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One of the most prevalent themes in science fiction and depictions of future societies is the unshackling of humanity from monetary materialism. Star Trek fans will be all too familiar with this idea, in that this fictional universe sees work as something that is done “for the betterment of mankind”, and that “in the future, money along with war and poverty, do not exist”. Unfortunately we as a society are nowhere near ready to achieve this ideal, neither technologically nor idealistically. Money makes the world go round, as the saying goes. But is this lofty aim achievable or even warranted? Would it eliminate the vices and accentuate the virtues? What sort of political, societal, economical and technological mindsets would be needed? These are the questions I wish to explore in this article.

The first proposition I want to put forward is not only crucial to the argument at hand, but also directly observable in the facets of human behaviour. Materialism seems to be an innate characteristic of our society and of ourselves as individuals. The nub of this character most likely lies in the evolutionary advantage that resource gathering brings. Not only does an excess of material goods improve one’s chances of personal survival, but it also increases the attractiveness of oneself to potential mates (a resourceful mate is more likely to provide for the child and mother, whilst also protecting them from malevolent others). It makes sense, then, that such behaviours would evolve to become second nature. Less fortunate individuals, lacking in such resourceful extravagance for whatever reason (low intelligence, physical handicap, large amounts of competition), would naturally evolve to make the most of the situation and attempt to siphon such resources from the said ‘resourcer’. Now, as a side note, humans are notoriously devious creatures, and social deception has long been our forte (perhaps even providing the evolutionary pressure to evolve larger brains as a way of out-witting our fellow tribes-people). Rather than challenge the dominant individual (at significant risk of physical injury or social ostracism), although this can occur if the individuals are similarly matched in resources – subjectively perceived or otherwise, the challenger will often resort to social subterfuge and gravitate towards servitude. And thus is born the concept of social power. Note that the incarnation of power used here is that which does not include the agent with the stronger muscles, the bigger guns or the tougher resolve (these may be a subsequent condition of wealth) but rather the elevation of an individual to higher social status.

Following this elevation, it is no wonder why we seem to be intrinsically predisposed towards the continual collection of material possessions. The introduction of hard currency and free, global markets as opposed to direct trade of goods and local, village-based economies only encourages the development of this social trend. We wear our possessions on our sleeves, as it were, in that material goods become our avatars, promoting a falsehood to impress others. As such, humanity is at times an unwitting but very willing exhibitionist. This ‘faking rich’ allows those who live off a credit line to lead a life that was otherwise unreachable. Building upon the foundations laid down by our nomadic ancestors, the perpetual scramble for wealth with which to buy only the newest and the latest sets up a fatal cycle. No longer do we buy things for their practicality but rather their (subjective) credibility. Greed for power and influence over social communities fuels the thirst for this retail addiction. But in just the same way that the junkie’s life starts to unravel, so to does the society in which greed motivates social interactions.

Now allow me to take a few steps backwards, the literary imagery is becoming a little to emotionally charged. Let me clarify my position; this is not an attack on free market economies, democracy or anything else to do with our current models of socio-economics. What I am attempting to put across is that I believe the current era of human civilisation is simply a transitional period. Unfortunately we often have to learn the hard way, and survey says that this may be the hardest lesson of all. For the first time in history we are facing a real and imminent danger of destroying ourselves through an unabated and merciless greed for wealth. The planet is teetering on the edge of an environmental catastrophe (yes, I am aware of the counter arguments put forward against global warming) for which we only have ourselves to blame. Controversially, I almost hope that the big crunch does occur, as this may prove to be the catalyst to propel humanity towards the next era of civilisation. But what an expensive lesson to learn! Humanity needs to take a step back and take a long look at itself; extensive changes to mindsets, traditions and other general inefficiencies and nonsensical practices that are stubbornly clung to need to be overhauled. In essence, we need a ‘future shock’ of sorts, a Scroogian-Christmas Carolesque experience that jolts society to its very foundations and makes us sit upright in our seats. Because without it, society can only continue to corrupt and corrode, destroying all we hold morally and ethically dear.

But what about the solution? Its all well and good to proclaim from my ivory tower that the world is full of thoughtless barbarians hell bent on spending their next paycheck. You would say I was a sensationalist, a perpetrator of stereotypes and over-generalist. Well you would be right! However this brings us no closer to the issue at hand. The problem thus defined is ‘humanity’s intrinsic need for resources (brought about through millennia of evolution) appears to be causing the run-away destruction of societal values and serves as a distraction from loftier pursuits worthy of our attention (elimination of poverty, world peace etc)’. The evidence; environmental collapse of this planet, societal trends towards materialism and generation of wealth (observable through record inflation, unaffordable housing prices, collapse of the sharemarket) and a youth culture that seems obsessed with outward-facing, individual interactions rather than introspection and collective collaboration.

