ALTERNATIVE LIVING - Building Connection, Finding Cures to Our Economic “Dis-ease”
While everyone I knew satisfied the math and science requirements at university by taking the two main micro and macro economics classes, I opted for Paleontology (the study of dinosaurs) and Epidemiology (the study of diseases and how they spread). My decision drove me as far away from being an economics specialist as it gets, but I believe I speak for more than myself when I express disillusionment with the status quo of the economic systems cradling our lives— systems rooted in capitalism and profit, resulting in lifestyles soaked in the wrong priorities. But can we re-wire? My exploration of Epidemiology has finally come in handy in looking at the study of our economic system and understanding it as “dis-ease,” a force dominating our lives in the most intimate and destructive ways imaginable and that has not done its share to balance and harmonize the global flow of natural and material resources. Now, we are forced to find creative cures.
Disease causation. Few positive images come to mind when I think of the “economy” and while “success” looks different on each person, to most, it’s been constructed to look as a person in a suit, moneyed bank accounts, and inexhaustible material wealth. The house help could not grasp how I recently quit a prestigious office job to try out my hand at teaching kindergarten, thinking me crazy for equating my place on a “successful” economic ladder with a playground. In many ways, their view of “success” stopped at “bringing in the cash flow.” But for me, questions had been weighing: was I enjoying “success” at the core of my being, or simply feeling esteemed by what I’ve exhibited to the world on the outside? Was I really getting to the heart of happiness through my ambitions and the economic traditions I was following? I had put my finger on the pulse of a momentum that runs through our days, moving our footwork forward and yet missing a most valuable ingredient: Connection. Instead of finding work we deeply connect to and connecting within the communities we belong to, we boost our egos and try to buy our happiness. I don’t have a potion that will remedy this dis-ease fueled by capitalist greed, but what I have tried to do is unsettle its foundation. The first assumption I embrace is: I don’t need more.
Outbreak. The master key to a disease’s outbreak is its transmission: the way it moves from one body to the next, carrying its codes in the nucleus of atoms and across continents. And so the key word here must be equally expansive; through community and the kind of webs and ecosystems we are consciously creating with our behaviors, our spending (of both money and energy), and even our time management, who and what we choose to give our time to, and believe in. What I mean here is how are we reinforcing a system that is letting us down? How is consumerism ruining our social bonds at the expense of its own parasitic existence? When it comes to disease, it spreads like wild-fire with every tree the pathogen invades through the tree’s leaves, roots, and bark wounds. A tree’s entire vascular system can be destroyed in a matter of hours. But if the trees are immune, the forest never floods with this sickness. If our communities depend on new models of business, cohesion, and thinking that nourish the whole, supporting new ideas, equality, gentleness in our ways, and interdependence, condemning unethical business, corruption, and poison including, for example, food that comes from Monsanto farms and brands that support arms deals, our reality will look different. We don’t need more. We need connection. The outbreak stops when this awareness becomes a part of our spending, our energy exchange reflecting our beliefs and dreams for our selves, our families, and our communities. With every economic vision and action, are we living models that make the world a better place, or add to its imbalance and suffering.
A new narrative. A few years ago, I started reading more about Bhutan, a country that has prioritized its “Gross National Happiness” over profits. The only other place I can think of that took a similar step is Dubai by putting in place a Ministry of Happiness (true, a state privileged to make such moves due to its 100 billion GDP, but nonetheless a meaningful move). Each problem in the system, from grander frameworks and philosophies to the minute dilemmas that surround our daily lives have equally grand, or minute, solutions. In Jordan and around the world, I know of alternative communities as well as systems like Blockchain that decentralize control over decision-making. I’ve heard ideas on switching to “time currency,” an equalizing community approach that allows people to exchange services measured by time instead of money. I’ve also seen with my own eyes people who have taken on the reforestation of the desert as their selfless life mission, and others who have tuned the very core of their lives, starting from the homes they live in, to anchor with a more natural pattern and build “earth ships”—homes that allow them to live a completely self-sustaining life with zero harm to the environment (in fact, the first one of its kind is already on its way to existence here in Jordan). On stranger fields, I’ve been told about how squatting, in some cities, has bridged an almost equal number of abandoned homes with the homeless families, allowing the homeless to “squat” in the places that have no inhabitants—a solution to the refugee crisis? There are hundreds of abandoned cities around the world, waiting to be revived. Some of these ideas are radical, but calling idealism to the stage, there is no question that alternatives exist—and after all, we are living in radical times.
The question is, on some level, individual. What part of your economic life do you find yourself in tension with? Are you comfortable with the way you’ve built “success,” or the dependencies of the home you live in, or the schools your children are learning in? We can re-write the story on our own terms. Having recently shifted my own life’s current from “success” to “happiness,” I find myself writing lists not of things I’d like to buy but of people I’d like to thank this year, projects I’d like to get moving with the time I have, and seeding a bucket list that includes cave explorations in Vietnam. Keeping my spirits in good tidings is bringing me closer to this thing called happiness than any material or consumer purchase will and for this reason, the economy of my happiness is well these days— a truth no bank can account for. The idea is to continue creating a dreamscape of ideas and initiatives that reclaim the economy of our lives as it relates not to what we possess but to how we choose to live, and how that makes us feel at the core of our being.
To start, we can hold one question to the light: how are we quantifying our collective wellbeing? Money can bring food on our tables and build us bigger homes, but as Uruguay’s President said in an interview, “it’s not with money that we are paying for things, but with our time, and our lives, and our freedom.” And as one of the icons of American literature, Henry David Thoreau, proved when he set off to live by a lake and write Walden, one does not need much to be well. Over the next few months, I will reach out to experts and practitioners of alternative economic modes and lifestyles, conducting investigations on the possibilities that have allowed them to shift towards more holistic ways of life, and share my findings with you in a series entitled “Alternative Living.”
Madiha Bee is an international writer, freelancer, and idealist with three Masters degrees from Columbia University, the London School of Economics, and Oxford. She has worked in different industries from film to the publishing world, nongovernmental organizations and government, and is a co-creator at Manna Gathering. Feel free to e-mail her with questions, or if you want to start a conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org