When my niece was 11 years old, I asked her what she wanted to do when she grows up. She said she wanted to make a lot of money. I then asked her why she wanted to make money, what would she do with it? She shrugged her shoulders and said, I don't know.
This is a small vignette of the world children are raised in today, a trend that is sadly developing into a global culture of greed and inequality. Children are no longer encouraged to learn for the sake of learning, to become wise human beings. Instead, they are pushed, prodded and run ragged in order to prepare them for the competitive ‘career’ race. Parents cheer loudly for their children to ‘win’ the race (as second and third place is just not good enough anymore) because if their offspring are winners, this naturally implies they too must be winners.
In the 1980‘s, when my mother was a single parent, working full time and raising four children, money was not abundant in our household. Yet with Government assistance and grants, I still had the opportunity to go on to further education and university. To imagine this situation today, in a context where I would have to pay £9,000 fees annually for a university degree, on top of accommodation and living costs, is nigh impossible! It is unbelievable how our society has allowed education, one of the basic tenets of modern civilisation, to become a mere commodity, where institutions make chasing profits more important than educating future citizens for the benefit of the collective?
Modern systems of democracy have developed into incredibly skewed notions of what it means to live a ‘successful’ life. For the past 80 years, the success of a nation and its population has been measured according to economic progress. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is ‘the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country's borders in a specific time period, usually calculated on an annual basis.’ It is now widely (and mistakenly) taken for granted that the larger a nation's GDP is, the wealthier and better off its people are.
Success, as is believed for nations, has become a monetary measure for individuals too; we aspire for career progression, so that we can earn more money, so that we can acquire more stuff (houses, cars, clothes, appliances, etc.), so that we can be happy. These very same lauded systems of democracy, the ‘ideal’ we're meant to strive for, have also created the highest rate of inequality I've seen in my lifetime. A report published by Oxfam in 2014 estimated that the wealthiest 80 individuals owned the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the global population. To put this in perspective, in 2010, it required 388 billionaires to equal this same percentage amount of wealth… and this rate of increasing inequality has been happening while the global population has increased from 6.884 billion in 2010 to 7.174 billion in 2014.
This is a shocking and unsustainable reality! Yet other than trending on the Internet for a few weeks, governments, companies and individuals have simply gone back to their profit & loss spreadsheets, trying to work out how to sell more stuff and make more money.
Measuring success in monetary wealth is a delusion, because it does not take into account the quality of our lives. John Robbins, author of The New Good Life explains:
The GDP rises whenever money changes hands. When families break down and children require foster care, the GDP grows, but not so when parents successfully care for their children. People who max out their credit cards buying things they don’t need make the GDP look good. People who save their money and live sensibly don’t. Seen through such a lens, the most economically productive people are cancer patients in the midst of getting a divorce. Healthy people in happy marriages, in contrast, are economically invisible, and all the more so if they cook at home, walk to work, grow food in a home garden, and don’t smoke.
John Robbins also quotes an extract from a speech made by Robert F Kennedy shortly before he was assassinated:
[GDP] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
Of course, money is an important factor for our basic needs (food, shelter, clothes, health, etc.), though beyond the poverty line it cannot measure the true wealth (value) of what we do with our lives and how we experience fulfilment. However, in many surveys, most people who are not living in poverty and have everything they need, think that having more money will make them happy.
The desire for more, more, more in a vacuum can never equate to happiness. Arbitrary monetary goals (such as annual increase in profits or a 10% raise in salary) have no meaning or purpose when we do not know ‘what’ we want the money for. Apple, for example, a company regularly cited as ‘the most successful company in the world’, is currently hoarding $137 billion in cash overseas in order to avoid paying 35% repatriation tax in the US. In real terms, this money sitting in an account doing nothing has no value whatsoever, because money is an energy and it only has value at the moment of exchange. Beyond the fact that I can barely comprehend why a single company would need $137 billion (that it is not using?), imagine the difference that 35% ($48 billion) would make to the lives of the 43.6 million people living below the poverty line in the US, which in 2012 was 16% of the population, the highest rate since 1993 and one of the highest in the ‘developed’ world?
Being happy and fulfilled is about making meaning of our lives. Looking again at Robert F Kennedy's list, would it not be wiser to ‘use’ money for worthwhile aims instead of increasing GDP? Would it not be worthwhile to ‘let go’ of profit for the sake of providing the basic needs of everyone of the planet, our global family, instead of worrying about amassing an inheritance for a few members of our immediate family? Why not be a civilisation that provides food, utilities, infrastructure and education as services for the benefit of all mankind without a profit margin?
In one of the Hindu creation myths, the God Vishnu is the Sustainer of the Universe. He keeps Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom on his tongue, which makes his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, jealous. She rushes to him and plants herself in his heart. Vishnu, however, knows that Lakshmi is fickle and will leave as soon as Saraswati leaves his tongue. In order to sustain Lakshmi, he must also sustain Saraswati and therefore, he maintains his thirst for knowledge and wisdom as a pre-cursor to sustaining wealth.