The word ‘aspiration’ has been in the political sphere a lot since our recent elections here in the UK, where it has been used to describe the wish for a certain kind of success: a success based on accumulated personal capital, and the power to influence society and the world’s resources in an overtly self-serving way. Politically speaking, in the UK at least, it is currently en vogue to shape the state and its laws and financial structures, in a way that best enables individuals to build their own private fortunes and climb the ladder of social status. Wealth and celebrity are closely intertwined, as exemplified by the annual publication of The Sunday Times Rich List. To me, this is a perverse celebration of inequality and a symptom of our limited understanding of what is actually valuable to us mortals.
Of course, the many benefits of economic development since the industrial revolution are undeniable. We shouldn’t take for granted the historic privilege of our ability to travel so freely, communicate and keep ourselves alive with such commonplace things as antibiotics, vaccines and antiseptic. And at the same time I find myself angry as I imagine Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher sleeping comfortably in their graves, utterly unaware of the socio-planetary sickness being caused by the externalities of the corporatised free market economy. This is a system that both seeds and is born from our limited, self-centred aspirations. ‘Negative externalities’ is a phrase economists use to describe a cost paid by those not involved in a particular transaction. When a logging company fells primary rainforest, there is a cost to the creatures that lose their habitat. There is a cost to first nation people who lose their traditional means of finding food and shelter and there is a cost to you and I who lose some of the eco-system’s ability to clean our air. The loggers do not pay these external costs. Others do.
What do you aspire to? What kind of future are you gestating in the here and now? If we don’t examine our aspirations and values, we may just end up going along with the norms of our society—and our society may be suffering from an epidemic of status anxiety. If we are blind to our inherited assumptions about wealth and what is valuable, then we are limited in our ability to discover the riches available to us. Tsongkapa, a fourteenth century Tibetan Lama, said: “The human body, at peace with itself, is more precious than the rarest gem.” What is really valuable to you? Can we really be at peace with ourselves knowing what effect the externalities of our drive to accumulate and posses are having? Maybe we are blinkered in our obsession with material wealth and status. Maybe the aspiration to be kind, happy and healthy is way more valuable than we realise. Maybe we can see past our arrogant desire to posses nature’s resources and discover the living wealth that we are made of. Maybe the old rabbi from Nazareth was right about the meek inheriting the earth.
Article also appears on Conscious 2