I have been involved in the diaries project since we started it in 2017. I have learned so much from the diarists, people who are from low and modest income backgrounds. In these two opinion pieces I argue that their stories shed light on an important solution to our contemporary economic-environmental problem. We have the co-existence of massive wealth inequality, ongoing poverty, and economic wealth-induced environmental disruption. What I have learned from the diarists is what Gandhi said: ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.’
In part one of this commentary I argued that we need to rethink economic growth as economic change. Economic change includes growth for communities and countries facing insufficency. But economic change requires a different focus when it is harming the environment. In this case economic change that weighs the environment more heavily and seriously underweighs benefits to the richest people on the planet. This is because rising and excessive inequality serves only a destructive purpose.
In this commentary I wonder how previous generations ‘made it’ with so much less. I am not advocating voluntary poverty –and certainly not involuntary poverty– but wonder when do we have enough?
Maybe less really is more
I was grocery shopping the other day, and briefly considered picking up a container of fresh berries. I looked at the price and immediately put them back on the shelf. I felt frustrated. How can anyone be expected to pay that amount for a small carton of berries? Everything just seems so expensive now.
I mentioned this to my wife when I got home from the store, and she made an interesting point. She said “when we were kids, we would never see fresh berries in our homes at this time of year. We had apples, oranges, bananas, occasionally tinned peaches or pears, and on a special occasion tinned fruit salad – the one with the single cherry in it. Do you remember?” she asked.
This got me wondering if there is something to learn about our economy, ourselves, and our lifestyle expectations during this current state of inflation.
I am a university professor currently involved in a multi-year research project, the Canadian Financial Diaries, which is working with low and modest-income Canadians for 6 to 12 months to better understand their finances, their financial wellbeing, and their financial knowledge. One thing we have learned is that many of our diarists are financially capable, because they can’t afford not to be. A slight mistake with their budget makes the difference between eating well or perhaps not eating at all, paying rent or becoming homeless, and also having a sense of financial control.
Consider diary participant Jane (not her real name), a single woman who lives in an apartment in the inner city and works two part-time jobs. I have not met a more gracious and kind person. She works hard in her jobs, helps to support her daughter and grandchild, contributes to her community – all on an income under $20,000 a year. Jane has shared with me that she is very aware of her modest lifestyle, and is at peace with it. She lives within her means, and is grateful for what she has.
I am not trying to glorify or justify Jane’s poverty. For her inflation means that she moves from barely covering her essential needs to having to cut back on basics. There are no extras for her to cut from her budget, like I did by choosing to not purchase berries out of season. Inflation for her is extremely difficult.
But my thoughts aren’t about price inflation, they’re about lifestyle inflation, and while it doesn’t relate to Jane’s story, it does relate to millions of other Canadians. Many Canadians have lifestyle expectations that are significantly higher than their parents’ generation. Like my wife mentioned, our parents didn’t expect a large selection of inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store in winter 50 years ago. They also didn’t drive large SUVs, or live in large custom built homes. Credit was something to be considered very carefully. They had experienced the costs of high inflation in the 1970s and 1980s, and as a result, tried not to spend money they didn’t have, and saved for a rainy day.
Fast forward to today. Our current average lifestyle in Canada is higher than most of the world’s population. Estimates suggest we would need at least five ‘earths’ to sustain a global population all living like we do.
Unlike many of our parents and grandparents, we can choose from a dizzying array of food products and merchandise. We can drive through fast-food outlets in oversized vehicles on our way home to oversized homes, all on credit.
This wasn’t the norm for most families back in the day, and certainly isn’t the norm now in most of the world. Whatever happened to living well within our means, rejecting excess, saving for a rainy day, and being grateful for what we have?
This makes me question our society’s relentless focus on economic growth. What I call ‘growthism’ is the unquestioned assumption that continuous economic growth is the best means to achieve the common good. But here we find ourselves with an unstable economy, social discord, growing numbers of homeless people, and a damaged environment. I wonder if part of the answer to this is in Jane’s thinking. When I asked Jane about what financial wellbeing means to her, she talked about having a little more than she needs, to have a sense of dignity, and to have a sense of control over her finances. I’m not advocating we live in poverty, but I think Jane has an interesting perspective, and it’s one worth amplifying. Upon reflection, I don’t need fresh berries, and I’m grateful.
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