In the previous post I ended up answering the question “How much is enough?” by leaving it up to the individual conscience guided hopefully by some provocative questions. However, I would like to press this question further.
I visited the Guarani village of Caipepe in March to meet the Capitan, Don Rafael, who works with MCC on projects there. This conversation about how to define development and the simple life was on my mind as we sat outside next to their mud oven, outdoor kitchen and dining area. My friend commented that the small houses were primarily for sleeping and the people lived most of their lives outside. Don Rafael and his wife finally arrived from attending to their bee hives with a comb of fresh honey which they shared with us. As I sat enjoying the fresh honey and chewing the comb, I thought about the table, chairs and other sparse accommodations for their outdoor kitchen. In reality these things were not absolutely necessary for their existence or survival. To be sure they live a very sparse existence far from the luxury of North American lifestyles, but strictly speaking very little is required for life.
Hunter gatherers need very little as they live a nomadic existence following their food around. They have only what can be carried from place to place. This is certainly human existence stripped to its most essential, most basic. While many of my primitivist friends hope that we can get closer to this kind of existence in the future, the truth is that this kind of lifestyle is very difficult in a world in which industry, commerce and agriculture have permeated almost every corner of the globe. Even the few remaining hunter gatherers left, like the Hadze(?) people of Tanzania, are threatened by the modern world encroaching on the territories that have sustained them for thousands of years. The Guarani were traditionally hunter-gatherers, but have adapted to communities based on settled agriculture as the world around them made their nomadic lifestyle impossible.
When we come to understand that our indulgent North American lifestyles are connected, if not the source, to injustice around the world, we are faced with how to respond. Typically we find things that we can do without or ways that we can hopefully contribute to the solution through charity or volunteering (which while noble serves primarily to assuage our guilt rather than bring about real change. We begin with what we have and try to take away a few things here and there without dealing fundamentally with the nature of our modern technocratic existence. Beginning, instead, from the absolutely essential forces to ask much more fundamental questions about our lifestyle and the culture that perpetuates it.
Some might try to find ways to live out an urban hunter gatherer existence by foraging and living off the plentiful waste to be gleaned in an urban setting. This is an authentic and honest response to this problem. However, I once asked a dumpster diving friend of mine what happens when you can’t live off the waste stream anymore, because industrial society collapses as you predict. His answer was, “That’s when we find out who is for real.” The truth is that most people are not willing to be quite that radical. God bless the radicals, but what about the rest of us.
While food, water and shelter are the basics for our survival, certainly relationships and community are part of what it means to be human, a social creature. What if enough is when you share more than you can and in your hunger and need receive from others, only to start the cycle over again? In this way enough has to do with being related and interdependent on a community that is likewise related to you. In some ways, I can see how capitalism, at its best, intends to be this sort of relationship (though it has evolved into a mechanism that in actuality keeps others at a distance, i.e. “it’s not personal, just business”). However, if this relational definition of enough, sharing with each other out of both our need and abundance, is to be embodied in some form it will require major adjustments to our current economic structure even if only on a small scale.
I believe this is the purpose of Christian communities, to embody the abundance, interdependence and enough of God’s economy in their relationships with each other and the world. As long as we continue to live lives of self- sufficiency, we will not be able to embody this ideal in our communities. Our self-sufficiency means that we will always have more than enough. There is an abundance that comes from the collective need within a community. The community finds that it has an abundance that can only be found collectively when we depend on each other and share even in our need.