Ordinary Human Poverty

Sharon May 22nd, 2009

Note: This is a rerun, a piece I wrote last fall, at the tail end of high energy prices.  What’s interesting to me is that our collective crisis seems to play out this way no matter what element – financial collapse, energy prices, food crisis…whatever is in ascendence, we end up in the same final outcome.  For me, this is perhaps *the* central notion of my work – if you are prepared to be poor, poor in a sense that most Americans do not know, you will probably get along through the coming crisis.  The problem, of course, is that we’re not prepared.

At one point in his writings, Sigmund Freud (who, btw, was not at all the caricature that many readers imagine him as) wrote about the difference between two states – one of them abnormal, and subject to resolution by the “talking cure,” the other ordinary and not necessarily remediable.  The first he called “neurotic misery,” the other “ordinary human unhappiness.”  His point was that psychoanalysis could only address pathological states, and neither it nor any other solution could preserve us from the ordinary bad experiences of being human.  Thus distinguishing ”ordinary human unhappiness” was essential in diagnosis.  Ordinary human unhappiness did mean, of course, that one was unhappy every second, merely that one accepted that normal human states had periods of suffering, sadness, anger and fear in them too – it was important to recognize that nothing, no tool, could ever make life good every second.

Riffing on Freud, for some years, I have been arguing that the reality of peak energy, climate change and our precarious financial situation was leading us towards re-experiencing “ordinary human poverty” – a state that I would argue is fairly normal, if at times unpleasant.  I also believe it is the future for most of us.  And it would be easy to imagine that this meant that our future was one of true horror, an pathological nightmare from which we cannot awaken.  The despair many of us feel when we see that word “poverty” can’t be underestimated.

I think we are now at the point where the argument I’ve been making all these years – that peak oil will be less about whether there is gas in the gas stations or whether the grid crashes – and more about whether we can buy gas or whether the utility company shuts us off for nonpayment is pretty much certain.  Right now, we are watching the crisis unfold mostly far from us.  It is coming home – and rapidly, and we are shifting to a lower eocnomic level.  Consider housing – we have a vast inventory of houses at high prices that no one particularly wants to buy – and certainly, no one wants to build more.  Moreover, we have a rapidly aginging older population, many of whom relied on those houses for their financial security.  Add to this the pressures of age, job loss and economic crisis and there’s every reason for people to move in together, and every reason for people not to build or buy new house.  Expecting growth in the housing market is a lot like expecting growth in the VCR market – the moment is past.

We could make much the same analysis for many other segments of the economy.  Whence the high paying NYC and other urban restaurants that depend on high finance types buying expensive meals?  Poof!  Whence travel and tourism in an era of unemployment and rather inexplicably rising gas prices (last time the price per barrel of oil was this low, gas prices were significantly lower).  We may go some places – those who still have money may head to the beach, rather than Cancun – but the overall amount of wealth flowing through the economy has dropped like a stone.  And the fear takes the rest of it with us, as we become afraid to spend, afraid to invest, afraid to lose what little we’ve got left.  Bailout or no, the economy is headed into something deep and dark, and most of us are going into this new world with it.  Poverty is about to go back to being our human norm – just as it always has been for most of the world’s people.

And yet, the reason I’m using Freud’s language here isn’t just to remind us that poverty is a normal state for human beings – although it is.  Those of us who are so terrified of losing our wealth should remind ourselves that 85% of the world is poorer than we are – that is, we are not entering truly unknown territory.

But more importantly, I use Freud’s language  to imply that there is a distinction between the deep suffering of what I would call “pathological poverty” and the functional poverty that is “ordinary human poverty”, sometimes unpleasant, probably always troubling in comparison to the relative wealth we’ve had, but a basically livable state.  In it one can have periods, even long periods of happiness and security and comfort along with some less pleasant moments.  And I believe that while none of us can insulate ourselves entirely from the trauma of the darker ends of this, there is a great deal we can do to ensure that our coming poverty is not the pathological kind.

Dmitry Orlov observes,  in his excellent essay  “Five Stages of Collapse” – that on the one hand, there’s not much cheery about the fact that we’ve jumped from Stage One to Two. But there is the reality that we can do a great deal to keep the elevator from dropping down to the basement. 

What is the distinction between “pathological poverty” and “ordinary human poverty?”  Well, cast back in your heads to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  Among the stories of hardship in post-war Europe and Asia, of recurring crises across the Globe, and of the Great Depression in America are likely to be moments that distinguish between the pathological poor.  “We were very poor, but there was always food on the table.”  “We were poor, but we didn’t really know it.”  “It was a struggle, but we were happy.”  We will also hear stories the other side of poverty – the pain of hunger, the blind terror of being turned off with no place to go, the deaths and the pointless losses and tragedies.

The question becomes how do we turn this story into one where most of us can say “We were poor, but we had enough – just enough, but enough.”  How do we make the story into one where our kids may grow up not really realizing just how poor we were? How do we accustom ourselves to the ordinary human unhappiness that is our shift in wealth, without allowing ourselves to fall through the floor, into the deeper stages of collapse?

There are three answers to this.  The first is to reduce your needs.  I expect that for a long time, the stigma that attaches to any kind of poverty will keep many of us struggling to keep up appearances.  We are likely to feel ashamed the first time we have to ask for help, ashamed that our clothes are no longer as fine, that dinner is plainer and that we now share our homes.  The best way, I think to get over these feelings is to get over them in advance – to change your values as so many here have.  Thrift shop clothes and patches should be sources of pride, symbols of your independence from industrial manufacturers. The food on the table – and the people who share it - are the point – not whether high-social value elements like wine and meat are present.  The need to speak out against the culture that tells us that poor is dirty and bad becomes paramount – because the more resources we waste keeping up appearances the harder it will be to adapt.