Thus the solution has to be multifaceted; it must be in order to deal with the complicated causes that bubble away in the alchemist’s pot. Tipping the balance too much either way leads to a society that is stagnant and frankly, boring. Mindsets, values and ideals need to be modified just rightly so. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a capitalist society, but allowing a runaway effect of degrading values at its expense seems a hefty price to pay. On the other hand we have the history books to guide us. The collapse of communism illuminates the dangers of going too far with socio-economic models. As always, a fusion of ‘the best of both worlds’ is needed. Perhaps the ideals of communism mixed with the liberty of democracy and sprinkled with the spiritual enlightenment of Buddhism baked in the idealogical oven might just do the trick. Although, is such a tasty combination possible?

Fundamental flaws in human nature make such a lofty political ideal seem far-fetched. It will be interesting to see the outcome of communist China’s embracing of the Western economic model (however, this could also be a catastrophe waiting to happen as the full industrial might of China’s population is put to work churning out the goods we take for granted). It seems that even communist nations, priding themselves on foreign policies of Western isolationism and incorruptible ideals (though the latter point couldn’t be further from the truth in actual practice), are unable to resist the power of the ‘dark side’ when it comes to the almighty dollar.

Therefore, the solution needs to remove the motivation of money. Is it possible to simply remove currency? I think not. Not only would the forcible removal of wealth be suicide for any governing body, but the social cataclysm would be phenomenal. The social class system with its rising gap between rich and poor seems to be the only valid target for attack at this point. Rather than removing wealth altogether, the focus should be pinpointed on creating a global middle class; eliminating the need for envy and greed. To this end, a fair distribution of the world’s wealth seems to be the least disruptive path to follow. Perhaps centrally controlled via a world banking conglomerate, wealth would be dished out similarly to all based on time periods or relative need rather than job status or amount of investments. Civilisation would continue as normal, but instead of receiving monetary compensation, the mindset of working simply for the pleasure of doing so would be the sole motivating factor.

All this seems very high and mighty, and seems to grow exponentially in difficulty (in implementation) as we progress. So far my points are thus; to eliminate the problems brought about by materialistic drives, both physical and intangible changes must occur to society. Mindsets need to change; specifically our motivations for compensation and our dependence on wealth to bring happiness (secondary) and power (primary). Vast political, societal and economic changes are needed if this is to occur. Society must simultaneously be careful not to regress back to medieval forms of exchange such as direct goods trade although some features of this model may have their uses.

A ‘global garden’ approach where modern free-markets are supplemented by direct trade of goods at the village level seems to be the only way out of this quandary. Global climate changes will affect society in drastic ways. Soon we will have to reduce our carbon emissions prudently by limiting travel and reducing the industry that brings luxury items. Such goods will still be available under this model, although at much higher costs (to reduce the appeal they attract and to reflect the decreased ability to transport such items). Urban planning will focus on small village models, with self-sustainability becoming the main goal of design. Most trade will be conducted within the village, perhaps each specialising in a particular commodity which they can export to other nearby villages. A global government with reduced bureaucracy will form the symbolic face of future society, with practical day-to-day administration being done autonomously at the village level. In effect, the government of the future acts as more of a protective net rather than an enforcer of laws and taxation. A sense of community will be fostered (bringing in communist principles) where money is not the deciding factor in decisions, rather the wellbeing of society and its members.

Sure its a romantic view of the future, but one that I believe is attainable. If humankind is to advance past the outdated materialism that has been a harsh master (but entirely inappropriate for future society development) big changes need to occur before we all run out of time. Our insatiable greed is driving us deeper and deeper into the hole that has been dug in the name of ‘progress’. People need to start identifying and separating what they want from what they really need. So next time you see that brand new Ipod in the window with its flashy graphics and funky cover, take a moment to think if you really need it. I’m not preaching an Amish lifestyle; people still need luxuries and can appreciate nice things, but not at the expense of their own values and society’s progress as a whole. Don’t just buy something because its cool or in fashion. Buy it because you appreciate the hours that went into designing it, the ideas that sparked its creation, its symbolism of human ingenuity. Use it to inspire your own creations and and fuel your future aspirations.