america VanLife work

Caught Up in the River of Capitalism

Sometimes the things we take for granted are exactly the things that we should question the most. The more and more I wander this lifetime, the more I gradually come to see that the underlying way we function as a society is truly off. 

This realization began in earnest a couple of summers ago while driving my recently converted van in the Northwest United States and British Columbia. After a gloriously prolonged stint in Canada, my traveling companion and I dropped down into America in Montana near Glacier National Park. I was quickly reminded that the longer I stay away from the world I have known, things that had previously seemed perfectly normal can suddenly appear particularly peculiar. 

Glacier was a mad house. No room to park to access the visitor center, long vehicular lines before 8am to hopefully grab an available campsite, traffic jams along the roads. Civilization had overtaken this place until it’s natural beauty was being overshadowed by masses of citizenry. It felt like natural beauty was being sold to us. We exited the park to find some quiet sanctuary along a small river on some public lands, beginning our travels the following day toward life as we had known it pre-nature immersion. 

Driving south into the beautiful mountain town of Kalispell, Montana was surprisingly jarring. Everywhere I looked, we were assaulted by billboards selling everything from lumber to liquor, groceries to gated communities, carpet cleaning to child care. Nature sells you nothing, it simply gives. Our society sells you everything. We exist within our society by working and selling. This system perpetuates because we buy that which is for sale. It’s strange, although to pretty much all of us who were weaned on the bottle of consumerism, this may seem perfectly normal. 

But it’s not.

The System

What I’m seeing is a system, a way of living that seems radically wrong. Our world functions primarily through the exploitation of natural resources and the mechanism of buying and selling. Our work as individuals is either making things to sell, or at the very least making money so we can buy. Shelves are lined with products, almost all of which are unnecessary. We work and we buy, others work and sell. Many do both. We spend and spend and spend, with much of it often going towards non-essentials. And then we work and work and work more to make money to pay for those non-essentials. But it’s more than shopping, it’s our system built on competition rather than cooperation, on consumerism rather than collectivism, on disposability rather than sustainability. 

Most people alive today know nothing other than capitalism. Their parent or parents go to work to make money and then spend that money to buy the things they need (and things they may not need but they desire). When that is all we see, it is all we know. People don’t necessarily choose this, it chooses them. Having enough money to buy that which is needed is largely very challenging and commonly quite stressful. We end up spending our vibrant capacities and years of our lives working for money so we can afford the things we want and need.

The more time I spend in nature, the more simply “off” the civilized world seems to have become. A city’s five lanes of traffic slowly moving in each direction may appear as a “normal commute,” but there is something deeply wrong about it.

A Note on Privilege

Before I go any further, I want to simply acknowledge that I am writing this from a perspective of privilege. I have more freedom and spaciousness in my life in large part because my privilege as a straight white male helped pave the way for the capitalist system to work well for me. Most people don’t necessarily have the freedom that I do to spend significant amounts of time in nature due to financial/survival constraints. I also don’t have the same safety concerns as women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ or others who can have safety fears that unfortunately exist from simply being who they are. 

Our Stuff

We’ve become slaves to our stuff. When living in a van for months at a time it becomes very apparent that I need so few things to have a vibrantly enjoyable life. Shelter, books to read, about a dozen items of clothing, food/water, minimal electricity, a guitar, a computer to write/edit on (a luxury really), a few toiletries. That’s pretty much it. The rest is superfluous. I have come to agree with my father who liked to say that “happiness is inversely proportional to the number of keys you have.” “Keys,” as a proxy for “stuff,” can quickly become the quicksand to one’s happiness. 

