In today’s world, where even just getting one’s basic needs met and bills paid can be incredibly expensive, it might seem like non-accumulation is not a feasible way of life. But that isn’t necessarily the case.
By non-accumulation I don’t mean having literally zero money, zero possessions (though some people do it this way). I just mean deliberately only keeping just the amount of stuff and money one needs, and giving any surplus back to the land and community. This can include setting limits on how much money you earn.
These numbers and values will differ from person to person, and at different times and phases of our lives. None of what I’m setting forth here (or in any of my other writings/platforms) is meant to shame anyone for having, and satisfying, wants and needs that go beyond a bare minimum. I myself have, and satisfy, wants and needs that go beyond the bare minimum. Rather, for most of us who choose it, I see non-accumulation as a path or process.
I started down this path awhile back, and felt a bit like a maverick and like I’d best stay “in the closet” about it. In a society where whole industries are dedicated to frightening or shaming people into hoarding massive amounts of stuff and money (for “retirement”; in case of illness or needing longterm care etc.), going against the current can feel dangerous. Dangerous socially and emotionally as well as materially.
But I’ve learned actually that lots of people are in fact practicing non-accumulation. So if you’re doing it or interested in looking into it, you’ve got lots of good company. I’m compiling some resources for you and will put them in the links area below.
A bit of my story … (This is actually ending up being kind of long & rambling and is not even finished yet. Unless you have some extra time and patience and/or curiosity today, you might want to just go ahead and scroll right down to the Further Reading links; I’ve shared some really great stuff there!)
All of my life really, I have been doggedly determined to work at the occupations I want to work at. “Creative and occupational freedom,” I call it. This doesn’t mean I have always been able to pay the bills by only ever doing work I love. But over the years, I have reduced to a minimum, and eventually to zero, any work other than work I love / my mission in the world.
What has helped me, other than sheer stubborn diehard determination to avoid excess work, soul-sucking toil, and meaningless work, is my ability and/or willingness to ruthlessly reduce my overhead expenses. I have always found it so worth the effort.
(I need to interject here: Just about any job or any type of work can be rewarding, joyful; a ministry. What’s problematic is if we’re being pressed to do a kind of work that doesn’t align with our moral values or purpose, or being forced to work inordinately long hours just to get one’s basic needs met, or being forced to work in a toxic environment.)
And only during some relatively brief periods of my life, when I experienced deep poverty in a non-voluntary form, have I had to do without anything that really mattered to me in life. During my “involuntary deep poverty” phases, I was neglecting my health, barely keeping a roof over my head, and sometimes going hungry. Obviously that level of “doing without” wasn’t good. Despite the physical hardship, this phase taught me an immensely valuable lesson: That the worst thing about having no money wasn’t having no money per se; the worst thing was the shame: feeling like I had to hide my status from loved ones, out of fear that they would be ashamed of me and angry with me for making bad choices and squandering opportunities.
From that low point I eventually realized that I was buying into societal beliefs that were nonsense. I realized that I had not, in fact, made “bad choices” or squandered opportunities. And I was not selfish or spoiled for believing in my work and being determined to find ways to keep doing it.
OK, so to try to make a long story less long … Over the years I have come to realize I need to be more, not less, determined to stick to my moral and spiritual values. For awhile, I thought maybe compromise was the answer. It was not. I only ended up living some half-assed caricature of a “respectable middle-class person.” The source of my suffering during my “involuntary poverty” phase wasn’t not having money; it was second-guessing my lifelong sense of purpose; not believing in myself.
On the topic of self-worth and not having money: At one point around late 2011, I had literally zero money for a couple of weeks. Actually my bank balance was minus 25 cents, I think. At the same time, I had $6,000 credit-card debt (from a business venture that didn’t end up panning out but was still worth doing). My feeling at that time was, “Wow, $6,000. My entire life isn’t worth $6,000! To the world or to anyone in it! And nothing I can foresee doing will ever be worth $6,000, to the world or to anyone in it.”
This line of thinking was directly counter to one of my core spiritual beliefs, that every being has inherent worth and dignity. But I still felt how I felt.
The way I got out of that hole was (in a micro-nutshell) by relaxing my self-judgment; forgiving myself for some stuff I shouldn’t have been mad at myself for in the first place. But that’s a story for another time. To get to the center of this story I’m sharing right now, I have to backtrack a few years.
Back in 2006, I spent six months taking an extended permaculture design curriculum and internship at an eco school up in New Mexico. (I was living in Texas at the time.)
One of my favorite things about my time there was the school library, a compact treasure-house of books on all aspects of sustainable living, sustainable civilization. A lot of the stuff only existed on paper and I’ve never been able to find it online. One such reading was an essay by the school’s late founder, an anthropologist, who described her long-ago experience living among people of a South Sea island culture. What impressed me and stuck with me was how their economy worked. There was no way to store food; no banks for storing money. So, the way to be rich was by giving away your surplus. Surplus fish, whatever. The more you gave away, the richer you were in the community. People fell over themselves trying to give stuff away. There was no official system of debt, but the more you gave away, the more people felt indebted to you. You built up a “debt” of gratitude. What we in permaculture call “social capital.” It sounded really cool and amazing to me, and I wanted to live my life this way but it didn’t seem feasible in mainstream USA culture.
