About 20 years ago, in a classroom at Seattle Pacific University, as I lectured about money from the perspective of Your Money or Your Life, I finally hit the limit of my patience. A man with a patchy beard leaned back in his chair and asked – as so often happened – the gotcha question: “This is America. I’m free to spend my money however I want to. I don’t need to scrimp and save. Why should I do this program?” Technically, this is true. We’re all free to have, do or be whatever we want, if we have the money or even just credit cards. This freedom was the sina qua non of the United States at the cusp of the Third Millennium – and still is. It’s in American’s bones.
What this self-satisfied guy and everyone who’d come before him didn’t take into account, however, was …
this version of freedom is also insanity – eventually. It’s toddler to teenager talk.
I can do whatever I want and you can’t stop me. I can do whatever I want as long as it’s legal … or I don’t get caught … or I can buy my way out. It’s insane because we are part of families and groups and workplaces and society and freedom without responsibility is moral suicide which can lead to actual suicide. There are inner and outer consequences of sociopathy, however sanctioned, however aided and abetted by racking up unplayable debt, however voluptuously on display in the capital of this great and greed-besotted nation.
I gave my inadequate answer to his question, which went like this. Maybe you do have enough money to not have to think about it, count it, worry about it. However, money is also a mirror. Looking at your relationship with money reveals to you what is hidden behind your unassailable veneer. Do you want to know yourself? Be good? Become wise? Have a positive impact on those you love? Come to the end of your life with a clean conscience and a smile? Your beliefs and behaviors with money tell you much about who you are and what side of the values ledger your life is, not just your money.” Blah blah blah. In one ear and out the other.
To be fully honest, if I hadn’t partnered with Joe Dominguez, the master of frugality and out of the box thinking, and if we hadn’t written Your Money or Your Life, well, I would likely be as wedded to my unconsciousness and privilege as every person who defied me by asking that question. For me, Your Money or Your Life wasn’t just an antidote to sloppy and dangerous money habits. Nor was it just a path out of wage slavery. It does a great job as both. For me, what made all the hard work worth it was this: rampant consumerism is verifiably drawing down our only real wealth – the planet’s capacity to heal, replenish, restore, regenerate and keep food on our tables, and Your Money or Your Life was and still is (sorry Marie Kondo) the best antidote I know to financial profligacy.
I wasn’t just trying to help the unconscious entitled among us to cinch up their saddles, put on their white hats and be people of greater integrity. I was, through every reader, through every person in every audience, through every media interview, trying to address the biggest problem on the planet: consumerism, the hand-maiden of the industrial-technological-profit system dressed up as must-have new products or procedures. I’d taken to heart the 1974 Limits to Growth study that said if we kept going the direction we were headed, we’d arrive, just about now, at destabilizing the life support systems of the earth. I’d taken to heart the Ecological Footprint and the Living Planet Report that revealed that in the mid-1980s we’d entered the species suicide zone of overshoot, of consuming the seed corn on which our prosperity relies.
Getting pissed, for me, is often followed with getting busy. After that class at Seattle Pacific, sometime around 1998, I decided that upstream of consumerism was this tantalizing yet toxic view of freedom in America. I decided to tackle it.
Eventually my design sentence for the book I wrote was:
to have Americans fall in love with limits the way we’ve fallen in love with freedom.
I want to develop a language for limits, so obvious, so equally tantalizing, that Americans would drop this right to excess.
Around the same time, I got a call from someone who’d actually saved and invested enough a la Your Money or Your Life to have had the ability and gumption to quiet his day job. He called to let me know. As I congratulated him I felt a cavernous silence on the other end of the phone cord (yes, cord). “You don’t understand. I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.”
This became the other assignment for the freedom book: to find out what this delicious state actually afforded us. What is freedom? And why do we long for it from afar but fear it when it arrives with all its spaciousness.
My first approach: interview sterling spiritual and social leaders to find out about freedom in their lives. A pattern emerged. Freedom seemed to be a story about a time when… I let go of my anger, I saw the humanity in my enemy’s heart, I realized I did not need what I thought I needed, I walked on in faith and was supported. It was a moment in time when the tight fist of fear, the gritty certainties borne of life experience, the impenetrable barriers erected by society, the self-defeating beliefs all fell away. It was getting out of prison, so often of our own making. It was once again being one’s own master. And it felt wonderful, like floating or flying or breathing or technicolor after a black and white movie.
Freedom wasn’t a thing. It was a passage. The “I once was lost and now I’m found” awakening. It wasn’t a condition, like a right. It was the experience of that right. It was a sense. And these moments of release were so exquisite we would do anything to touch them. They were touching in to the ultimate freedom of unimpeded existence: enlightenment, Nirvana, being at one with the Universe.
