There is nothing like travel to give you a heaping dose of perspective.
We in the western developed world, the vast majority of us, anyway, are so damn spoilt.
Here in Australia we write ourselves the narrative of the battler; hard-done-by working class hero, struggling to get ahead. The reality, however, is far, far different. We’re incredibly wealthy. Daily we take for granted riches of which much of the world can only dream, and yet somehow we think we deserve it, that we’ve earnt the good life that has befallen us by the sheer luck of being born on these fortunate shores.
We turn on a tap and we have clean drinking water. How lucky are we? So lucky that we think nothing of using this precious resource to flush our toilets and water our plants. Over 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water[1, 2] and we let it run down the drain then complain about the cost.
Safe, clean water, on demand, at a fraction of the true cost. Want it hot? Turn on another tap and let electricity or gas work it’s wonders. Energy that’s cheap and reliable enough to heat our water 24-7. Energy so cheap that I’m sitting here, running a computer and monitor and listening to the radio while a pot of chickpeas simmers on the stove and a head of garlic roasts in the oven (I’m making humus). Yes, I’ve turned the lights off in the rooms I’m not using and I’m working by a single energy-efficient globe but even then my bills tell me I use an average of 15 KWH per day, which is only a little below the average for my dwelling type and suburb. I can do better (and yes, long, hot showers remain my biggest guilty pleasure. Maybe next year’s promise for World Environment Day…).
We’ve got safe water, ready power, large houses we fill up with stuff (biggest in the world, apparently, and this place feels exorbitantly large after my recent travels) and there’s the access to food and consumer goods. Walk into your kitchen right now and take a good, hard look in your cupboards. How much food is actually in there? How long could you go without really needing to shop? How much diversity of product is there? I have 2 types of rice, 2 types of lentils, 5 types of flour (I’m gluten-sensitive, so it’s somewhat excusable), black quinoa, quinoa flakes and a number of syrups and oils I most never use and don’t really need (lime oil, rosewater, pomegranate molasses and a serious tea collection…) and that’s after considerable down-sizing and being very mindful about what I buy.
It’s easy to indulge in food without even realising. Walk into any supermarket or grocer and look around: there’s so much food and so much choice! With the shelves so richly stocked our trolleys and household pantries look restrained by comparison. We have a culture that encourages food as a recreational pursuit rather than a nutritional need. Food shortages don’t even cross our consciousness for most of us, despite recent record droughts and soaring prices of staples. If we have the money it’s always there, waiting. Easy.
We are so damn lucky. Lucky to have been born in a wealthy country, a place of political stability and prosperity. No wars have torn my country apart. No dictators have drained us of our wealth (though Gina Rinehart may well try), no diseases have ravaged our people or our food production. Although drought, flood and fire take their toll, we’ve thus far been rich enough and agriculturally diverse enough to weather the storms and bitch about the cost of bananas.
And that’s what gets me really. We have this incredible wealth yet we complain about it. We sit here with our hands out, crying poor, asking the Government for more, always more. How can you be a battler with a place just for you and yours to call home, all the safe water you can drink, power whenever you want it and access to all the food you could ever dream of? When you have health care and social security? When education is free for all and retirement is considered a right? Yes, there are some Australians who truly are poor (particularly our indigenous people, who live in a different world to most of us), but for the vast majority of us and our compatriots in the western developed world, we are rich beyond our own comprehension. We have so very much. By accident of birth we find ourselves in the land of plenty.
Is it surprising, then, that others covet our way of life? That when we travel we’re seen as wealthy targets to exploit? You can hardly blame the rest of the world for wanting in on our privileged party. Yet the planet cannot sustain our current levels of consumption. We can’t pull everyone else up to our standard of living. So do we try to keep it all to ourselves, spoilt children who don’t want to share our shiny toys?
