We can’t take ‘it’ with us

One thing the modern financial system tries to teach us is that with the miracles of compound interest, we can be fairly certain that the funds we invest today will be worth much more a few years from now. All we need to do is invest in the stock market, or some type of insurance “product,” or even in a bigger house than we need, and in a few years, the value will grow, and we will be rich.

For a while, this seemed to work. But it is really a difficult system to make work, if one is living in a finite world, whose resources are depleting. Realistically, we have to assume that the financial system is not going to be able to provide the kind of returns we have been told might be available. In fact, there is a good chance that the amount of goods and services we will have in the future will be less than we have today, no matter how much we try to store up. All of this “investing” may not give us a positive return.

So what do we do? I think at least part of the answer is that we learn to be less attached to what we have; we learn to be more willing to share what we have with others. I have written earlier about gift economies. The idea behind gift economies is that each member shares freely of what he has with others, and in fact, in judged by the amount he is able to share, not the amount he saves for himself. The example would be a hunter in a hunter-gatherer society who kills a deer, and shares it with others in the village. In primitive societies, there is no practical way of saving the deer for later, so sharing is a solution with what to do with the excess. If everyone shares when they have more than they need for themselves, there is a possibility of the group as a whole having enough.

I am not sure gift economies are entirely practical in a world of 6.8 billion people, but it seems like they can be helpful, at least in extended family situations, and maybe in other situations where people know each other well. I know my own extended family has tended to operate very much as a gift economy–each helping others out in the way they can. I have commented that most of the “arguments” I heard growing up and even in my marriage are the reverse of the “standard” arguments. The arguments tend to be about “you are doing too much”. You have washed the dishes too often, I should be able to do it part of the time, too. Or your family is contributing too much toward the cost of the take out meal that we are buying for they group to eat. No one ever complains that someone is not doing their part–in part because that rarely happens.

My background is fairly religious. I graduated from a Lutheran college (St. Olaf College). If you listen to Prairie Home Companion, I am from a background not too different from what Garrison Keillor talks about. Some of the kinds of things I learned included*:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endures for ever. – Psalm 107:1

Honor your father and mother. – Exodus 20:12

Do not store up your treasures on earth. – Matthew 6:19

Love your neighbor as yourself. – Mark 12:31

Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Matthew 7:12

If you believe that everything you receive is a gift, it is easier to give freely of what you have. I bring up this issue because at the end of the year, everyone is thinking about what they should be doing in terms in of investments and contributions. My own view is that a person would do well shift more toward contributions, and toward helping their own family and friends, and less toward investments.

I am not asking for contributions myself. My posts and my website are my contribution.

*I do not believe that the Bible is literally true, for all times and all places. For example, “Be fruitful and multiply” is not helpful now, and the world was not created a few thousand years ago. I think religions–not just Christianity–tend to pass down the wisdom of prior generations, and we would do well to learn from such religions. But I also think we need to disregard what no longer seems relevant.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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7 Responses to We can’t take ‘it’ with us

  1. Engineer Earl says:

    Thank you, Gail, for the article. I know it’s easy for me to concentrate just on material preparations for the post-oil world. However, I am also active in my church, in civic activities, do volunteer work, and have been self-employed. I don’t want to suggest that others do the same for the purpose of building relationships as the first three are important in and of themselves. However, upon reflection I realize that, other than with my immediate family, this is indeed how I have learned the most about people after my formative years — learned about people both as a group and about many individuals with whom I have worked and worshipped. There are some with whom I would never try a “gift economy,” and others with whom I would give it a go. I hadn’t especially thought of these as “prepping” activities, but in a way they might turn out to be such.

  2. Pops says:

    I’m beginning to think the “advanced” countries are in the better position for the transition away from the cheap energy/infinite growth economy – otherwise known as The-Race-To-The-Bottom. Think about it, we are moving away from the manufacturing economy – using fossil energy to transform natural resources into into landfill materials, and toward a renewable energy economy – using solar energy via eating potatoes & okra, to provide services like picking potatoes & okra and all the while the Chineese are still haggling with the Buick salesman!