Since that time, I’ve learned that many traditional cultures worked pretty much that way. “I store meat in the belly of my brother,” one Amazonian tribe member told an anthropologist who asked him how/where he stored the meat he couldn’t eat right away.
Since that time, also, I have met people who, although living in the USA, are living some version of this, as I myself have come to do.
One fellow permaculturist only keeps a very small bank account of maybe a couple hundred or few hundred dollars; he constantly has his money out in his community in zero-interest micro-loans. He owns land but he shares it extensively with his communities.
Another fellow permaculturist is nomadic but always has places where people want him to come stay and teach. He earns money but gives away whatever he doesn’t need.
I myself have chosen to “own” a house, right now at least. (I bought the house in 2018 with money inherited when my Mom passed. Most of the money was in the form of mutual funds. I immediately took the money out of Wall Street and used most of it to buy my house. Most of the rest, I have invested in my business, or tithed to my community in various ways. Full disclosure, I did spend $5,000 on a brand-new Honda Rebel 300 motorcycle. I’m also a part “owner” of a permaculture farm but am not seeking any financial return on that. I have some money left over still, and feel a duty to use this money wisely and carefully — for the planet; out of respect for my parents; out of care for future generations; out of care for current generations who are struggling. Some years back, I came to a point of being adamantly against “making money off of money”; I only want to make money from my own direct work. I have a combination of hand-work and brain-work that I plan to take me into old age right up til it’s my time to die.)
The thing that makes “owning” a home work for me (spiritually, emotionally, and materially) is that I share it with other people, and have a strong intention to make a secure joyful home for people, and keep the rent low to just meet basic expenses of the house.
But: A person can have quite a huge house, and live alone, and have a lot of stuff, and still be practicing nonaccumulation; radical sharing. There’s no cookie-cutter formula.
Other things I’ve noticed that have influenced me: I personally have known several millionaires. They were more scared about money and retirement and old age and longterm care and stuff of that sort, than people I know who have no money, no health insurance, no retirement fund etc. This is not to say that people shouldn’t desire to have material comfort. build security and peace of mind; just that money doesn’t seem to give it and can sometimes even undermine it.
To be continued, more later.
• Sacred Economics: Chapter 19, Nonaccumulation (Pt. 20) (Charles Eisenstein; published on realitysandwich.com). “I have in this book articulated a conception of wealth as flow rather than accumulation. … Generally speaking, natural systems are
characterized by resource flow, not accumulation. … An important theme in all my work is the integration of hunter-gatherer attitudes into technological society — a completion and not a transcendence of the past. I have already laid out in this book the monetary equivalent of nonaccumulation (decayingcurrency), of nonownership (elimination of economic rents), and ofunderproduction (leisure and degrowth). Tellingly, many people feel a pull toward these values on a personal level too, such as in the movement toward ‘voluntary simplicity’ and in questioning the nature of work. Ahead of their time, these people have pioneered a new and ancient way of being that will soon become the norm. Bill Kauth, founder of the Sacred Warriors and other organizations, is an internationally known social inventor and a rich man, though not in any conventional sense. He owns very little: an old car, some personal possessions, as far as I know no financial assets. Many years ago, he tells me, he took a personal vow he calls ‘income topping,’ pledging never to earn more than $24,000 in a year. And yet, he says,’I have eaten in some of the world’s best restaurants, traveled to many of the earth’s beautiful places, had an incredibly rich life.'”
• Sacred Economics: Chapter 20, Right Livelihood and Sacred Investing (Part 21). “What I am going to describe is far more radical than “socially conscious investing” or “ethical investing.” While these ideas are steps in the right direction, they harbor an internal contradiction. By seeking a positive financial return, they perpetuate the conversion of the world into money. … I am not advocating an age of altruism in which we forgo personal benefit for the common good. I foresee, rather, a fusion of personal benefit and common good. For example, when I give money to people in my community, I create feelings of gratitude that might motivate a return gift to me or an onward gift to someone else. Either way, I have strengthened the community that sustains me. When we are embedded in gift community, we naturally direct our gratitude not only towardthe proximate giver but toward the community as a whole, and we take care of its neediest members (gifts seek needs). Our desire to give may very well express itself as a gift to someone in the community who has given us nothing herself. Therefore, we can see any gift, even one without expectation of direct return, as a form of ‘investment.’ We are still taking naked money and, if it is a good investment, clothing it in something fine.”
• And here is the Sacred Economics homepage on Reality Sandwich, where Eisenstein has posted his whole book chapter by chapter.