Truth is it’s an inherently unsustainable way of life. We can’t maintain it while the rest of the world scrapes by. Sooner or later the rest of the world will come looking for their share as resources run out. We can try to hang on until then, in a final orgy of consumption, or we can start to learn to live with less. I believe it’s time we learnt the difference between wants and needs, asked ourselves some searching questions and reduced our footprints a little. It’s the only fair choice (and as Dr Samuel Alexander writes, it just might also be good for us).
There’s no point feeling guilty about an accident of birth, and not all of us are in a position where living more simply is a viable choice. Most of us can do a little more, however. We can be just that little more mindful about the choices we make and think about the type of future we want to build. That’s what I’m trying to do and y’know, I’m happier for it.
 water.org fact sheet
 WHO water and health program
 Energy Made Easy Australian power consumption benchmark
 ComSec housing data report 2011
 World Bank food crisis data
 ACOSS Australian Poverty Report 2011
 Radical simplicity and the middle class: exploring the lifestyle implications of a great disruption, by Dr. Samuel Alexander
Last week I went to listen to Warren Macdonald give a talk about his life, philosophies and experiences. The key theme of Warren’s talk was coping with change and a comment he made in passing really got me thinking…
Talking about coaching corporate clients on coping with change Warren commented that they often find it impossible to accept that global economy has permanently changed; that the “Global Financial Crisis” isn’t a temporary blip but a turning point but a brave new frontier.
So are we really watching the death of modern democratic capitalism? I can’t help but think that Warren’s right. This economic slow-down isn’t like others we’ve weathered: for the first time we’re experiencing a lack of capital. We seem to have reached the limits of our resources.
Combined with the stressors of climate change and peak oil production it seems highly unlikely that the good times will return. Economies around the world are collapsing with the exception of those countries lucky enough to still have natural resources left to exploit (and living in one such country it’s obvious that the resulting two-speed economy is entirely unsustainable. When we run out of things to dig up and export Australia too will be in economic trouble.). Countries harder hit by recession are trending towards political extremism at both ends of the spectrum in what seem like great acts of denial that the way we live needs to change.
Meanwhile the global distribution of wealth slides ever further into gross inequality, with the world’s richest 1% commanding 40% of global wealth (though it must be noted that the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has continually decreased over the last 30 years) and the general public seems more interested in celebrities than science, and politics than policy, with the media happy to play along. Here in Australia the quality of political discourse appears to have hit an all-time low, with politicians obsessed with popularity and opinion polls instead of sound policy and solid ethics. It’s getting rather depressing.
I look around me, at the politics, the economics, the environment, the science and the culture and become more and more certain that big change is coming. We in the first world can’t keep consuming at the current rate; the rich can’t keep accumulating greater wealth; corporations can’t keep selling us more stuff we don’t need. Our resources are finite and we’re crashing into our limits, but there is hope.
A growing number of people seem to be challenging what I see as our toxic culture, questioning the conventional economic thinking that continual growth is essential, that quality of life is intrinsically linked to spending power. I keep meeting thoughtful, intelligent people who are opting out, choosing a simpler life in the search for sustainability and happiness. Revolting against the dominant paradigm, these folk are finding that a life with a lower income and more hard work can actually prove more joyful than the coveted big-house-in-the-suburbs lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not consigning themselves to struggle-street or sacrificing modern conveniences completely, but making a conscious decision to question their values and reduce their consumption. They’re living smaller, more connected lives, more closely linked to nature and community, and they seem to be happier for it.
More and more people seem to be accepting that the world has changed, working with it instead of fighting and proving that sometimes less really is more. They inspire me.
Change is inevitable, but when we embrace it we can thrive.
Do you think the world has irrevocably changed in recent years? Have you made significant changes to your way of life? How has change shaped who you are and how you’re living?
 A few years ago Warren lost both his legs in a freak hiking accident. Now he climbs mountains and inspires others to find their passion and test their limits. Learn more about Warren at www.warren-macdonald.com.
 Wikipedia: Causes of the Great Depression & Causes of the GFC
 France goes socialist, Greece rejects austerity measured but fails to elect a government with votes split between fascist & socialist parties and the Tory-led UK is looking more and more like a basket case.