Thursday, February 08, 2007

Richness: Good, Bad and Ugly

Long time. But worth the wait :-)

About 3 weeks back I read LeftVegDrunk's post, A disjointed feeling, wherein he describes the weird feeling of sitting fat, dumb and "way too rich" in Australia, on a break from aid work in Indonesia. His post prompted a comment from me (you can read it there), wherein I wonder out loud whether a nation or culture can achieve the "good kind of rich" without also falling into the "bad kind of rich".

The Good Kind of Rich is, basically, having the basic necessities for a good healthy life. Clean water, health care, education, things like that. Leading to good things like long lifespan, low infant mortality, safety and security, and so on. That is a kind of richness, and I deem it "good". This is mindfully using your wealth, in whatever form, to get things of value.

The Bad Kind of Rich is, simply, taking things for granted. Where this goes, of course, is that necessities invisible, and things that were luxuries soon become necessities. Part of this is human nature. Part of it is a real consequence of how our systems work. It's pretty hard to travel by plane without a credit card these days. Internet is becoming pretty indispensable, not to mention cars, cell phones, voicemail.

But this recasting of luxury into necessity is not so bad in itself. Indeed, there's some eco-benefit to getting your news online versus hand delivered, and telecommuting versus rush-hour traffic.

The bad part is wastefulness and/or mindlessness. The amount of energy and natural resources that we consume unconsciously is vast. Oops, left the light on, the sprinkler going. What say we just drive over to Bob's house and see if he's around. I love my black car, but it sure gets hot in there on a sunny day. Whenever I get in, I've got to power down the windows and crank the AC up full. Nothing like a nice, long, long hot shower after a tough day, uh, couch surfing. You know, I really prefer wild salmon to the farmed.... Yes, I'll have it blackened, please, with cajun sauce.

Who is the victim here? From any single act, it's hard to imagine. But us treehuggers are aware of the impact on the broader scale. IMHO, the impact is largely the result of mindless consumption. That is, if we only consumed mindfully, our environmental situation would be far better off. Most of us in the developed countries have lives that make unconscious consumption hard to avoid. Who's got the time to think about every element of consumption? And I'm as guilty as the next, despite my hybrid purchase, so rest assured that I'm not looking to throw stones. Solution? Mindfulness is a start. But more on that in some future post.

What about the Ugly Kind of Rich? To me, this is about consciously using your wealth or power or position to exploit others in a weaker situation. It happens all over. Another word for Ugly Richness is corruption. I just came across an enlightening example in a post by LeftVegDrunk's close (really close!) friend, Vasco Pyjama.

We in the developed world have vast amounts of Good Richness, much Bad Richness, and a moderate bit of Ugly Richness. I'm not well versed in the developing world, but I imagine that there's a shortage of Good Richness, not that much Bad, but a relative surplus of Ugly.

Why mention it? Hmm. I'd like things to be different, in both the developed and developing worlds.

And mindfulness is a start.


Blogger Damian Doyle said...

Hmm. I think I might have to agree with this good-bad-ugly schema. And my experience in less developed countries would support the "surplus ugly" idea, too.

A quick note: no aid work for me, yet. I am accompanying Ms Vasco, and studying so that I can take the leap into the sector soon. Baby steps, I'm afraid.

Sorry this is the first time I have commented here. I'm a real blurker! And thanks for calling by my new lifesaver-lime effort. Hopefully I can offer up something to your liking once settled back in Nias next week.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Curt Beckmann said...

Hi Damian,

As a blurker, you must be aware of Appropedia? My night job. We're all very optimistic and ambitious about getting that site cranked up to support international development, but I've got this concern that it's missing something. If you got any time, I'd love feedback on the site. Or content, if you are seeing any effective aid projects or NGOs, etc.

Thanks for the help. And the comment!

7:16 AM  
Blogger Curt Beckmann said...

Should have left the URL: that's

7:17 AM  

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