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|
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.