Editor's Note: This is the Introduction to John Robbins' new book, THE NEW GOOD LIFE: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less.
We have now entered an entirely new phase in our nation's and our world's economic existence. We have come to the end of the financial world as we have known it.
The assumptions of the past are no longer reliable or credible. Not that long ago, General Motors represented 10 percent of the U.S. economy and was the world's largest employer. But in 2008, the company lost nearly 90 percent of its value. The following year, the company that had long been considered the backbone of the U.S. economy went bankrupt.
Is it possible that an entire nation could go bankrupt? It's not only possible, it's already happened. Iceland was a model of strong economic growth in the 1990s and beyond, and one of the world's most highly functioning economies. In 2007, Iceland ranked number one among all the world's nations in terms of the Human Development Index. But in 2008, Iceland literally went bankrupt. Unable to pay its external debts, the Icelandic currency, the krona, became essentially valueless in the rest of the world.
What will happen in the U.S. economy in the years to come is deeply uncertain. Although some economists and public officials have declared the worst behind us, most of them have a vested interest in a positive outlook. A sober look at the facts can be unsettling. Already, a staggering number of homeowners have found their homes morphing from piggy bank to albatross. The year 2010 began with nearly one in three U.S. homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth, and that figure was expected to soon reach one in two. Today, foreclosures are filed in the U.S. every seven-and-a-half seconds.
Facing daunting deficits, cities, counties and states have been making staggering and unprecedented budget cuts. Fearing bankruptcy, governments at every level have seen no alternative but to dramatically decrease services across the board, even including some considered essential for public safety. The cuts have been so severe, they haven't been made with scalpels. They've been made with meat axes.
The level of affluence many Americans had come to take for granted is becoming increasingly out of reach for rapidly growing numbers of people. Today, more Americans are going bankrupt than are graduating from college. In many states, unemployment is at a 70-year high, and the unemployed are confronting a job market that is increasingly bleak. The ranks of the poor are swelling with failed business owners, office workers, salespeople and long-time homeowners. In major cities, requests for emergency shelter are doubling annually. People who have never before needed food aid are applying for food stamps in record numbers. Millions of people are losing their health insurance along with their jobs.
Ominous comparisons have been made to the 1930s, but there are fundamental differences, some of which may actually make it harder for the economy to recover from the current crisis. Then, we had no national debt. Today, we have become the greatest debtor nation in human history. Then, personal savings was seen as a virtue. Now, the average American owes 25% of his or her annual income to credit-card debt alone. Then, the environment was relatively pristine, natural resources were abundant, and the U.S. produced more oil than it used. Today, perils like global warming and dependence on imported oil threaten to undermine economic progress. And in the 1930s, U.S. military spending amounted to 5 percent of the world's total. Now, it's 45 percent.
Meanwhile, for the past few years, something extraordinary has been happening at the North Pole. For an increasing number of weeks each summer, the Arctic ice pack has melted sufficiently that it has become briefly possible for a ship to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific without going through the Panama Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope. This has never happened before, in all of recorded human history. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now the highest in three million years. These trends foretell a future of melting glaciers, acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, disappearing species, and a severely unstable climate -- all of which will put additional stress on an already beleaguered world economy.
Can a world that has plunged into harsh and uncertain financial times find a way to switch from fossil to renewable fuels? Can a society that is standing on unstable fiscal footing manage to halt the deterioration of the environment? If not, will we come to liquidate the planet's ecological assets? And what will be the economic consequences?
Just about everyone at every level of monetary existence is impacted. In 2007, Forbes named Adolf Merckle as one of the 50 richest billionaires in the world, with a fortune of nearly $13 billion "and growing." He and his family owned many businesses, including Germany's largest pharmaceutical wholesaler (Phoenix Pharmahandel), one of the country's major generic drug manufacturers (Ratiopharm), and large parts of a cement company (Heidelberg Cement) and a vehicle manufacturer (Kassbohrer). You would think that a man of that immense wealth could withstand the current crisis. But in January 2009, Adolf Merckle threw himself in front of a train, committing suicide, utterly despondent over the extent of his financial losses.
The anguish is palpable. The uncertainties in our financial system have produced a crisis of confidence at every level. Is there any way that this fiscal predicament, as disorienting and devastating as it is, could also serve a positive and benign purpose? Is there any path by which we could experience what has become a cascade of grievous economic events not as victims, but with clear intentions, wise actions and fulfilling outcomes? Has there ever been a moment with a greater need to become more intelligent and more conscious in our relationship to money?
Some of us experience economic hard times as frightening and malevolent. But I think there is a genuine alternative. The challenges we face truly do have another potential. We can experience them, with all their very real hardships, in a way that brings out the best in us, but in order for that to happen, we must transform our entire relationship to money. And that is the point and purpose of this book. I want to help you achieve financial freedom, even within a profoundly unstable economy and a world too often succumbing to fear.
