Whatever one might think about the future of humanity, it is hard to argue that we are not in a place currently, of mounting, epic crises. The potential collapse of the European Union, an ever expanding world-wide debt bubble, mass specie extinction, deforestation, the depletion of fisheries, peak oil, mass unemployment, governmental incompetency, pending nuclear proliferation, the ongoing proliferation of toxins, expanding income inequality, exponential population growth, etc. etc. It isn't any wonder that extreme thinking should become a hallmark of such crises, be it the messianic tendency to believe in the return of Christ, or aliens, or simply human ingeniousness that will result in some technological gimmick that will make all those crises go away. That kind of thinking, of course, is not seen anywhere near as extreme as that thinking which looks directly at the data, and acknowledges that the near future isn't going to look anything like what most people expect, or indeed anything that humanity has had to confront before -the perspective which looks for solutions to that predicament, outside the bounds of conventional economic thinking. There is in fact a vibrant dialogue going on, at the periphery of the culture, at the leading edge as it were, which the culture has not yet awakened to.
Into that dialogue, Charles Eisenstein has offered his book, Sacred Economics: Gift, Money and Society in the Age of Transition. Eisenstein asserts that we are living in an Age of Separation. At the core of our culture, is the paradigm he calls Ascent, or the idea that humans are "a discrete and separate self," fundamentally self-interested and without responsibility to any whole; and humanity, as ever on some upward, exponential trajectory to some sublime technological utopia, "moving inexorably toward our destiny of complete mastery over, and transcendence of, nature." From that perspective, it is a book that cannot be taken seriously. It is a book however, that if one can open one's heart, it becomes apparent that much of what he is saying is both true, and possible. And that is the nature of the Age, if one hopes to navigate it with anything resembling grace, the ability to set aside the cultural perspective, to see with ones own eyes. He suggests, out of separation, and the story of exploitation, we are in fact moving into a paradigm of Connection, "an economics of Reunion as well, an economics that restores to wholeness our fractured communities, relationships, cultures, ecosystems, and planet."
"In the beginning was the Gift." With that one sentence he begins his book, and sets a kind of stage of naiveté. We enter this world incapable of fending for ourselves, and so, however one might feel about one's upbringing, making it to adulthood is a kind of gift. In early cultures, hunter/gatherer, clan, tribe, gift exchange was predominant, when one's own health and well-being could not be separated from the health and well-being of the community. Money likely began as a kind of ritual acknowledgement of the gift, a token of gratitude. Only later, in the large neolithic agricultural communities, did money become a means to facilitate exchange between unfamiliar parties. From there, it became a thing unto itself, a means to accumulate wealth, and power over others. When money began to have the power to generate more money, in the form of interest, it became a tool of oppression, a means to engender in others servitude. Eisenstein's purpose is not to return to primitivism, but rather to restore to money something of the sacred nature of the gift. Because, "If we are to have a world with technology, with cinema and symphony orchestras, with telecommunications and great architecture...we need money, or something like it, as a way to coordinate human activity."
Unfortunately, money as it stands is money that is loaned. Which is to say, there is always going to be more debt than money, which is also the assumption that there will always be growth. There is currently, approximately, 58 trillion dollars worth of debt in America alone, with a corresponding GDP of 15 trillion. Money at it's core is meant to "facilitate exchange - in other words, to connect human needs with human gifts. Instead, it has come to generate a sense of scarcity, which then generates greed, which in turn leads to the maximizing of self-interest at the expense of the whole. It leads to consumption for the sake of consumption, and the increasing transformation of "the commons", the resources of the Earth, into money. And with every increase in debt, there is more pressure to generate wealth, to service that interest, exacerbating the exploitation of resources on which all life depends. Money should facilitate connection, ease and leisure; instead, it exacerbates separation, anxiety, consumption, pollution, ecological destruction and income inequality.
And now the ability of the Earth to provide for continued, exponential growth, is at an end. We have strained the Earth's capacity to absorb toxins, to maintain ecological equilibrium. Despite the most sincere efforts to protect resources, we are now at the cusp of one last push to open up all the last of the pristine lands to industrial exploitation, in an effort to maintain growth. But that is only putting off and exacerbating the inevitable crash, when there are no more resources to exploit, because we have turned them all into money, infrastructure, or garbage.
But this is not just another book detailing the path that has brought us to the cusp of ecological oblivion. It is very much a book of prescriptions, a book more than any I have read recently, that believes in the inherent generosity of the human being, which the vast majority of economists know nothing about, or at least do not and cannot factor into their models.