Oh, it’s a mystery to me
We have a greed with which we have agreed
And you think you have to want more than you need
Until you have it all you won’t be free

Society, you’re a crazy breed
Hope you’re not lonely without me…

~ Eddie Vedder (from the song “Society” from the film “Into the Wild”)

Society somehow convinces us that we need more stuff, nicer homes, nicer vehicles. For some in our capitalist system, even the cost of simple bare-bones survival can seem extravagant, with basic shelter often costing multiple thousands of dollars each month. Those sufficiently lucky, privileged and skilled enough can eventually retire hopefully debt free, but unfortunately they have all too frequently missed out on the joys of a more spaciously relaxed life during those more vibrant years. 

Though I own a lovely oceanfront home in Northern California and spend about half the year there, I find I am actually happier when I am in my simple one room van with only 60 square feet of living space. My home may give me security and a sense of having a “home base,” but being mobile and able to wake up in beautiful places with space to write and sing brings me much more joy than even living in my home. Stuff doesn’t bring happiness. Simplicity does. Time does. Freedom does. 

Poverty and the Challenges of Capitalism

The places in the world where generating sufficient survival income becomes more challenging are those where capitalism results in significant accumulation of wealth among limited numbers of people.

Capitalism creates vortices of financial energy with centrifuges of wealth spinning out riches for those lucky enough to succeed within the game, drawing those who don’t succeed into their eddies of poverty and homelessness.

When capitalism is the order of the day, people are expected to fend for themselves. When those who don’t successfully navigate our capitalist structures fall, they can fall hard. The massive tent encampments along the freeway off-ramps I’ve recently witnessed in Oakland and Berkeley, CA are a testament to people literally falling off the wayside. Those struggling to survive in a capitalist society are struggling for many reasons, foremost among which is that prices for basic survival necessities are dictated by the market which encourages the production of products which can generate the most profit for their seller. Capitalism also requires cheap labor to make goods affordable, thus putting constant downward pressure on the wages of workers. 

I’ve spent considerable time in Thailand and Nepal over recent years and very rarely if ever have I seen someone there who appeared to be without a home to live in. People who don’t thrive in the cities tend to return to their villages to live where collective living within extended family networks is the order of the day. I know from my early life experience that life can be challenging anywhere when poverty strikes, but in these places, poverty doesn’t necessarily equate to homelessness and hunger like it does in much of the western world. 

Stuff vs. Time

The more we work, especially when dictated by the aim of income for “stuff” beyond the required basics, the less time we have to truly cultivate a relaxed soul. I prepare almost all of my own meals from real unprocessed food for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. The end result is healthier and far less expensive than buying already processed foods, or dining out (or dining in via DoorDash or some other food delivery provider). Spending on convenience is a luxury, and the true cost of that luxury is measured mostly in health and time, both of which are lost in the pursuit of the income necessary to subsidize that life of convenience. 

Disposable income, the income left over after spending on life’s necessities of basic food, sufficient clothing, simple shelter, can be used for only two things: stuff or time. When we spend our disposable income on stuff, it is either to upgrade the basics, or to buy things that are simply not requisites. That consumption however, comes at the expense of time. We either work longer hours in pursuit of that excess disposable income, or we significantly lengthen the working years of our lives and put off retirement for additional years or perhaps decades. 

What We Are Taught vs What We Should Learn

Most all of us don’t receive the education needed to help us learn the arts which are helpful for living a simple, less consumerist life. The following things I consider to be basic and critical skills to living a good life, yet education, which is largely mandatory, mostly ignores these topics:

  • Gardening/Farming
  • Foraging
  • Land/ocean/lake/river stewardship
  • Construction/shelter building
  • Water systems and waste treatment
  • Self-sufficient power generation
  • Natural medicine and healing
  • Animal husbandry (for wool and healthy soils – important even for vegetarians)
  • Textiles/weaving/sewing
  • Fabricating (woodworking, welding, etc.)
  • Food preparation and preservation

Our society ushers us toward aquiring the skills required to make money rather than making things, toward being marketable employees. Along the way we learn to want that which we don’t need, and sadly to work harder and spend more in their pursuit.