We all know the colossal importance we have come to attach to our economic status. Regardless of whether we are rich or poor, it's hard to exaggerate the role that money plays in our lives. Is there any area of life it doesn't touch? The foods we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we live, the kinds of work we do, the futures we dream, whether we marry or not, whether we have children or not, even who we love -- these are all affected by how we relate to the money in our lives.
I have a dear friend with whom I've become very close in recent years. He and I talk about almost everything. We confide in each other to such an extent that we even know details of each other's sexual history and experiences. But I've noticed something. Even with all that we have shared, even with all the comfort we've created together, he isn't able to talk freely and openly about money.
Recently, when I asked him why, he said it's because talking about money makes him feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. In this, I don't think my friend is at all unique. Money issues seem uniquely capable of triggering our attachments, hopes and aversions, and of bringing up feelings we are uncomfortable with such as fear, envy and shame. When it comes to money, otherwise kind and sensible people sometimes become fearful and crazy.
Here's what I hope to convey in this book:
However much money you have or don't have, your relationship to the money in your life can be transformational. It can be a doorway into greater consciousness, into greater integrity, and into greater freedom.
And one more thing. I do not say this glibly. I say this in all humility and in all seriousness. It's obvious that there are limitations and restrictions that come with having financial challenges. What is not so obvious, and what is crucial to realize, is that there are also opportunities, openings and possibilities.
This book is about your relationship to money. However much money you have or don't have, it's about finding a new freedom, a new truth and a new joy in your relationship to it. It is a guide to developing a relationship to money that is fulfilling, that is sane and wise, that enables you to thrive ongoingly, and that connects you to your powers of renewal and creativity.
As I've realized how hard it is for most of us to talk openly and freely about money, I've come to understand that there is profound human treasure hidden in the darkness. By shedding light on an area of our lives that has so much importance and yet can be so delicate and sensitive, we can find new possibilities for healing. We can become more able to make conscious and fulfilling choices around money. We can become better able to align our money decisions with our deepest core values and our highest commitments.
The goal, and it's a far more reachable one than most of us realize, is financial freedom. We tend to think that only if we have vast sums of money can we be financially free. But becoming financially free, as we shall see, is not determined by the amount of money you make. Part of accomplishing financial freedom is what I call "the new frugality." This isn't your grandmother's frugality. This isn't about deprivation. It's about choice and self-determination. Have you noticed that when you feel deprived, you don't stay on track? That's true about budgets, diets, and anywhere else we want to make changes. This book isn't about self-denial. You don't have to move into an apartment the size of a prison cell, clip coupons and eat nothing but canned beans for every meal. Quite to the contrary, the new frugality can be an adventure and a great deal of fun.
It's a game, really. The object of the game is to see how much you can lower your spending while raising your quality of life.
I will show you how radical and energizing it can be to play this game, instead of playing the game most people play. Our consumer society wants you to play the "you are what you buy" game. Our consumer society tells you it is your patriotic duty to go to the mall even if you have to go into credit card debt. Remarkably, this was President George W. Bush's advice to the country after the devastating terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001: "Go shopping." Deep down, we all knew that this advice was wrong, and would ultimately not address our needs for healing or for community.
We've all seen bumper stickers that say: "He who dies with the most toys wins." That's the old game, that's the old way of defining success; that's the old "good life." In the new good life, the point is not to have the most toys, but the most joys.
The new way of defining success is liberating. Now you're playing a game that lowers your cost of living and protects you from being exploited. Now you're playing a game that is good for your spirit, that is healthy for your relationships, that is in service to the wider earth community -- and that is crucial for your financial sanity.
This game isn't about denying your pleasures. It's about plugging the money leaks that you may have only been dimly aware of, but which have been draining you. Some of us buy rich and expensive foods and then pay for costly health care to deal with the problems that come from overeating. Some of us buy things we don't need and then pay for larger residences or storage space to house the things we have accumulated. This book will help you to identify where your spending patterns are inconsistent with your life's greater fulfillment. It's about the joy of living with a purpose larger than consumption. It's about living less from image, and more from the creative spark of your own spirit. It's about expanding the love and laughter in your home rather than increasing the square footage of your home.
The point of this game is to achieve an overflowing life, a generous life, an exciting life, a joyful life, while spending less. The rationale behind the new frugality is not to become a miser (the word "miser" comes from the same root as the word "miserable"). The goal is to live better for less. The point is to have less stress in your life and more true wealth.
This isn't achieved by depriving yourself. It's accomplished by spending your money with a clarity of purpose. When you eliminate wasteful spending in every area of your financial life, you can focus your spending on what you really care about. Your spending can become more intelligent and more productive. And when you stop scrambling to earn money to pay for stuff that doesn't really make your life better, you have more time for the things that matter most to you.
I believe there is a hidden blessing in the economic crisis, in the necessary return to reality from a make-waste society. Many of us know, at some level, that we have become caught up in something deeply out of balance, that we are going way too fast, that we are speeding past too many of the things and moments that could really matter. Many of us sense that life is too precious and too precarious to live the way we are living. This book will help you to prosper in times of economic distress, and also to appreciate the sometimes bitter medicine that our society needs in order to regain its soul.