In the grand scheme of history, it hasn’t been that long that human beings have had ways to store wealth. The relatively recent innovations of refrigeration, banks, and other vessels for storing surplus have made life easier in a tangible way. After all, what would we modern industrialized humans do if refrigeration didn’t exist? We’d have to grocery shop every day. And if there were no banks or other investment vehicles, where and how would we store our money? A cushion of surplus tides us over in lean times.
But the dark side of storage is hoarding, and hoarding actually fuels scarcity.
A few years back, I read an article about a Pacific Island culture that had no access to wealth storage. I read it in print, copied from somewhere on stapled-together paper; have never been able to find online. Wish I could; it was a great article. It was by an philanthropist and activist named Fiz Harwood, who founded a now-defunct eco school back in the 1990s.
Long story short, a person’s wealth and status was determined not by how much they accumulated (because there was really no way to accumulate stuff), but rather, by how much they gave away. So a person who caught a big fish and shared it was wealthy. People would constantly try and outdo each other in sharing their surplus, and that was the engine that made the economy go ’round.
Reading about this mind-set was a profound experience for me. Such a mind-set had quite simply never occurred to me, but the conventional mentality of “saving enough for retirement” wasn’t sitting well with me either. And once I heard about this other way of amassing wealth, I could never forget it. I liked it so much better than the mainstream modern definition of wealth. It seemed not only more humane, but also more robust.
There’s something brittle about considering money and tangible stuff as the only forms of wealth. I’ve done house cleanout jobs at the homes of people who had more stuff than they could use in a lifetime, backup upon backup upon backup, stored for years never even unwrapped — but no people to share life with. Or to help each other; count on each other.
The other day someone on Facebook shared an article that reminded me of that one about the Pacific Island culture that I’d read before. “A hunter had brought home a sizable kill, far too much to be eaten by his family. The researcher asked how he would store the excess. Smoking and drying technologies were well known; storing was possible. The hunter was puzzled by the question—store the meat? Why would he do that? Instead, he sent out an invitation to a feast, and soon the neighboring families were gathered around his fire, until every last morsel was consumed. This seemed like maladaptive behavior to the anthropologist, who asked again: given the uncertainty of meat in the forest, why didn’t he store the meat for himself, which is what the economic system of his home culture would predict. ‘Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother,’ replied the hunter.” (See article link below, in Further Reading section.)
Too many of us are storing meat only in our own pantries and not in the belly of our brother. This is not a moral judgment; it is an observation of a mode of life that does not seem to be working out well for us.
When we live by the amass-and-hoard mentality, no amount of money and stuff is ever enough. The goalposts keep moving.
Does that mean we should keep nothing in reserve, not a thing extra? Not necessarily. It is OK and even reasonable to have a bit of extra food in the cupboard and money saved up if you can manage.
But beyond a certain reasonable amount … money and stuff is a liability. Stuff gets lost; having a large concentration of stuff and money can make you a target; stuff and money itself costs money and energy to maintain and even to keep track of.
And, even though it’s not all as perishable as a fresh-caught fish, our stuff (clothing, extra towels, extra cars and houses, etc.) does decay and dissipate. Even money, which humans invented as a durable and portable storage medium, is not immune to decay and dissipation (for example, when the stock market crashes, or inflation hits).
Also, I don’t know about you but I find it really hard to enjoy surplus money and surplus stuff while knowing there are people out there who don’t even have what they need right now. One way I share my stuff when I don’t want to give it away, is to offer it for communal use among housemates or neighbors.
Which is not to say we should feel obligated to share our stuff with just anyone; I actually feel an obligation to be discerning about who I share with, so as not to squander precious resources. It’s sort of an ongoing dance or balancing act.
“The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Emergence Magazine). “You might rightly observe that we no longer live in small, insular societies, where generosity and mutual esteem structure our relations. But we could. It is within our power to create such webs of interdependence, quite outside the market economy. Intentional communities of mutual self-reliance and reciprocity are the wave of the future, and their currency is sharing. The move toward a local food economy is not just about freshness and food miles and carbon footprints and soil organic matter. It is all of those things, but it’s also about the deeply human desire for connection, to be in reciprocity with the gifts that are given you. The real human needs that such arrangements address are exactly what we long for yet cannot ever purchase: being valued for your own unique gifts, earning the regard of your neighbors for the quality of your character, not the quantity of your possessions; what you give, not what you have.” (Go read the whole article; it’s a real gem. By the way, Kimmerer is also the author of a book I’ve heard several people rave about: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.)