Friday, September 5, 2008

Affluence

APLS stands for “Affluent People Living Sustainably.” The part of this acronym that consistently makes people cringe and consider opting out is the “A” for Affluent. Some may confess that they haven’t reached a totally sustainable lifestyle yet, and are still working towards it (which is true for almost all of us, by the way!) but nearly everyone protests at the use of the word affluent. “I’m not affluent” is very often the immediate reaction. Dictionary.com gives the following definition of the word: “having an abundance of wealth, property, or other material goods; prosperous; rich.” Within the context of one’s town, state, or even country, many of us could rightly claim that, relatively speaking, we are not affluent. As APLS, however, we recognize that a global perspective is crucial to healing the problems faced by our world today, like climate change. Taken from a global perspective then, there are very few people living in the industrialized world who are not affluent. Assume for a moment that you make $6 an hour. This is certainly not enough money to be considered affluent by US standards. But when looked at from the global point of view, that income still would place you in the top 12.88% of the world’s wealthiest people. Check out the globalrichlist and play around with the numbers. It’s scary and interesting at the same time. Let’s skip past the “wealth and property” section of the definition of affluence for a moment, and focus on the other aspects, which include having an abundance of other material goods. Most of us in this country, regardless of how small our incomes, have enough money to own more than one pair of pants, and more than one shirt. If we were honest about it, most of us probably own more shirts than we can readily list. We therefore have an abundance of clothing. Most of us also own many other material goods. For example, I don’t eat my dinner on the floor, because I have a table to sit at, and chairs to sit in. I eat baked items when I want to because I have an oven to cook my food in. I am entertained at the push of a button because I have a television. None of these items are markers of affluence in North American society, where I live, but they certainly would be in many parts of the world. Any travel to parts of the globe that are still industrializing quickly reveals that there are many, many, many, people today living without a change of clothes, even while the ones they are wearing are dirty and torn. Countless people live in shacks and huts that are too small to contain a kitchen table or chairs. Even if they somehow made space for an oven, electricity is not reliable and fuel is too expensive to run such luxury appliances. Even as communities, we are wealthy. We have no shortage of hospitals, schools, roads, police, fire departments, safe drinking water, and on and on. It seems hard, then, when we really consider our fortune compared to the rest of the world, to claim we are not affluent. Even those of us who are voluntarily leading simpler lives are still affluent in the global context. Yet there does seem to be some resistance still to this word. Is it a collective guilt? Does the idea of our being affluent somehow run counter to the ideals we thought we adhered to and lived by? Are we worried that assuming this label puts us in the company of people like Imelda Marcos and Kenneth Lay? If that’s the concern, it seems a bit unfounded. We don’t live in a black and white world. There are a million shades of color. Just because we aren’t Bill Gates doesn’t mean we aren’t wealthy. If we have a change of clothes, or a car, television, refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, dvd player, or computer, we are affluent compared to most of the world. To deny that in some ways takes away from the experience of the person who truly does live in poverty. Living on very little money in an industrialized country is not really comparable to being poor in Sub-Saharan Africa, or southeast Asia, or many other places around the world. As APLS, what we must come to terms with is not whether or not we are affluent, but how to deal with our affluence. And that is the power of this community. With affluence comes choice – the choice to live sustainably or not. Looked at another way, if you are choosing to live sustainably, you are privileged in a way that many in the world are not. We are the privileged few in this world who can afford to live unsustainably. Yet we are choosing not to. Rather than deny our privilege, we must accept the responsibility to live our lives in the most sustainable manner possible, and to encourage others to do so as well, in whatever way is comfortable for each of us. What most of us are finding is that we are even more affluent than we thought after making the choice to live as sustainably as we can. Because the realization that we all keep coming to is that more money doesn't make us feel any wealthier, for the most part. A more sustainable lifestyle, however, frees us from the burdens of material things and allows us to spend more time having experiences and being with people rather taking care of things and acquiring new things. More sustainable means more living - and that makes us feel privileged beyond belief.

6 comments:

Joyce said...

Thanks, Melissa; what a good post! The idea of choice is something I think about a lot. Not just about living sustainably, but also being able to choose how to spend my time, where to live, what I want to eat for dinner, etc. Our affluence does give us a lot of freedom, as long as we don't get so focused on getting and keeping more and more stuff.

Jen said...

Isn't it funny how hard it is to come to terms with being affluent? I think it's one of the biggest obstacles to the sustainability movement--until people can recognize how much they (we, I) have, it will always seem unfair/too hard to not acquire even more affluence.
This is such an important thing, this global perspective and redefining affluence. You've nailed it.

Deb said...

So happy to hear from you - I have missed you. This is a well-written post with many ideas which I need to digest and reflect on. I find it interesting how a single word can cause so much 'controversy' and conversation. A word that has the power to make people feel uncomfortable and causes them to whisper it, and even deny it. And maybe through conversations such as this we are one step closer to making change.

Mary Ann said...

Wonderful post. If you don't mind, I'll be mentioning your post today in the Frugal Living Blog at Families.com

Melissa said...

Joyce, you're right, we need to make sure we use what we have to our advantage and not let it take over our lives!

Jen, thanks! I think it's interesting how hard people really fight the application of the word to their situation. But at least we're having the conversation!

Deb, there is no shortage of controversy on this one! But I'm glad I've made you exercise your brain :)

Mary-Ann, thanks! I'm happy to have you mention the post!

Green Bean said...

Very thoughtful post, Melissa. I never thought about it but our refusal to acknowledge our own affluence is actually an insult, in a manner of speaking, to those who are truly without. We really cannot compare to how others in less privileged countries live and it can be no doubt that those people look at us as see affluence.