Trapped by our costly lifestyles, we work harder and longer. But, instead of making a living, many of us are making a dying.

Zen Economics

We’ve all seen the numbers about the economy. The GDP receded last quarter, the first decline in eight years. The number of jobs lost in October set a 21-year record, and wholesale prices dropped more than they have in over 50 years.

When the economy shrinks, people’s immediate reaction is fear, sacrifice and suffering. Our leaders, too, react. They implore us to get back to consuming and show some market patriotism.

Vice President Dick Cheney has said spending money is like poking terrorists in the eye. To stimulate spending, the Federal Reserve has cut interest rates 11 times this year. Carmakers have zero-percent financing, and local businesses are offering $500 gift certificates to selected shoppers.

But might there be benefits to a shrinking economy that we aren’t seeing? A Zen story of an old farmer offers a glimpse to help to answer this question. Here it is:

One day, the farmer’s mare ran away. The neighbors said, Now you have no horse to pull your plow. What bad fortune.

Good fortune, bad fortune, who knows? replied the farmer.

The next week the mare returned, bringing with her two wild stallions. OWith three horses you are now a rich man, the neighbors said. What good fortune.

OGood fortune, bad fortune, who knows? replied the farmer.

That afternoon the farmer’s only son tried to tame one of the stallions, but he was thrown and broke a leg. Now you have no one to help you with planting, the neighbors said. What bad fortune.

Good fortune, bad fortune, who knows? replied the farmer.

The next day the emperor’s soldiers conscripted the eldest son in every family, but the farmer’s son was left because of his broken leg. Yours is the only eldest son in the province who has not been taken, the neighbors said. What good fortune…

Like the farmer, we’d benefit from taking a broad view of economic realities. Many people know that when the economy speeds up, they feel squeezed. There’s good reason; Americans work more per year than workers in any other industrialized country. Trapped by our costly lifestyles, we work harder and longer, hoping to get ahead. But instead of making a living, many of us are making a dying.

But it’s not just people who get worn out.

A bounding economy also takes a toll on natural resources. Picture a cyclone that moves along the land. Its mouth sucks in resources like forests, fossil fuels, and precious metals. Its tail spews out waste like garbage in landfills, pollution in Superfund sites, and greenhouse gases. Like the cyclone, when the economy expands and accelerates, it devours more resources and produces more waste. While demand on Earth’s resources has increased, its generative capacity has decreased. We now consume more per year than the Earth replenishes, so instead of living off the interest, we are burning through our natural capital.

Slowing and shrinking the economy will help reverse these negative effects, but will other consequences what many fear in a downturn be too harsh? Signs of hope come from France where people already enjoy longer vacations than we do. On top of this, the French voted to reduce their workweek to 35 hours, and they definitely survived. What if, instead of layoffs here, everyone’s workweek were simply reduced? What if a shrinking economy became an opportunity to end the more-bigger-faster game? Could you picture yourself living better with a little less money and stuff, and more time?

Many visionaries have already scouted this new terrain: thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, Herman Daly, Jeremy Rifkin, E.F. Schumacher, and Hazel Henderson. They have returned with stories of hope where there’s less work, more security and justice, a restored and healthy environment, more fun and time for what gives life true meaning. Even the Zen farmer might declare: This truly is good fortune.

Ann Hancock is a sustainability educator in Sonoma County, Calif. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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