The Economy of the Garden -- Part Two

Watermelons want to rule the world -- at least the two that we planted in our backyard. They took a long time to get started. For a while, they looked almost dead and we wondered whether they were going to make it, but gradually, the two watermelon vines began to grow. After a few weeks they crept outside of their allotted space, shaking green hands with the strawberries, even reaching out towards the tomato plants. At first we were excited about it, but our excitement turned to suspicion when the watermelon vines began to take over the garden. I know now that the watermelons have intentions of ruling the world with a viney fist; their red imperialist hearts are desperate to bring all of the plants into submission.

But it's not just the watermelons that have plans of world domination. The strawberries have countered with an attack of their own, sending shoots out to fresh soil. The tomatoes are taking all the space they can find. The caterpillars are trying to rule the world bite by bite. The gophers? Nothing short of Machiavellian. Our backyard garden is barely big enough for a few of our favorite things -- there is simply no room for any of this tyranny. So I step in the middle of these warring flora and try to break up the fights -- a novice gardener in well over my head. The trouble is, I have more in common with watermelons than I'd like to admit. Deep down inside of me the vines of an insatiable appetite are hungry for more. No matter what I consume or acquire I am never satisfied for long.

The economic principle of scarcity is the backbone of both the financial world and my backyard garden. In spite of our limited resources, though, our appetites are fairly unlimited. Given the means, who knows what ends we would purchase. Yes, we humans are an insatiable bunch. Disproportionate consumption is the trademark of our modern age, especially as credit now allows us to live beyond what we can afford. We, and our watermelon-hearts are always hungry for more. More surfboards, more diamond rings, more cars, more cell phones, more, more, more.

Fortunately (and unfortunately), there's always more to consume. Every day bright and shiny new products are thrust upon us -- shrink-wrapped in striking colors, boldly proclaiming their dominance and necessity. They jump off of billboards with bright, white smiles and beautiful skin. They're stocked with attitude, emotion and catchy slogans: "Diamonds are forever." "Just do it." "Reach out and touch someone." "Have it your way." They tickle our eager ears and grab our attention. This is the modern world. And this is normal. This is all I have ever known. But the human experience wasn't always this way. And our unquestioned commoditization of all that we interact with has striking implications for the things that cannot be bought or sold. Greed, envy, sloth, pride and gluttony: these are not vices anymore. No, these are marketing tools. Lust is our way of life. Envy is just a nudge towards another sale. Even in our relationships we consume each other, each of us looking for what we can get out of the other. Our appetites are often satisfied at the expense of those around us. In a dog-eat-dog world we lose part of our humanity. Perhaps our eager consumption is crowding the soil of the plants around us.

One might argue that these principles of consumption are nothing new. That it's evolution that has brought us to where we are today. That all is fair in love and war, and only the strong survive. And yet, these evolutionary principles fall short when applied to the ethics of human life. When we see a young girl injured in a Haitian earthquake, or a young boy with learning disabilities, let us never stand aside and watch with the calloused indifference of natural selection. It's this heartless disregard that gives birth to holocausts and genocides. We have to believe that the human heart can rise above the inane gluttony of mindless ingestion. Besides, the victory of consumptions achieved by the stomach are hardly unique to humanity -- these are triumphs achieved by many species with much less intelligence. There has to be a higher ground than a full stomach and a well-stroked ego.

Maybe our imperialist tendencies pay homage to the empires that have gone before us. In our amazing world of convenience every individual is king, ruler of his pocketbook. Yet, in many ways the modern consumer looks more like a slave to fashion than a true autonomous sovereign. Without moderation and self-control we are simply the servants of advertisements, chasing the bait, lures, and hooks like so many fish. Our significance, meaning, and purpose are very closely tied to the stereotypes that ad campaigns are built on. Our postmodern tribes are defined by our purchases. You drive a Ford truck. You drink Coors Light. And you wear Wranglers. We state our unique identity by following along with the masses. Ironically, the sale and purchase of mass-produced commodities has become an uncontestable statement of individualism. Every advertisement is wrapped around me, myself and I. Acquiescing to our seemingly-endless appetites turns us into slaves blindly serving our lusts. And in this self-absorbed line of thought we begin to forget the needs of others. Our unthinking consumption reduces the human community to the involuntary greed of a watermelon plant. Yes, my soul is a garden that has become overgrown with commercial interruptions. Maybe it's time to prune these weedy desires and vices of mine. Any watermelon can take over the world but it takes a gardener to keep these ravenous tendencies at bay. Perhaps we have become very good at consuming and very bad at gardening.

