Donald Trump, you can kiss my… Wait. Sorry, let me begin again…
Okay, here’s something that I think is really cool. A couple of countries have begun measuring their prosperity not by GNP, or GDP, but by GNH. That’s Gross National Happiness. What a cool idea! At the moment, as far as I know, only the tiny nation of Bhutan has formally adopted GNH as an index of national well-being, reflecting the country’s commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Still, several other countries have “informally” adopted the GNH as a measure of the nation’s mental and emotional health.
But you can divide it down even more. What about GCH (Gross Community Happiness), GFH (Gross Family Happiness) or even GPH (Gross Personal Happiness)?
Ancillary question: Where does real wealth lie?
Almost all of the money in circulation doesn’t really exist. It’s a fantasy, conjured into existence by the credit system. Friend and author Mike Nickerson is fond of telling the following parable: four cowboys walk into a bar—yeah, sounds like a joke already, doesn’t it?—and ask for whiskey and some cards so they can play poker. The barkeep says, “Okay, you can have this deck of cards, but you have to give me something in return. I’ll loan each of you thirteen cards (one quarter of the deck), and you give me your saddles as collateral. And when you’re done, I’ll expect fourteen cards from each of you, the extra card as interest on the loan.” Well, it’s pretty obvious that someone is going to lose a saddle before the day’s out. That, writ small, is a good metaphor for the credit system.
Money is something that, let’s be honest, has no intrinsic value. It’s entirely based on the value we impose upon it. There was a time when it did have its own value, the salt that was allegedly used to pay Roman soldiers, gold and silver coins (a grey area: precious metals are precious because of their scarcity, but again, it’s at least partly an imposed value.)
But money, that folding stuff we put in our wallets is increasingly being replaced by currency that doesn’t even have a physical existence. It’s no longer coins and bills, almost all of it is now bytes in digital memory. (Does this strike anyone else as horrifyingly precarious? In the summer of 2003, the power grid failed all over eastern North America for several days. Only some months later was it revealed that, by the time power was restored, the American financial system was on the very brink, perhaps only hours away, from catastrophic collapse.)
So what about now? What in our lives has real, lasting, uncontestable value—or, in the jargon of the burgeoning alternative economy: physical equity?
A lot of alternative economy writings out there advocate dumping your RRSPs, your stocks and bonds, your commodities futures and so forth and putting the money into something tangible that can help you thrive if/when things get shaky: things like gardens, backyard chickens, a wood-stove, solar panels, solar ovens, solar hot water, cob ovens, rainwater harvesting systems, etc. as well as skill-building, such as woodworking and carpentry, canning and preserving, soap-making, knitting and sewing, weaving and spinning, gardening and animal husbandry, Permaculture, beer and wine-making… and so on.
All good ideas. But, I submit that the most valuable thing, the most valuable physical equity we can build, and our most valuable asset, is community. And therein—to answer my own question of several paragraphs ago—lies real wealth, in my humble opinion. Wealth that isn’t based in imposed value, that isn’t situational or arbitrary, but wealth that is real, lasting, and universal.
Bear in mind that community was arguably, for many thousands of years, our most valuable commodity as a people. It’s what kept us from going extinct, really. God knows, as a species we’re not particularly suited to survival. We don’t have sharp teeth or claws, we don’t have camouflage and we don’t hide particularly well, we can’t run very fast, and we can’t even survive in an environment that’s too far off from what we now call “room temperature” without some sort of artificial covering, or at least a fire to warm up with. Most large predators would have a pretty easy time of us. “Oooh! Smorgasbord!” they would think.
It’s only by banding together for mutual protection and sharing of the tasks of staying alive that we were able to avoid extinction and, after a time, prosper.
Part of what cemented communities together was oral history. Before there was writing, and certainly before Gutenberg’s movable type, almost all information of consequence was passed on verbally. Stories, legends, parables, ideas, innovations, skills and crafts, information about herd movements and predators, edible plants, herbs and medicine, and a myriad of other stuff, all passed down, generation to generation, by talking.
It’s only in the past couple of hundred years that we’ve come to the (woefully mistaken, in my humble opinion) belief that we’ve outgrown the necessities of building strong community. It’s kind of a mental aberration, I think. A sort of temporary collective delusion. And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that lately we’ve been doing a lot less talking, of the face-to-face variety. More texting, more emailing, more Skyping, more Facebooking, sure. But less real, honest, person-to-person conversation.
This renunciation of what is essentially our collective birthright is very much corporate media-driven. We’re more likely to seek the comfort of commerce if that essential comfort is less readily available elsewhere: by shopping and acquiring stuff, and in the process pumping money into the corporate economy.
But, things are changing, and the pendulum may have reached the top of its arc and is now swinging back. People are beginning to re-awaken to the awareness that stuff and the acquisition of stuff—consumerism in other words—is a false comfort. We’re re-awakening to the understanding that we really haven’t outgrown anything, least of all our need for community, nor do we need to outgrow it. We’re seeing more clearly what is truly enriching to our lives. We’re starting to talk more, too. In short we are, I think, starting to come to our senses.
The other day, prompted by who knows what impulse, I decided to count the people in my life that I reckon among my valued friends: old friends I’ve known for years, newer friends I’ve made through Transition Guelph and our many partner organizations, friends I’ve made through playing music, neighbours who’ve become friends, and of course, family. I did this very much in the spirit of “counting my blessings” because, to extend the point of this essay, I see my friends, the people I care about in my life, very much as blessings. (In case you’re interested, the somewhat arbitrary criterion I applied was as follows: if I met this person on the street, would we give each other hugs? If so, they went on the list. That doesn’t necessarily imply that we’re close friends, but it does mean that there’s mutual affection and respect, and that we appreciate each other’s presence.)
Anyway, it came to well over 200 people. This is pretty remarkable for someone who, until maybe 10 years ago, could count her close friends using her digits, and not have to get to the toes.
So if we ever do measure wealth by the extent of one’s own community, I’ll be pretty damn wealthy.
But hell. I don’t need to wait until we do. I already feel rich beyond belief.