The second is self-sufficiency of the kind most of us are trying to achieve.  The garden, the sewing needle, the saw and hammer, the ability to make and repair, to grow and produce and nurture things – these are things that demonstrate, as Jeremy Seabrook has contended, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is self-sufficiency.  None of us will ever be wholly self-sufficient – but to be able to say that it doesn’t matter if you can afford shoes this year because you can repair last year’s boots, or to not have to spend much of your money on food means that you have a much better chance of covering that emergency medical bill or the property taxes. 

But these things alone are not sufficient.  One’s self-sufficiency can be taken away too easily when we lose access to land.  You can lower your standards to allow “poor but decent” but when we get to “filthy and rat infested” that’s not such a good idea.  The only way to live in the world of ordinary human poverty is to live there in a world where your pocket isn’t picked constantly, where you aren’t the victim of endless resource conflicts, where your government doesn’t sell your future out.  And the only way to be a nation of reasonably self-sufficient, ordinarily poor people living decently is this – to remember that the reason we use the word “ordinary” here is that there are a lot more of us peasants than there are of the powerful.  The truth is that repressive governments, or even well intentioned but stupid and misguided governments are scary – but they never have enough troops, enough power to stand up against the unified dignity of those who are simply ordinary, and simply want enough.  But that requires that we trust each other, that we work together, that we create the institutions of ordinary poverty, the ones that have fallen into disuse – Granges, Unions, Consumers Unions, neighborhoods, land use committees, voting blocs, and larger groups that can be used to pull us together.  These things too are ordinary and human - and it is getting to be time to build them. 


8 Responses to “Ordinary Human Poverty”

  1. Anisaon 22 May 2009 at 9:31 am

    I can’t help but think of Robert T. Kiyosaki and Donald Trump’s book: Why We Want You To Be Rich. Those two investors/authors have been preaching some time about the collapse of America’s middle class. Basically every one will fall into two categories… rich or poor. Interestingly, the people who are unafraid of becoming “poor,” of selling their second car, growing a garden, growing assets (not just bank accounts and retirement funds but true assets), they say are the ones that will come through ok. And probably end up far wealthier than those who are all about keeping up appearances.

  2. Safiraon 22 May 2009 at 11:26 am

    Great idea to reprise older posts during the holiday weekend. As a newer reader, I’m looking forward to “greatest hits” I may have missed the first time around.

  3. massagranon 22 May 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I think there was a typo,

    “Ordinary human unhappiness DID MEAN, of course, that one was unhappy every second, merely that …”

    You meant DID NOT MEAN, right? (please tell me you did!! :)

    (if it was a typo you can delete this comment when corrected).

  4. Matriarchyon 23 May 2009 at 4:53 pm

    This week, I am watching a local drama in the news. A small town has had to raise its water rates dramatically after the state forced a necessary but expensive treatment plant upgrade. When the billing rate jumped, tripling most monthly bills, people started falling behind. Now they are at the point where the town hired a collection agency (known locally to be rude and ruthless), who will not make payment arrangements. The agency has turned off the water in several homes, including those of elderly folks on fixed incomes, and a multi-generation family with 7 children in the house.

    The interesting thing has been the response of online news readers who have commented on the article reporting the situation. Quite a few have taken the stance that the homeowners are deadbeats – “with seven children in the house, why aren’t the adults working to support them?” Lots of comments of about a perception that people who get their utilities turned off are “welfare scum” or people trying to avoid their obligations. There is a deep certainty that people who cannot pay their bills are lazy. The reality is that the unemployment rate in our county is above 13% and rising. I wonder how many of the commenters are going to be quite so holier-than-thou in a year or two.

  5. Malinon 23 May 2009 at 7:03 pm

    Life is suffering – I directly came to think of Buddha’s basic principle as I just attended a wonderful workshop with Buddhist/ecophilosofer Joanna Macy (she is 80 yrs and rocks!). It is not so depressing as it sounds, just like Sharon is trying to say poverty depends on our mindset, what we expect. If we start with the ground premise life is suffering, we don’t get as disappointed. We can see challenges as part of our learning and growth. There is a way out of suffering, to be compassionate and insight of that everything is related. Im sure more scholared Buddhists can explain it better.

    For poverty, I was remained of a huge interview study with poor people all over the world by the World Bank (Can anyone hear us). Poverty is so much more than absence of money. If you are poor, you might have worse health, less power, facing more violence from gangs and the police. So even if middle class Westerners now loose financial wealth and stability – how can we build social capital – trust in our neighbourhoods, peaceful realtions, health independent from doctors and pharmacompanies, empowerment as communities and in our skills and ability to take uncertainty and change.

    Sharon, you are part of that wealth building. To realize too what really is worth something. I pray this wake up will be as smooth as it can.

    Malin, Winlaw, BC, Canada

  6. Billon 24 May 2009 at 1:44 am


    Of course life is suffering. Had you expected anything else? Blessings be upon you. May you avoid all sufferings that come your way.

    Wealth building and financial stability is, though, pretty much a fantasy today. Financial and social capital is worth investing in. Forget Wall Street…a lot of croks.

    Build in the people


  7. [...] Ordinary Human Poverty by Sharon Astyk http://sharonastyk.com [...]

  8. [...] argues in his next essay for life as a third world country. I've been writing about our future as "ordinary human poverty" for years, and I think that's the most likely expression of both energy depletion and climate [...]

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