Friday, January 6, 2012

Gypsies in the Palace, Redux

With the cold weather shutting down many of the "Occupy X" protest sites, it seems the national conversation over how we feel about the 1% is dying down a bit.  I'll admit that I am glad, because I think the news coverage on both sides of the issue oversimplifies.  On the one hand, becoming fabulously wealthy by working your tail off is part of the American dream and should be honored.  On the other hand, becoming fabulously wealthy by behaving in ways that crush the future potential of others is not part of that dream.

But this is not a political column, because I have news for you:  If you are reading this blog, you are probably part of the 1%.

According to this study reported on, it takes only $34,000 (USD) after taxes for an individual to be among the wealthiest 1% of the world's population.  Half of these folks live in the U.S.  To put this in perspective, the median global income -- statistically, the global "middle class" -- is $1,225 a year.  If you are reading this blog from your own internet connection in a house or apartment on which you can pay the bills, you are almost certainly among the top 5% of the world's population.  Feeling rich yet?

This is not to discount the reality of poverty, even in a country like the U.S. or other first world nations.  And yes, there are many among us who have lost jobs, lost homes, and are wondering how they will make ends meet right now.  I cannot diminish that suffering.

But the statistical analysis reported in the CNN story has some bearing on how we view our sustainable living behavior.  I refer back to a short piece I wrote on this blog in 2010 called "Gypsies in the Palace."  I think the point is relevant here as we consider our use of economic as well as environmental resources.

I tend to think of responsible stewardship of resources -- money, food, fuel, time -- in terms of the Jimmy Buffett song "Gypsies in the Palace."  In it, Buffett tells the story of going off on tour, leaving his house in the care of two men (one of whom is named "Snake").  The housesitters waste no time shooting the lock off his liquor cabinet and throwing a clothing-optional party for the neighborhood, especially the attractive women from the nearby condos.  When they get a call that Buffett is returning home early, they waste no time shutting down their party and faking a bunch of wholesome industry, including mowing and raking the lawn.

In my original piece, I contend that how we use resources can be likened to housesitting for God.  Yes, the homeowner wants you to make yourself comfortable, but throwing a kegger and trashing the house is out of the question.

The same is true as we look at our responsibility as part of the global 1% (or 5% or 10%, or wherever you fall -- statistically, you are probably still pretty lucky).  Yes, we should use the resources we need to live our best possible life.  And yes, sometimes that means that we will achieve in ways that others cannot, either through hard work or luck of birth or some combination of factors.  That's OK.

But the idea behind sustainability is living in a way that is sustainable -- that is, using resources in a way that they will last until they can be replenished.  So ask yourself, this new year, if you are being truly responsible with the resources you have been given, or if you need to cut back a bit here or there so that resources of all types are available for you and others to thrive in the long term.  For all of us who count ourselves fortunate, there is surely a place that we could behave more conservatively.

It is all a matter of perspective whether we believe we are fortunate or deprived.  That's why I chose the photo above.  If you thought that was for a charity food line, perhaps from the Depression, think again.  I took that photo in a large bakery in San Francisco.  It literally is the sign for the line to buy sourdough baguettes, which we ate in the company of throngs of statistically very wealthy people, especially when viewed from a global perspective.  How you see things depends a great deal on context.

So, metaphorically speaking, I think we global housesitters should feel free to enjoy the property that we're watching.  We just might not want to take our behavioral cues from friends named Snake.
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  1. That is so true, relevant and simple to undersand. You have to take care of what you have and urge others to do the same or soon there will be nothing to care for.

  2. Very good point. For most of us, we live a very good life. We need to see ourselves in a global context to truly see how blessed we are. I like your picture of us being housesitters for God. It's not like we own our stuff - it all comes from God. I went to a very poor region of the world one time and was brought to tears. I found myself asking God, "Why don't you do something about this?" I "heard" Him asking me the same question.