No one has ever accused me of being an optimist or a utopian thinker. I have a bleak view of the world. But perhaps a bleak view is required in order to be able find hope in revelations as dark as those in the Panama Papers.
I find hope in the Panama Papers. Their contents prove that things our leaders dismiss as impossible are, indeed, quite possible, and that the money exists to pay for them. They illustrate why society cannot, and should not, rely on personal morals and intrinsic motivation to do the right thing, and that policies and systems must ensure people do the right thing. A few more charitable donations from Bill Gates and yours truly will not, cannot fix systems that legally enable systemic greed and exploitation of the planet and its people.
The Panama Papers are not the only — or primary — source of my hope. I believe that the agony we’re currently experiencing is a necessary part of a global awakening (of which the Panama Papers are but one part). Even I, the Eastern European harbinger of doom, see changes that give me a weak feeling of optimism. I know that:
- People can and do choose to have less even when they could have more.
- People can and do know when they have enough and feel genuine contentment, the state of genuinely not wanting more.
- Many people do not require very much at all to feel contentment.
- People give away things they do not need (Freecycle), which is not the same thing as “participating in the sharing economy” (Uber).
- Minimalism is popular.
- People can distinguish between access and ownership (the difference between needing to drive sometimes via a car share program and owning a car; the creation of libraries for not just books but tools, seeds, and other items).
- People want other people to have just as much as, if not more than, they do, and to get it with less suffering and effort. I do not deserve more than anyone else just because I worked hard. Most everyone on earth works hard, after all. I want everyone to have clean water from a faucet; a well made house they own free and clear; enough healthy, delicious, pesticide-free food to eat; more time to spend with their families; as much sleep as they want; time for hobbies; and time be a citizen.
Some consider such views dangerous. Our political and economic systems depend on a belief that these things are not true, on a belief that other people do not deserve what we have, on a belief that we must always want more.
But that is not how I feel. And, by the looks of it, not how a lot of other people feel.
At risk of sounding grandiose, this is why it is important for people who are FIRE, who no longer have to work, to describe what life looks like from the other side. When we do, we have all of the necessary pieces required for a vision of what our future looks like.
The world feels like it is falling apart right now because, well, it literally is (climate change, poisoned water, dying bees, the sixth mass extinction), and because we know we can’t stop it, but also because we don’t yet have a clear vision of what will replace our current mess. We need the latter so that we can create something to fill the big, black void of a scary, post-climate world.
I think we have all of the pieces we need in order to begin to more explicitly articulate not just a vision for a new way of living, but also how it might work, mechanically:
- We have the first piece — what life looks like with enough (non-consumerist/minimalist/thinking folks).
- We have the second piece, what life looks like without having to work (the voices of FIRE, moneyless world, homesteady-independent, and frugal folk of all kind)
- And now we have the third piece, the Panama Papers, which quantitatively prove that global society can afford a more FIRE-like life — in the form of universal basic income, say — for everyone, today.
Lest I sound like John Lennon (and if so, great), the Panama Papers prove that the U.S., at least, can afford a basic income for all. By some estimates, $20 trillion of money is missing from the world economy (entirely possible, given that the U.S. alone loses up to $100 billion every year due to corporations stashing their money in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and in Panama).
This is more than enough money for the 7.4 billion people on earth to have universal basic income, today.
Those trillions are our transition money, and our world needs it. We all need the time and mental space to slow down and figure out what a world not based on shopping and infinite consumption from a finite planet looks like.
It is OK to admit we tried something, that it did not work, and that it’s time to try something different. That’s what compels us to change our lives. The Panama Papers show we’ve been played for suckers, and we need to change some laws and systems in order to change the global society that is the sum of our lives.
And it’s important for FIRE people to speak up and serve as living proof of what people who do not have to work actually do with our time. Politicians (and especially the right-wing news and radio folks) make all sorts of wild claims about why we need to work (we need money to live, yes, but work is not the only way to obtain money) and the horrible things that will befall society if we stop working, but only the self-sufficient, FIRE and moneyless world folks really know.
We know that, even in our 30s, life without a job is not scary or bad, but wonderful. We know we’re happier and healthier. (Health insurance companies ought to support the idea of basic income most of all.) We don’t lay about drunk and smoking marijuana all day. We get plenty of sleep, sunshine, and fresh air. We’re making things because we can, for free. We’re writing and creating and pursuing other intellectual pursuits. We’re taking care of each other – elderly family, friends’ kids — for free.
No one can tell me this is not true because I know they’d be lying. This is what I do, it’s much the same thing that other FIRE people do, and I have every real, observable reason to believe it’s what a lot of people would do if they, like me, had enough money to live on without needing a job.
This is why I know that universal basic income would be as life and world changing as FIRE has been for me. Why shouldn’t it be?
And we know we can afford it.