The future, as Charles Eisenstein sees it, involves these prescriptions for the Age of the Gift:
1. Negative-Interest Currency - Money as it stands violates nature's law of decay. If money is allowed to decay, no longer able to generate interest, it will increase in flow, "enabl[ing] prosperity without growth, systematically encourag[ing] the equitable distribution of wealth...so that we are no longer encouraged to mortgage our future for short-term returns." Little would change, but for the investing class, who could still save money, but "the value of savings would gradually decrease unless invested at risk. There would be no easy way to grow money risk-free," simply by owning it.
2. Elimination of Economic Rents, and Compensation for Depletion of the Commons - "Polarization of wealth is inevitable when people are allowed to profit from merely owning a thing, without producing anything or contributing to society." As it stands, some of the most wealthy among us are those who are most effective at transforming raw resources into money, and many of the most rich are simply those who excel at turning money into more money, while hoarding it. It can be said that the only thing we truly own is oneself, and one's time. All property is founded on an ancient crime. "With a shift of taxation onto property and resources, sales and income taxes will be reduced or eliminated," as the incentive will be shifted to conservation, and the individual ability of contribute to the common good.
3. Internalization of Social and Environmental Costs - "Today, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation generate costs that are usually borne by society and future generations, not the polluters." This amounts to a hidden subsidy, and "encourages continued pollution and environmental degradation." By taxing pollution and resources, allocating the use of resources and the ability to emit pollution according to what the Earth can withstand, we create an incentive to conserve and reduce pollution. "New industries will arise devoted to conservation, pollution control, and toxic waste remediation," and, "with economic dis-incentives for cheap, throwaway goods, manufactured items will become more expensive, more durable, and more repairable."
4. Economic and Monetary Localization - "Global commodity production puts localities into competition with each other, fomenting a "race to the bottom" in wages and environmental regulation...When production and economic exchange are local, the social and environmental effects of our actions are more obvious, reinforcing our innate compassion." There will always be a place for global commodity exchange, or at least trans-regional. But much of the economic policy of the day has decimated local economies and put us in servitude to distant powers. Local currencies backed by local resources would strengthen local exchange, and put us at considerably less risk to the vagaries of centralized powers who do not have our best interest in mind.
5. The Social Dividend - "The current economic system essentially forces us to work for what is already ours." If you follow the logic that we own ourselves and time only, it follows that the Earth and its resources are common to all. Taxing the use of those resources, and the pollution that follows, that income then should be shared by all. A social dividend, something like the Alaskan citizen's share in oil extraction, at the minimum required to provide the bare necessities. Anyone would be free to earn more. Freed from the pressure to "earn a living...we will turn our gifts toward that which inspires us - for more and more of us, that is the healing of society and the planet from the ravages of Separation." The idea that people are inherently lazy, that if people are provided with basic necessities and are not forced to work, they will do nothing, is "the logic of control, domination and the war against the self....But is it really human nature to want to do nothing productive? Do we really need rewards to cajole us into labor and penalties to punish indolence? Or, put another way, is it human nature to desire never to give, but only to take?"
6. Economic De-Growth - Currently, we are talking about generating growth, by investing in infrastructure or new housing, outside of any real discussion about whether or not we actually need the infrastructure or the new houses, whether or not what we are building actually makes sense. And despite the promise of the industrial and technological age, we have chosen, or been compelled, "at every turn to consume more rather than work less....Absent the driving force of positive risk-free interest [and with the existence of depreciating currency], economic growth would no longer be necessary to promote the flow of capital." That flow of capital would mean greater affluence for the poor and middle classes, while having to work less for money, with more time available for those non-economic, unquantifiable activities that promote well-being. De-Growth is inevitable anyway, in this Age of reduced resources; it would be best to go about it consciously, with intent.
7. Gift Culture and P2P Economics - Meeting each others needs in the form of gift exchange and peer to peer economics, both engenders a sense of connection and empowerment, and de-growth in the current economy of alienation and separation. Technology, primarily the Internet, has forced many things into the gift realm, including advertising, journalism, music, etc. The Internet itself is largely the work of gift culture, which is why the Government is trying to take control of it, like corporate attempts to control water, making you pay for what was once free, in service to growth, GDP, and the creditors we are in thrall to.
As I said, one must read with a kind of naiveté, or it would be easy to ignore this book in it's entirety. It is one thing to say that all property is founded in some ancient crime, it is another to imagine how that would play in the mainstream. And one may well be asking, yes, these prescriptions have some merit, but what can I do? First, ask yourself if what you do for money is in fact maximizing your gifts? Next, ask yourself if you truly believe in the story of Ascent, that there will always be growth, that a world based on credit and exploitation is sustainable? Finally, ask yourself in your heart - not in your head - whether or not you believe a different kind of world is possible?
