I’m currently doing a course with Charles Eisenstein called Living in the Gift, and this week he is challenging our assumptions about greed.
As humans, we have a tendency to complain about the way the world is and blame it on other people. One type of person things are often blamed on is greedy people. Corrupt politicians, polluters who care more about money than the environment and corporate executives who take all the profits for themselves and pay their workers as little as possible.
What is often missing in these discussions, argues Eisenstein, is questioning what the root cause of greed is.
He says it is scarcity.
Imagine if we were in an orchard that was abundant in apples and we all enjoyed eating them. It would be ridiculous to hoard them and try to keep apples for ourselves, because there would be plenty to go around.
Greed is stupid if there is abundance. It arises in our society because there is a reality and a perception of scarcity. So why is there scarcity?
The irony is that we live in a world with the potential for abundance. But our society maintains artificial scarcity of nearly everything that makes life rich.
For example, there is a scarcity of time, community, nature, silence, beauty, touch, money, space, intimacy, attention, darkness, love, land, water, leisure time, meaningful work, health, medicine, energy, play and security.
The New Age explanation for this scarcity is that it is caused by our limiting beliefs, and if we can train ourselves to see the world as abundant using mantras and meditation, we will no longer feel this scarcity. But the reality is that there are also very real social conditions that create scarcity.
This artificial scarcity is hard to see because it stands alongside obscene over-abundance.
There’s a lack of community alongside endless social media. Droughts alongside floods. Poverty alongside record billionaires. A lack of intimacy in a sea of pornography. A lack of meaningful work alongside an abundance of degrading jobs. A lack of nutritional food while empty calories are readily available.
Here are some other examples of scarcity.
50% of food is wasted. And at the same time, 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford to eat, which is equivalent to the population of London. I recently walked past a church that was advertising both a food bank and a weight loss group.
Crisis recently estimated that there are around 200,000 homeless people in Britain. And government figures estimate there are 268,385 vacant homes in England, empty for more than six months. In the UK, rising house prices have made buying a home increasingly unaffordable for first-time buyers, and Londoners spend almost half their income on rent.
Why is it that the modern built environment is almost universally ugly? After 5,000 years of architectural development, how have we ended up with so many soulless offices, apartment blocks and giant shops in boxes?
One of the key characteristics of our society is how busy and over-stretched everyone is.
It’s ironic that with all our labour-saving gadgets and attempts to become more efficient and productive, we experience less leisure time than hunter-gatherers did. If you go to less developed countries, people seem to be less busy, despite not having all the technology that is supposed to save us time.
All of the forms of scarcity I mentioned above correspond to human needs that our society fails to meet consistently, offering inadequate substitutes instead.
Greed as addiction
Greed is therefore a form of addiction: a futile attempt to meet a need using something that fundamentally does not and can never meet it. No amount of money is going to meet your need for community. No amount of food will meet your need for intimacy. No amount of alcohol will change the conditions that make it hurt just to be alive.
How do I really meet my needs?
This makes me feel indignant and think that it’s not supposed to be this way; that another world is possible. I feel angry at the oppression, the persecution, the unfairness. But I also feel committed to remembering that it is not the fault of one person or one group of people. These are the conditions that we live in, and for them to change, we need to make them conscious and trust that it is possible to live in a different way.
I have found that just being aware of and articulating my unmet needs has helped me find ways of meeting them. So, next time you find yourself craving more and more of something that never seems to satisfy you, try pausing, feeling the craving inside your body, and asking yourself, ‘What is the deeper need here?’
Maybe if you connect to what the real need is, it might be more possible to meet it than you think.