Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Aren't they just existing on the basic 'Survival' level?"

At a book store reading I gave last year there was a very concerned-looking woman standing at the back of the audience.  At the end of the talk, she raised her hand and said, "Aren't these people you are writing about  just existing at the basic 'survival' level?"

I asked her what she meant and she said, "I'm originally from the Philippines and over there millions of people are just existing day to day with barely enough to eat.  They live at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs."  (Abraham Maslow's theory says that human's can only move towards morality, creativity and "self-actualization" after other more basic needs such as food and shelter have been met.  See this chart if you need to, but don't forget to come right back!] ) 

The woman continued, "The people in your book don't get to go above that level of just handling their very basic needs."

This question has stuck with me.  I have read that theory too when I was in college.  I've come to realize that the whole basis of the thinking that produces such theories is basically wrong, because it starts by assuming a level of material affluence which only has come about through the appropriation (or if you prefer a more stark term, stealing) of the resources of the Third World and taking of aboriginal people's lands--in the US, the Native Americans, and then turning our minds to self actualization.

A warm and convivial meal at the Oe's house
What I found in meeting the people in A Different Kind of Luxury is that they haven't separated their internal and spiritual and artistic and meaning-making lives from the basic processes of taking care of their needs, and taking care of the needs of the people in their communities, or of taking care of the earth.

And there is something fundamentally modern in being able to chose different aspects of a way of life and put them together in a manner that makes sense to us.  But what gets people in our current society so trapped is that are so many options available, and we don't have the internal fiber to make the choices based on a consistent and strongly-held set of principles or values.  

Meeting your needs isn't separate
from a self-actualized life
Many of the people in the book didn't have to reach that far back for a lot of traditions and ways of doing things.  For us in the US, and for example my grandparents and my great grandparents used cash to meet their needs, but as recently as the 1960s in Japan, in the mountains, rural people were still making almost all of what they needed without much interaction with the cash economy.  So the ways of doing things didn't need to be researched in books, or re-invented.  The people in this book could learn how to meet many of their own needs--which, after all, is the purpose of "an economy"--just by walking down the road to speak with a nearby older man or woman.

As San Oizumi says in chapter one:

“Of course there’s some need for money, but when
you use money to solve problems the necessity to think
for yourself disappears. You can resolve all your difficulties
by using money, or buying a product to fix it for you. Just
like being a member of a large group or organization: you
can let the group do a lot of the thinking for you. But for
me, the opportunity to think for yourself is too valuable to be wasted that way.”

Think about that, if you would, for a second.  Using money wastes an opportunity you have, a precious opportunity, to think for yourself!  If you ask me, that's a pretty radical way of thinking.


  1. I'm trying to remember the name of the play, but it was in the No Exit collection. It took place in Germany at some point of revolutionary activity, and the gist of the point of the play was that an upper class revolutionary was being pressured to give up "bourgeois" thinking and get with the party discipline, the irony being that he was being asked to give up the very aspect of his character which had brought him to revolutionary status in the first place.

    My memory was triggered by reading this sentence: And there is something fundamentally modern in being able to chose different aspects of a way of life and put them together in a manner that makes sense to us.

    Let's say hypothetically that the example of Oe and the others did catch fire at some point, and fundamentally altered the economic systems as they lowered their throttle to meet lowered consumption, etc. Would that not lower the options you speak of in the sentence which follows the one I quoted? And what would that do to the vitality of the "luxury?"

    Okay, so maybe the planet would be saved and all that. At least until someone wanted to save some time, and employs our primate-based opposable-thumb-induced cleverness to invent, or reinvent, something to make that daily task just a little bit easier, and shorter...

  2. Thanks Eric for a thoughtful comment, (as always!). Your question:

    Would that not lower the options you speak of in the sentence which follows the one I quoted? And what would that do to the vitality of the "luxury?"

    My response: Yogi Bera often said, "Prediction is difficult, especially of the future." To that I will add the oft referenced idea from complexity theory that a butterfly wingflap in China can alter the weather in New York. By saying this, I would suggest that consumption is not just a linear measure with overconsumption on one end of the scale and simple living on the other. Even the people in the book live within constraints. Although Nakamura and Murata and I were speaking a few years ago just after the economic crash, and they both maintained that their way of living would not be possible now for a young person coming of age, I actually don't agree with them (and they live the simplest of all the people in the book). I think in some form or another we all can, and in some sense WILL start to radically simplify, whether the driving force is the logic of greater satisfaction in life, or radical shortages, or even, though I hope not, the wars that our overconsumption cause coming closer and closer to our own doorsteps. The point of the book, or one of them, is that these people have blazed that trail for us, and their *philosophy about it* can really serve as a guiding light. How you work it out, with your opposable thumb, is your own work of art!

  3. I was talking about this with my parter Cynthia (an important voice in the making of the book, and she said,

    I DO think think the world can go on the way it is for a while, with everyone thinking, "I can just go to the store and there's nutrients there, and then I can go back home and put my headphones on and look at the screen." But I also think that that's what's destroying the world. The world can sustain a certain percentage of people doing that for a certain period of time, but not infinitely.

    But no one has to take individual responsibility for it, so Oh Well....

  4. I particularly enjoyed reading this quote in chapter one. I read it over a few times and felt an intense sadness about how Singapore is functioning today. 100% with money, and like the US, we have totally forgotten the times when we relied on other things like exchange, trust and our own imagination and skills to solve our problems. We have stopped fixing broken belongings but instead, just throw and buy a new one. Stopped mending clothes, stopped doing anything by ourselves anymore. Our kitchens are filled with gadgets that take away any manual labor to prepare a meal. And there's a mainstream attitude of if you are one who still does things 'by hand', you're just being stupid and wasting time. Instead, our time is spent in front of mindless TV, while our physical bodies become useless and filled with sickness and disease.
    Anyway, I've felt this for a while now, but now grateful for that lovely quote... explaining in a fresh light, how using money to solve your problems inhibits creativity and imagination - small but important things can make one feel so alive. :)