    But seriously, J6p is starting to realize that he is at a distinct legal, political and financial disadvantage and increasingly willing to strategically default on his obligations, vote for more government services and simultaneously lower taxes.

    I think we’ll back-date the peak of the growth economy to 2006 as well.

  3. XRM says:

    We (U.S.) live in a culture of extreme commercialization, commodification, and competition which we have exported globally. It goes by various names – neoliberalism, predatory capitalism, disaster capitalism. Externalized costs are part of this profit-at-any-cost system. It’s effect on other cultures that have developed to be more cooperative and egalitarian was best summed up by author John le Carre:


    Terrorism and environmental degradation is a direct result of this exploitive system. If we want to save ourselves, a major paradigm shift in our economic system will have to occur which will take into account the needs of all humans as well as the ability of the Earth to sustain us.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi XRM, thanks for the link – sobering.

    • krishnajaya says:

      Re: a new paradigm…

      Richard Tarnas:

      “Perhaps the most concise way of defining the modern world view is to focus on that which distinguishes it from virtually all other world views. Speaking very generally, what sets the modern mind apart is its fundamental tendency to assert and experience a radical separation between subject and object, a distinct division between the human self and the encompassing world. This perspective can be contrasted with what has come to be called the primal world view, characteristic of traditional indigenous cultures. The primal mind not only does not maintain this decisive division, but it does not recognize it, whereas the modern mind not only maintains it but is essentially constituted by it.

      The primal world communicates and has purposes. It is pregnant with signs and symbols, implications, and intentions. The world is animated by the same psychologically resonant realities that human beings experience within themselves. A continuity extends from the interior world of the human to the world outside.

      Primal experience takes place within a living matrix. The workings of this matrix, in all its flux and diversity, are articulated through a language that is mythic and numinous. The particulars of the empirical world are all endowed with symbolic, archetypal significance, and that significance flows between inner and outer, between self and world. In this relatively undifferentiated state of consciousness, humans perceive themselves as directly participating in and communicating with the interior life of the natural world and the cosmos, emotionally and mystically. This ‘participation mystique’ involves a complex sense of direct, inner participation of humans with archetypal principles by virtue of their immanent and transformative presence. The participation is multi-directional and multi-dimensional, pervasive and encompassing.” (“Cosmos and Psyche: Implications for a New World View,” pp. 16, 17)

      It would not be helpful, I think, for us moderns to try to go back and re-capture what Tarnas describes as the primal world view. But I do think that it would be helpful to integrate the ancient wisdom as we navigate, by recognizing and honoring both the individual waves, of which we each are one, and the whole ocean.

  4. Don Millman says:

    Excessive generosity can be just as bad as stinginess. Some years ago I dated a woman who was the finest and most generous I have ever known, but people took advantage of her generousity. She had literally hundreds of friends, and they turned to her for comfort when they were in trouble; when she got home from work there would be a dozen or more phone messages asking that she get in touch immediately–and she always did. She gave fifteen percent of her gross income to her temple, but she did not have adequate savings for retirement, despite a very good salary.

    In hunting and gathering societies the chief duty of the headman is to share out the meat from a kill; to remain headman he must make a fair distribution of the meat. Apparently, hunting and gathering societies found that spontaneous sharing did not work well, so they institutionalized the position of headman. Frequently, the headman is the best hunter in the group, but not always: The key attributes of being headman were those of being popular, and popularity depended not only on the success of hunting expeditions but also and mainly on expertise and fairness in sharing out the meat.

    • This is why one really needs to have an extended family structure, or some other structure. There are people who won’t work, if others will do the work. It is hard to hit a happy medium. But I think many people have gone overboard, in thinking that all they have to do is look after themselves, and everything will work out. It doesn’t work that way.

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