I can’t even count how many times people say that being rich doesn’t mean being happy. Of course, most of us still spend a majority of our time complaining that if we just had XXX amount of money, our lives would be oh, so much better. In fact, today alone I heard three people say this, myself included, even though I had already been thinking about this blog entry.
I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy and whoa, is it interesting. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but the word “Economy” made me hesitate—when I waited tables in grad school I had to go to the kind bartender Mary Ellen and ask her to calculate the change for me all the time. Calculus=not too hard, but when it comes to money, I am dumb as a box of hair. That said, I actually love this book so far, so don’t be intimidated by the fact that it revolves around economics.
McKibben talks about how off base we are in terms of what we place value on and how our market needs to be completely revamped. This is not a new idea, and it is certainly not an American revelation (quite the contrary). Different groups, universities, and economists around the globe are looking at how to measure a country’s progress or regress by the amount of pollution or disease, meaning places are more valued if they are less polluted and have a better overall quality of life. Some examples: in 2005, the Brits announced plans develop an “index of well-being”; the Director of Canada’s statistics bureau is trying to measure education, environmental quality, and ”community vitality”; and the Australians have an “inclusive wealth framework.” The University of Vermont is also at work on the “Earth Shareholders Report,” which holds to this really crazy idea that the planet actually belongs to all of us. It shows data and graphs of timber harvests and fish stocks to detail just how much of our investment depreciates annually.
Another important point is that we are plundering all of our natural resources and because of this, we simply can not keep getting richer and richer off of them. Economists will eventually have to start incorporating ideas of sustainability into their predictions and work—these resources are not endlessly sustainable and therefore we are endangering the ability of future generations to gain economically from them.
And then McKibben just spells it out, asking the question, “What does rich mean? Even if I am getting richer, am I getting happier?“ Of course anyone reading this is thinking, “well no, we aren’t.” And not only that, we are making less money overall and working harder than ever before (and as many of us know, with far fewer benefits). What does this have to do with preservation, you ask? Well, we have to look to the past to figure out what went so very, very wrong and why industrialized countries are showing steady declines in happiness polls.
Longer-term homeownership matters because we are way too disconnected from our communities, and in my experience, the most well maintained neighborhoods have people who actually CARE about their neighborhoods. This is good for safety, schools, community, and personal finances. We also have become such vagabonds, moving from place to place every 5 years, that I think this has honestly really decreased the amount of pride and happiness we have in our home, the place that we LIVE, because it is seen merely as a temporary investment. Of course, we also need to deplete fewer resources and make our homes more efficient vs. just trashing them.
Beyond that, older neighborhoods tend to have a Main Street where people can walk and gather and get what they need and more available around them. You don’t have to drive everywhere. Some degree of density is key both environmentally, but also in terms of community and health.
McKibben borrows a quote that I am now going to borrow again: “if you market something a certain way, people will bid $1.50 for $1.00.” This is clearly what we have been doing with real estate, and unfortunately people are now really paying the price for it. There is also a passage that mentions that “short term behavior can get out of kilter with long term goals,” and I feel that the real estate boom in the 2000s has caused tremendous numbers of well built, historic properties to be smashed to bits and replaced with crap for the short term gain of a few. This is, of course, utterly irreversible and we’ll all “pay” for it when we look back and realize all the we have lost for…nothing really.
So I say let’s all wake up and be happy again. Let’s stop complaining that we didn’t have $100,000 bequeathed to us for no reason and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Know our community, get involved, and look out for each other. Walk to the local Main Street and spend $1.50 on $1.50 or better yet, get a little sentimental and take a minute to look around at what’s around us. It is likely way more than enough. So let’s all remember how to relax and be happy with all the amazing things that we already have, from the walls around us to the slippers on our feet, which, in this household, last a wonderfully (some might argue horrifically) long time.