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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #59, 1/2/2007

Wasting Resources

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

The world is overwhelmed by senseless suffering and the waste of human lives. You don't have to go to Somalia to find it. The tragedy is all around us, but we usually refuse to see it. The majority of children, coming into the world with great promise, are scarred and twisted by their dysfunctional families and become troubled adults. Most adults, in turn, face a brutal world that gives them little leniency or support in times of need.

If you are rich, healthy and self-sufficient, then you will probably do fine in our society. If you happen to be needy, then you are going to be shut out. No one wants to know about desperate people, because it disturbs their own happy delusions. Need is usually acknowledged only when it is far away, in Somalia or a neighborhood we don't live in, not when it is right in front of us. When strong emotions start swirling too close to us, like a divorce or financial hardship in the house next door, then we tend to shut down and pull away. We would rather give money to an anonymous charity than deal with real suffering close to home.

When someone asks us, "How are you today?" we all know that the only answer is: "Fine, thanks!" It is the only response most people are really prepared to hear.

All of us have experienced neediness, emotionally if not financially. We know what is it like to be alone and suffering. As soon as we are not suffering, however, we tend to forget it happened. We start spinning a cocoon for ourselves so we don't have to see the pain of others. We move to a rich neighborhood and stop interacting with people who are still struggling. Blocking out all negative messages, we start believing that the world is a happy place, like Disneyland.

That when we start committing atrocities: terrible, obscene things that are a slap across the face to anyone in need.

We start wasting resources.

We don't just need a car; we need a special kind of car that tells the world how important we are. We don't just need clothes to keep us warm; we need to make an expensive fashion statement. The more money and time we have, the more of them we tend to squander on things we don't really need. These acquisitions, in turn, require more resources for maintenance. If you buy a pony for your daughter, then you need hay to feed it, a stable to keep it in and a field to run it on. With your pets, your cars, your art objects and your real estate, your life soon becomes this huge, unwieldy bureaucracy that sucks up all the resources you can give and produces nothing in return.

You pass someone on the street, and you say, "How are you today?" and they reply, "Fine, thanks!" but they're not really fine. They are hurting, but they know that they are not allowed to say it. If they stopped and began telling you exactly what was troubling them, they know you would pull away. Even though you asked, you don't really want to know about their problems. You only posed the question to get an affirmative answer.

"Fine, thanks!" gives you permission to keep doing what you are doing, because you asked the world if it was okay, and it reassured you that it was. Any stream of information that comes into your protected universe is designed to do the same: reassure you that things are just fine. Television does this. It tells you that the world is a happy place as long as you buy the right products. There are occasional disturbing news stories, but they are always about things that are far away—in Somalia or some vague place on the other side of town, not about us.

Even when television tells us exactly where a tragedy happened and to whom, it is not something personal to the television viewer. He does not feel implicated in the problems in the news, any more than any other TV show. He may be outraged, but rarely to the point of action. All that is missing from his life, he thinks, are certain things that the ads tell him he needs. He thinks he needs a new sports car or a new entertainment system or a tropical cruise. Those things, he believes, will solve the problems of his universe.

He believes that he "deserves" to waste resources because he earned them. Maybe he runs a company that builds the products that exploit the weak and vulnerable. If he wasn't "worth it," he figures, then he wouldn't be paid so much, and because he is worth it he deserves to waste it.

Everyone needs food, shelter and clothing. Healthy food is more than bread and water, but it isn't caviar and chocolate. There is a healthy middle ground between being malnourished and being obese.

Obesity isn't limited to food. It is also a quality of ones possessions, activities, data input and fantasies. As a television watcher or home owner, one can be obese without being overweight. One can even be an obese health and fitness enthusiast, with a perfectly tuned body that is used for nothing. Obesity happens whenever someone has more resources than they need and instead of directing them outward to address the needs of others, chooses to turn them inward toward some self-indulgent goal. The needy are not helped by this, of course, but the one who is hurt the most is the obese person himself, whose freedom and creativity are swallowed up by his own gluttony.

Some neighborhoods, in the suburbs of any big city, are pure obesity. Each home is, literally, a castle, with remarkably little happening inside it. Little more is accomplished in a 5000-square-foot mansion that can be done in a 10x10 foot cubicle. Most of the mansion is dead space that serves as nothing more than a fashion statement. The mansion says, "You see how much money I can afford to waste!"

There is nothing sinful about having resources, only wasting them. It is okay to take a boat ride if it teaches you something, but it is usually wrong to buy a pleasure boat, no matter how rich you may be. If you do, then you put yourself in the potential position of having to explain to some disadvantaged person, "I know you're having trouble putting food on the table, but I'm buying this $100,000 trinket because I'm worth it."

If you don't buy the boat, then you don't have to feel immediately accountable to the needy of the world. Having $100,000 in the bank doesn't create the same sort of moral vulnerability as using it frivolously. The money in the bank is simply a preserved asset, which could be used for some greater good later on.

Having extra assets means that you can start doing things because they are meaningful and important, not because they serve a Capitalist agenda. It is a privilege and a sacred trust to be blessed these assets, and they need to be used wisely. Even if you are surrounded by food, money and time, this is no excuse for gluttony. You merely have a bankroll for some new project, along with a new set of responsibilities that go with it.

As long as you are struggling to survive, then you don't need to feel responsible for the problems of the world. Once you have assets, however, then you also gain obligations. You can no longer say that you can't afford to help. Blowing your money on something frivolous provides no excuse. It only laughs in the face of those who are still struggling.

If you are using your assets well, then nothing is wasted. You can be comfortable, but there should be nothing about your life that someone can point to and say, "Isn't that disgusting!" The food you eat when making $2,000,000 a year should be about the same as what you were eating when you made $20,000. Having more resources can expand your options, but it doesn't change the basic requirements of life.

Living with grace requires respect for your resources. If you have seem to have too many of them, it is a delusion. Beneath it all, you are still a naked, vulnerable, unfulfilled human who is going to die pretty soon, and nothing you surround yourself with is going to change that.


Reader Comments

“A scholar of Thoreau, I see. And although you mentioned it, the real NEED in front of our faces is never fulfilled by the the resosurces that are things. The true NEEDs are time and relationships - neither of which we can throw "things" at and fulfill. What many people perceive as needs are artificial - created by advertisers.” — 1/3/07 (rating=4)

“great ^^ i admire those who have the guts to publish these kind of things.” — 8/7/07 (rating=5)

“This essay was well written and had alot of emotion and passion behind it.” —Anonymous. 4/27/10 (rating=4)

Ratings so far: 4 4 5 5 3 4 (Average=4.1)

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