of a society composed of atomistic individuals pulling in selfish directions, it can do no other than reward selfish behavior. Communal behavior is not rewarded in this system, which means the cash economy can do no other than destroy communities. It damages relationships, too, not only because relationships97 consist of processes, not products, and are thus invisible to the system, but also because any relationship based on atomistic individuals pulling in selfish directions is not a relationship at all. And our cash economy can do no other than destroy life on the planet, because life has neither value nor voice, whereas resources, for example two-by-fours, while still voiceless, have value. Given the system of rewards, it is a surprising testament to the tenacity of life that any viable natural communities persist. It is an open question as to how much longer they will do so.

Our economics promises a life of increasing ease, which would put us back where we started so many rapes, clearcut forests, and extirpated species ago. For those of us rich enough to reap its benefits, our economic system offers a life devoid of experience; as though life, and experience, were a hassle. I can buy fast food. I can buy fast sex. I can buy fast ideas. It is as though our goal were to pass our days comfortably in an embryonic hot tub, television turned on for community so we need never relate to another living being, umbilical cord attached so we need neither chew nor swallow. This kind of withdrawal makes sense for a traumatized people who believe that they’ve been forced to inhabit a treacherous world filled with selfish individuals. But if the world is not as they believe, then how sad that we avoid relationships to avoid the hassle.

Had I been satisfied to buy shrink-wrapped drumsticks at the grocery store, I may never have begun a conversation with coyotes, nor had the honor of meeting that brave Pekin who taught me about death. I would never have dug in a dumpster for the birds, nor felt the communion of generosity with that homeless man. I may not have paid attention to the complaint of the mice, nor the contempt of the lone red coyote. I may never have begun this exploration, with the richness of understanding it has brought to me.

It’s true as well that had I not attended the School of Mines, I would not have high jumped, and had my father not abused me, I may never have been sufficiently alienated from our culture to see it for what it is. Negative experiences can lead to joy and understanding. Life is untidy. When we reject this messiness—and in so doing reject life—we risk perceiving the world through the lens of our economics or our science. But if we celebrate life with all its contradictions, embrace it, experience it, and ultimately live with it, there is the chance for a spiritual life filled not only with pain and untidiness, but also with joy, community, and creativity.

Last December I saw an advertisement outside an electronics store. There was a little boy, delirious with delight, surrounded by computers, stereos, and other gadgets. The text read: “We know what your child wants for Christmas.” I stared at the poster, then said to no one in particular, “What your child wants for Christmas is your love, but if he can’t get that, he’ll settle for a bunch of electronic crap.”