Consumerism is the addiction or habit of getting a sense of freedom through wanting and getting and having stuff and access to stuff and to status, security or power stuff gives us. We are trying to enact spiritual freedom in a material world and this collective mania (in service to purveyors of stuff) is the distortion.
I became curious about that liminal space between stuck and free. What is that door that opens, that wall that crumbles, that wasteland crossed to the land of milk and honey. And so the book became about this doorway and when and how it swings open and why it is shut and how we can master our relationship with it.
It felt so important. In fact, it felt like I was in the machinery generating overshoot, and I was drawing a schematic so we could collectively survive our species terrible twos. It was elusive, like the OxHerder pictures of Zen, where the ox is the metaphor for that pearl of great price we seek and the Ox Herder the one so anxious to catch it and make it his own. Like the Ox Herder, I could smell it. Catch glimpses of it. Could I evoke this in words? I wanted with all of myself to try.
A publisher signed me on to write it, thinking it might be a gold mine like Your Money or Your Life. I wrote and read and wrote and read. I sequestered in cabins in the drippy northwest woods, wearing the same clothes for days. I spoke with friends, waving my arms around and a crazed look glinting in my eyes, trying to get them to see what I could glimpse but not wrap in words. Was I tailoring the Emperor’s New Clothes? Was there a there there?
18 months into this process I was diagnosed with a cancer. For a few weeks I thought I could stick with the book and deal with the cancer, but this was not to be. I told the publisher I had to stop. They said they would wait. The cancer is a story for another time, but suffice to say that it took 1.5 years to turn my attention back to the book – and the publisher kept their promise, albeit with a new editor assigned to the project. An angel of a friend showed up to help me revive the manuscript, get it in shape and deliver it 1 hour before midnight on the day it was due. Then the weirding happened. They said, “Almost but not quite…” and assigned one, then another book doctor to work with me. No one could get what I wanted to say in a form the publisher was willing to publish. They wanted a how-to book. I wrote a reframe book.
Blessedly, the publisher gave up on me. They cancelled the contract.
By then, I’d lost all confidence in it. From time to time I’d talk about it to someone who would say, “That’s brilliant” – but I had no will to work it again. I wrote another book, Blessing the Hands that Feed Us, about local food. Three years after that I updated Your Money or Your Life. A brilliant young man came along to do anything I needed; Your Money or Your Life had changed his life. He built an online platform. He taught me marketing. He introduced me to the FIRE sub-culture. In the course of our work, I laid out the bones of the Freedom and Limits book. He said, “That’s brilliant, I want to read it”. I sent him the PDF sheepishly, thinking it was barely readable. After staying up all night reading, he told me the next morning it was more important than Your Money or Your Life, it was like nothing else he’d read and he wanted to help me get it out, simplified and imbued with the love and wisdom that’s grown in me since cancer healed my life.
So we arrive, again, at the door of freedom, because we arrive finally in the recognized era of consequences of ignoring limits.
We arrive not with a runway of time so we can accept the “limits to growth” and change to a sustainable course. We arrive way further down the road of overshoot and collapse. We arrive with a billion more people on the planet. With credit card debt and student loans drowning 80% of the people in the United States. We arrive, in short, with the effects of freedom-as-entitlement all tied up in a bow and delivered on a platter of coming woes.
We arrive, though, at a time when so many more people understand viscerally that the jig is up on the consumer culture, even if they deny this vehemently in public. People are nervous about the future even as the markets soar. There’s a sense that things are coming unhinged, and of course some blame liberalism and some blame libertarianism and some are just trying to figure out whether to move and where.
In other words, we arrive at a time when the message that there is no such thing as freedom, and only those who know how to design with limits will stay on course with a happy, healthy and creative life.
We also arrive at a time when I have matured and shifted gears. I understand that warning people they are going to hit a wall as it looms implacably in front of them is useless. Now is the time to share wisdom about living in this world changed by human ingenuity, folly, and fossil fuels. How can we continue the joy and journey of feeling free in this world at this time with these resources and those opportunities and current realities. There is no better time for a book about liberation through mastering the inner and outer conditions of your life, and doing so, this time, not as entitled toddlers but as maturing humans. And the current hyper-individualistic optimizing and minimizing and maximized your own life with no regard to the environmental, social and political fires all around you doesn’t cut it either. Selfishness has never been in style, and righting your own life with little attention to the world will simply drive the privilege gap and increase the sense that we are fiddling while Rome and everywhere else burns.
This new book, that contains the best of the old one and this new twist for our times, is called Life Design with the World in Mind. It’s putting on your oxygen mask, helping others around you and calming the whole plane. It’s celebrating limits as what may well be the best tools to cross this sea – to mix vehicle metaphors.
Life Design with the World in Mind. Also, Life DesignS with the World in Mind. Life naturally cooperates. Life allows for innovation while assuring the ark has enough mating pairs of every animal to create a brave new world. Planes, boats and arks. I guess we’re on the move. Stay tuned.