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Surprising Science

Humans Need to Rediscover the Difference Between Money and Wealth

Alan Watts recognized that money was only an abstract idea compared to actual wealth. Will we ever learn the same? 

Some of philosopher Alan Watt’s ideas have not stood the test of time. Yet, more than anything else, in his many books, essays, and lectures he mined ideas that transcended time, striking a chord at the heart of the human condition. He saw man with his masks shed, his costumes shred to pieces.

In his 1968 essay, “Wealth versus Money,” he predicted the United States of America would no longer exist by the year 2000. Not the physical land comprised of mountains, trees, and deserts, he clarified, but the sovereign political state, which he called “abstract and conceptual.” We can apply those terms to every nation — as imagined creations that eventually defined a reality — though Watts’ criticism was directed at the growing divide between money and wealth, a problem that continues to plague our culture, and world, today.

If the country is to take the same philosophical course of valuing money over wealth, he writes, it will at some point cease to exist in its geography and biology. While his real fears were nuclear and biological warfare, Watts foresaw climate change, which was just gaining steam during his life. True wealth, he knew, was in the resources we can use — once gold is no longer used to fill teeth but is locked in vaults, as one example, it becomes completely useless.

Watts cites the Flag Protection Act of 1968 as Congress confusing reality with symbols. He writes,

The very Congressmen who passed this law are responsible, by the acts of commission or omission, for burning, polluting, and plundering the territory that the flag is supposed to represent.

As I sit here in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, just across a small mountain range the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill is occurring. For over two months, some 1,300 metric tons of methane-rich natural gas has been leaking. Best-case scenario for a resolution is four months away; the leak was happening for over a month before the public even caught wind of it. Now hundreds of families have been relocated and public schools are shut down. Airplanes are no longer allowed to fly over the zone for fear that pilots will become ill.

And then there’s the North Pole, which today is 50 degrees above normal due to a “freak storm.” Scientists have never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, given that every year is proving to be the hottest on record, the term “freak” is soon not going to be applicable. 

The symbol, Watts knew, is money. The reality — the wealth — is this world we inhabit:

Money is a way of measuring wealth, but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.

Watts’ solutions might not find an audience anytime soon, at least not in the way he envisioned. The establishment of a “leisure economy,” in which our technology does more of our work for us so that artists, poets, and musicians are free to create sounds like a relic of the ’60s. Then again, seeing how quickly Old Navy was shamed for printing a shirt that discouraged children from becoming artists, the public conscience is tuned into the necessity of the arts.

That said, the distance between symbol and reality remains wide in a culture that demands its music free and a media (and public) that barely supports long-form journalism. At the moment, Watts’ imagined leisure economy belongs to a sliver of our society. Sadly, it is often members of this population lobbying Congress to block environmental regulations. Despite what Watts envisioned, diverting some of that abstract money from energy and defense into the arts might just make a drastic improvement in our outlook and morale, not to mention our simple enjoyment of life.

A few weeks ago, my best friend and I camped on the Oregon coast on a 40-degree, rainy night. The details remain fresh in my mind: the fire we kept alight underneath the tarp, the band of raccoons circling our camp, layers of thermal clinging to my skin as we walked among the giant trees, the smell of the beach in the morning as the tide surged. I felt — rich.

I’ve lived in cities all of my adult life. Nature is not my everyday, though I try to escape there as often as possible. And I’ve long recognized the emotional difference between the hustle and bustle of surviving in cities and my time at a desert, mountain, or coast. It removes any abstraction from the experience of life. Watts was a dreamer, and certainly many of his ideas will remain in the realm of the imagination. But imagination is an integral part of our long evolution. For most of human history, our connection with nature was much more intimate. The cord has not been severed for that long.

Watts certainly had one thing right: When we pull ourselves back into nature, we better understand the nature of wealth. Destroying that connection for the sake of money is certainly the greatest crime humanity has committed during our short time here, and we’ll be paying a heavy toll for some time to come.

Image: ullstein bild / Getty Images

Derek Beres is a Los Angeles-based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor. Follow him on Twitter @derekberes.


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