Recently, I was lead to this piece by Derek Andreoli, by way of a piece by Herman Daly, by way of a piece by John Michael Greer. It fairly succinctly states the basic pattern of resource extraction, of gold, and oil, which is a steep upward trajectory, and then a peak, and then a collapse. The otherwise often indecipherable Miyamoto Musashi, said of strategy, that to know how to fight against ten is to know how to fight against ten thousand. In other words, extrapolating out from the pattern of extraction of ten oil wells, is to know the pattern of ten thousand. It occurs to me, as it occurs to some, that we are at the peak, and perhaps at the very tip of the crest of that exponential curve, in world oil supplies.
In a comments thread on Huffpost, I found this, offered by jcaunter. It is a video presentation by Chris Martenson*, who ties together what is happening in the economy, with resource constraints, as succinctly as anyone I have seen or heard. It is significant that the presentation takes place in Spain, as the conversation he is advocating is not even on the radar of American discourse. Basically, that if we begin thinking of the three E's, Economy, Energy and Ecology, as connected and intertwined, we can follow a relatively orderly and even prosperous path into a steady-state economy - but first we must acknowledge that easy oil has come to an end. I think very likely, the year 2012 will be the year humanity becomes aware to a great degree, the predicament we face, that there are very hard limits to the amount of resources we can economically extract from the Earth.
What is the nature of the gift? From Eisenstein's perspective, this life is divine, it is sacred. By giving, and receiving gifts, we enter into a kind of magical exchange, in which gratitude expands, and gifts circulate. To begin to see one's life as a gift, and to treat ones own wealth as if it were a gift, is to be given a corresponding and equal gift in return, strengthening a sense of community and connection. Our sense of separateness is a consequence of our heritage, that tells us we are independent beings who do not need others. But we do, and no action by any can truly be seen as separate from the greater matrix in which we reside. Every action has consequence, and every action is a consequence of the cultural ideas we are immersed in. If we want to climb out of the polarizing, alienating, destructive, exploitative mindset that says we are all separate from each other, into some kind of life that generates love, beauty, and abundance, then that can only come through a shift in consciousness, and actions that clarify, and expand that consciousness. As for money, we cannot live outside the commodity creating culture in which we exist, but we can use the money we come by to undo the workings of exploitation, in the culture, and in our own life. We can use that money to create beauty, to empower others, to strengthen community, and to heal ourselves and the Earth, inspired by the inherent beauty and abundance of the Earth, letting go of the feeling of scarcity, and the ability to exploit.
In my own life, I seem about to climb the curve of a potential economic bonanza. HD Masks is a gift unlike any I might have expected. I said last week that I do not know who I am. Well, that is partially true. My ego has come to seem to me a small, flimsy thing in comparison to the entirety of my Self. Still, I am William Hunter Duncan, radical anarchist gorilla gardener, in service to the Goddess, which allows me to write about any number of topics, wherever my interest leads, but it also prevents me from being taken seriously by any but the most intrepid seeker. Which is unfortunate, because I believe there is a great deal of healing to be found in the work of Charles Eisenstein. He has helped me recognize that my failure to accumulate wealth is very much about an unwillingness to participate in the ongoing destruction of the Earth, that I have not found any way in which my gifts perpetuate balance, healing and wholeness, while also generating income. Perhaps until now I have never felt responsible enough to use money in a sacred way? Am I capable of creating the beautiful life I have imagined? Can I both give, and receive? Can I trust, that the more I give, the more I will receive? I am living now as if a cultural, social, spiritual collapse has already happened. I would prefer to live in the midst of abundance, modeling for others what it is to live in a Sacred Economy.
And so, I vow that I will, from this day forth, treat both my life, and any money that comes to me, as if it were a gift, as if it would decay if I hold on too tight. And I will endeavor to generate with any surplus money, as much social and ecological capital as I can, to nurture beauty, to strengthen community, as if this world were divine, as if it were sacred.
* While I see Martenson's perspective as important, showing as astutely as he does how our culture is headed for collapse, I cannot see his advocation for gold and silver as a proper means of investment. Gold, in the traditional sense of investment, cannot be separated from the actions of multi-national corporations, preying upon weaker nations and their people, as described in this piece found on Huffpost, (buying land or mining rights in a Central American country, and then suing the country on the basis of free trade agreements, when the people object to their resources being absconded with, and mostly pollution left behind.) None of the writers I cite in this piece, as far as I know, advocate for the change in investing as advocated by Eisenstein, from a Sacred Economy perspective, though each does in their own way advocate for a steady-state economy.