Saturday, 6 November 2010

Sanity or growth: The madness of continued economic growth.

The following is an extract from an article entitled, ‘Understanding money is central to self sufficiency,’ by the author Charles Eisenstein. It’s an excellent analysis of the effects of our continuing dependence on economic growth, and how it cannot continue indefinitely. A link to the full articles is provided at the end of this extract

"From an economic point of view, a forest is only of use if I cut it down and Iand sell the timber. While it is still standing and inaccessible, it is not a good. It only becomes "good" when I build a logging road, hire labour, cut it down, and transport it to a buyer. I convert a forest to timber, a commodity, and GDP (Gross Domestic Product), goes up. Similarly, if I create a new song and share it for free, GDP does not go up and society is not considered wealthier, but if I copyright it and sell it, it becomes a good. Or I can find a traditional society that uses herbs for healing, destroy their culture and make them dependent on pharmaceutical medicine which they must purchase, evict them from their land so they cannot be subsistence farmers and must buy food, clear the land and hire them on a banana plantation -- and I have made the world richer. I have brought various functions, relationships, and natural resources into the realm of money. In The Ascent of Humanity, I describe this process in depth: the conversion of social capital, natural capital, cultural capital, and spiritual capital into money.

Essentially, for the economy to continue growing and for the (interest-based) money system to remain viable, more and more of nature and human relationship must be monetised. For example, thirty years ago most meals were prepared at home; today some two-thirds are prepared outside, in restaurants or supermarket delis. A once unpaid function, cooking, has become a "service". And we are the richer for it. Right?

Another major engine of economic growth over the last three decades, child care, has also made us richer. We are now relieved of the burden of caring for our own children. We pay experts instead, who can do it much more efficiently.

In ancient times entertainment was also a free, participatory function. Everyone played an instrument, sang, participated in drama. Even 75 years ago in America, every small town had its own marching band and baseball team. Now we pay for those services. The economy has grown. Hooray.

The crisis we are facing today arises from the fact there there is almost no more social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital left to convert into money. Centuries, millennia of near-continuous money creation has left us so destitute that we have nothing left to sell. Our forests are damaged beyond repair, our soil depleted and washed into the sea, our fisheries fished out, the rejuvenating capacity of the earth to recycle our waste saturated. Our cultural treasury of songs and stories, images and icons, has been looted and copyrighted. Any clever phrase you can think of is already a trademarked slogan. Our very human relationships and abilities have been taken away from us and sold back, so that we are now dependent on strangers, and therefore on money, for things few humans ever paid for until recently: food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, child care, cooking. Life itself has become a consumer item. Today we sell away the last vestiges of our divine bequeathment: our health, the biosphere and genome, even our own minds. This is the process that is culminating in our age. It is almost complete, especially in America and the "developed" world. In the developing world there still remain people who live substantially in gift cultures, where natural and social wealth is not yet the subject of property. Globalisation is the process of stripping away these assets, to feed the money machine's insatiable, existential need to grow. Yet this stripmining of other lands is running up against its limits too, both because there is almost nothing left to take, and because of growing pockets of effective resistance.

The result is that the supply of money -- and the corresponding volume of debt -- has for several decades outstripped the production of goods and services that it promises. It is deeply related to the classic problem of oversupply in capitalist economics. The Marxian crisis of capital can be deferred into the future as long as new, high-profit industries and markets can be developed to compensate for the vicious circle of falling profits, falling wages, depressed consumption, and overproduction in mature industries. The continuation of capitalism as we know it depends on an infinite supply of these new industries, which essentially must convert infinite new realms of social, natural, cultural, and spiritual capital into money. The problem is, these resources are finite, and the closer they come to exhaustion, the more painful their extraction becomes. Therefore, contemporaneous with the financial crisis we have an ecological crisis and a health crisis. They are intimately interlinked. We cannot convert much more of the earth into money, or much more of our health into money, before the basis of life itself is threatened.

People can no longer pay for various goods and services, and so have to rely on friends and neighbours instead. Where there is no money to facilitate transactions, gift economies re-emerge and new kinds of money are created. Ordinarily, though, people and institutions fight tooth and nail to prevent that from happening. The habitual first response to economic crisis is to make and keep more money -- to accelerate the conversion of anything you can into money. On a systemic level, the debt surge is generating enormous pressure to extend the commodification of the commonwealth. We can see this happening with the calls to drill for oil in Alaska, commence deep-sea drilling, and so on. The time is here, though, for the reverse process to begin in earnest -- to remove things from the realm of goods and services, and return them to the realm of gifts, reciprocity, self-sufficiency, and community sharing. Note well: this is going to happen anyway in the wake of a currency collapse, as people lose their jobs or become too poor to buy things. People will help each other and real communities will reemerge.

In the meantime, anything we do to protect some natural or social resource from conversion into money will both hasten the collapse and mitigate its severity. Any forest you save from development, any road you stop, any cooperative playgroup you establish; anyone you teach to heal themselves, or to build their own house, cook their own food, make their own clothes; any wealth you create or add to the public domain; anything you render off-limits to the world-devouring Machine, will help shorten the Machine's lifespan. Think of it this way: if you already do not depend on money for some portion of life's necessities and pleasures, then the collapse of money will pose much less of a harsh transition for you. The same applies to the social level. Any network or community or social institution that is not a vehicle for the conversion of life into money will sustain and enrich life after money.

Elsewhere I have described alternative money systems, based on mutual credit and demurrage, that do not drive the conversion of all that is good, true, and beautiful into money. These enact a fundamentally different human identity, a fundamentally different sense of self, from what dominates today. No more will it be true that more for me is less for you. On a personal level, the deepest possible revolution we can enact is a revolution in our sense of self, in our identity. The discrete and separate self of Descartes and Adam Smith has run its course and is becoming obsolete. We are realising our own inseparateness, from each other and from the totality of all life. Interest belies this union, for it seeks growth of the separate self at the expense of something external, something other. Probably everyone reading this essay agrees with the principles of interconnectedness, whether from a Buddhistic or an ecological perspective. The time has come to live it. It is time to enter the spirit of the gift, which embodies the felt understanding of non-separation. It is becoming abundantly obvious that less for you (in all its dimensions) is also less for me. The ideology of perpetual gain has brought us to a state of poverty so destitute that we are gasping for air. That ideology, and the civilization built upon it, is what is collapsing today" Full article here


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