If economy means "the administration of available resources" then is likely that our current "economy" is anything but economical. Given the mismanagement of funds, energy and time over the past few decades we might find the title "mis-economy" more fitting of our actions. Our accounting has no accountability. Our budgeting has no budget to work with. And our funds are no longer funded. The "productivity" of the past few years has produced only a large national deficit. It's incredibly depressing to think that our time spent "working" (our traffic-filled morning commutes, the headaches with colleagues, the agonizing office meetings) has actually worked against us. Our blood, sweat and tears have left our collective economy bankrupt and our environment irreparably damaged. The voices of future generations cry out against us, wondering what resources will be left here on the planet. The voices of the twenty-seven million humans in slavery today cry out against us; they wonder when our help will come to rescue them. Even the stock market has been trying to get our attention, wondering how far our human greed can push us.

An endless appetite is at both ends of the equation -- the consumption of others feeds our bellies just as our own hunger drains our wallets. Yes, the paycheck and the purchase are necessities but the mere acquisition of wealth and product cannot be our purpose here on the planet. There has to be a higher way. We have been fooled if we see the worth of a forest only in terms of the lumber it can offer us. We are mistaken if we view the worth of the human soul in terms of the skills that she can bring to the corporation. The power we harvest from the sun's solar energy will never match the worth of its beauty. And yet, we are constantly confusing monetary value with worth.

How does the greater worth of the setting sun become dulled by a shiny red sports car on a billboard? The subtle difference between the advertisement and the truth is the illusion of ownership. Yes, the illusion of ownership. I will never own my car to the extent that I will own my grave. No, and even our coffins cannot save us from future consumption. Yes, one day every consumer will be consumed. Our bodies will fertilize future generations of life; the eater will be eaten, the gardener will become a part of the garden. Whitman's leaves of grass are but "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." Six feet underground our differences will seem small indeed. Racial tensions, socio-economic barriers, religious differences -- they are all buried in the ground, side by side in the cemetery.

There is no manufacturer's guarantee that is as dependable as the grave. None of our wealth will come with us. All that has breath will one day cease to breathe. All that is green and full of life will one day fertilize a future crop. All that consume, consumed. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I start to think of how transient our lives are here on the planet. I begin to think of how quick our days pass us by. I think of all the junk in the closet. I look at all the amazing odds and ends in the back of the Goodwill store. At one point all this stuff was new, bright, valuable. But what is value? What is worth? Perhaps watching the sunset with my wife gives me an ownership that no deed or title could ever afford.

A gardener doesn't invent a new plant. He doesn't purchase the midday sun to provide for his crop. He doesn't manufacture storms. He plants the seeds and waters and hopes. He partners with the creator of all creation in the regeneration of life. The gardener is in the business of bringing green from brown, many from few. He brings fresh, beautiful, edible life from manure, compost and decay. As humans we produce, we generate, we construct. But we lack the ability to truly create. We can only use the materials at hand. The gold that we mine from the earth was not our creation. The wood that we mill for our houses and paper plates is not a human invention. The skies and the seas that our planes and ships travel upon are not our own innovation. These are resources given to all of us.

We are only gardeners. These resources -- the forests, the seas and all the animals and plants within them -- form a community of creation. Let us never forget that any form of ownership is transient and fading. In this context we ourselves are members of the larger story, the community of the living and the dead. Our endless desires must be put against the backdrop of this reality. I must trim the vines. I must make room for the other plants in this worldwide garden, even at the expense of my own consumption. Let us travel lightly and deeply, my friends -- for even this breath is not ours to keep.