So something is off. The happiest people I know are the ones who are the most free, yet our society binds us, knowingly and unknowingly, to the machinery of money and the tethers of survival. I’ll confess that I’m still very much a consumer. I may be good with food choices, even growing many of my own greens, fermenting foods and baking breads, with an organized pantry of staples which can inspire envy. Yet I still burn fossil fuels, and order more than I care to admit from Amazon (though I’m consciously working on bucking that habit). Politicians, lobbyists, corporations, wealthy industrialists, educational institutions and the news media created this system, opting to perpetuate the mythos of the rugged individualist getting ahead at the expense of the collective welfare of all. 

In a consumerist world, it’s challenging to not be a consumer. We don’t always feel like we have any choice, held hostage by a system not of our original choosing that is very difficult to escape. It’s possible, yet extrication on a personal level is a complex matter. My only real advice at this point is to simply pay close attention. Notice the ways in which our system pits wealthy against poor, how it rewards the few at the expense of the many. And we need to think before we buy. Educate ourselves on the impacts of our consumption patterns on the health of our planet and its inhabitants. What do we value more: stuff or freedom? Convenience or our planet’s wellbeing? The welfare of all or the aggrandizement of wealth of a few?

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

~ Charles Bukowski

9 replies on “Caught Up in the River of Capitalism”

Thank you Brooke. Through your comments, I’ve always felt you as a kindred spirit. I like the distinction you make between “managing” and “creating” our lives. How very true.

Wow Ted! Soooo True! I wish I had the advantage/finances to live “sucker free”! You are sooo right on! “things”, don’t make you happy”, Freedom from things” really do! Another “bad” (good) creation!

Thank you for reminding us once again, what we take for granted and “really”, what’s not necessary to be “LOVING, HAPPY, HEALTHY AND SANE”! Your “REALITY, Your GENUINENESS”, ALWAYS mesmerize me!!! Like “CHECK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOURSELF, LIKE…drop the mic”! LIKE, TRULY THE SIMPLE THINGS IS ALL WE REALLY NEED! Like “Just be thankful, for what we got”, THANK YOU!!

Hey Lavella. Thank you gor writing. “Check yourself, before you wreck yourself!” I should have consulted with you when trying to come up with a title! I very much appreciate you.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom once again Ted! I always enjoy your writing and how you make me stop and think. I love your dad’s philosophy on happiness and the number of keys you have. I’ve heard something similar, in that every possession is also an anchor. I know you’ve shed most of your anchors.
We just got back from a week in the mountains. I was struck again, similarly to when we go to the beach, at how few small houses there are. Growing up, people who were fortunate enough to have a second home Had cabins a little bigger than your van, and people probably had more time to enjoy them because they weren’t paying for another mortgage on 6 bedrooms, 7 baths, granite countertops and AirB&B management for their “cabin”.
I’m not sure how you stop the wheel from spinning, but I think you’d have a very successful summer school if you offered your curriculum! Looking forward to additional comments from your many enlightened friends!

Hey Steve. Your comment makes me think of many things, but this lyric ftom John Lennon rises to the top:

“I’m just sitting here watching the wheel go round and round, I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry-go-round. I just had to let it go.”

He got it. Dismounting a tricky thing to do, but it starts with developing faith in the increased value of a simpler life and being aware of the trade offs we make with our everyday decisions, both small and large. I miss you Steve.

Ted… I love the beauty of the juxtaposition of stuff vs time.
One can extricate themselves from the current paradigm but there is a cost to it…. falling off the edges or feeling continuously goaded to reinter the fold.
I’m a big fan of simplification, minimalism and self-sufficiency….
Thanks for sharing.

Thank you James. Yes extrication comes at a cost for sure. Learning to separate and identify our own true voice versus society’s silent goading is critical. I live the Bukowski quote at the end where he says, “your life if your life, know it while you have it,” and warns of not being “clubbed into dank submission.” Just as a side note, I really respect the ways in which you live your life.

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