The Good Life
The economic system we live in is not sustainable, but what would an alternative look like?
4 rules for a simple new way of life
As far back as historians can peer, money and value have been part of social interactions. Economic textbooks tell us we started with barter, then invented money, and with it debt and valuation to keep track of it all.
But anthropologists can find no evidence of this; gift economies with ‘brownie points' yes, but barter? No.
History shows us that every monetised society has failed, and we are currently running a monetised, indebted and valuefocused system on a global scale. Put that another way: we are running a system known to always fail when it runs out of locally-available plunder, but running it on a scale where ‘local' is now ‘everywhere'.
So is it different this time? If so how? If not, what should we do about it?
It must have once been the case that nothing was owned: the land, water, trees, even fire, were just ‘there'. Species other than our own make value judgements - for example, which mate would be best, what food to go for first - but humankind seems to be the only species which has insidiously applied ‘values' to land, water and just about everything.
Societies over the years seem to have had no trouble valuing things against other things or things against events like floods or droughts. They appear to have had little trouble valuing human life against human life either, but huge trouble valuing human life against things. To trade in or value people, you had to divest them of what constituted a life (family connections, choices), a condition known as slavery.
Obviously, choosing a mate in premonetising days would have favoured the muscled spear-thrower. But in a valuefocused society, those who hold a store of valuable stuff are deemed desirable. In a monetised one, all you need is a pile of money and you are likely to be included in the elite, seen as a desirable mate, or held in awe or fear by those with less.
Throughout history, some people have learned to increase their wealth by creaming off a percentage from everyone else. To avoid unrest they had to offer something in return, so they offered protection and we have had tax-paid armies ever since. Armies are physical things, capable only of annexing, holding and defending territory giving us proof - if any was needed - that wealth is based on physical resources.
Up until around 1800, we saw a very slow increase in accumulated wealth, along with a very slow increase in population, and a very slow expansion of exploration, annexation, occupation and extraction. The system until then only allowed for a few to be rich and required most to be poor because there simply wasn't enough to go around.
Then we shifted the goal-posts. In one single century we went from sailing ships to steam ships, from horses to locomotives to trucks, from candles to gaslights to electric, from cannon balls to machine guns to rockets. We flew, we knew and we grew. We explored, we annexed and we acquired. A whole planet which had once been a ‘commons' - unowned because it was unknown - became known and owned, partitioned, priced, proffered, purchased.
We in New Zealand were associated with the dominant power of that age (Great Britain) and benefitted from the privilege. We gained access to other people's resources like oil, arable land, water, minerals, and labour, and saw this represented in our being ‘richer' than them.
But there are two things to keep in mind: there is no more planet to explore, annex or own; and a fair part of the good stuff has already been consumed.
There has never been ‘fair' distribution of the resources, either physically or in monetary terms, not even within our own country, so for elite consumers like us, denial is a useful tool. If you can fool yourself into thinking that having money will mean you can consume forever, then you can fool yourself into thinking that all the poor need is more money. You can avoid thinking about how you can always out-bid them in every limited stock auction.
If you can fool yourself into thinking that it's the fault of the poor that they're poor (the flip-side being that you are rich and therefore must be smarter), then that works too. Your guilt is assuaged.
Ultimately, if you can fool yourself into thinking that there is enough planet to underwrite an infinite number of people spending an infinite amount of wealth for an indefinite time, you needn't ever feel guilty at all.
This denial is made easier when the language of your society becomes one stage removed from reality, the way that plastic-packed supermarket meat is removed from the killing floor. Just listen to radio for a day and you'll hear words like GDP, growth, supply, markets, accompanied by words like good, positive territory, encouraging, solid. Our Prime Minister opened this year's Cricket World Cup in Christchurch and ended his speech with a classic example of this takeover of our language. Christchurch is a city of people. It is a community which got hurt, which came together, which ad-libbed and rallied round, which supported. John Key didn't say that the community is back living, loving and laughing again. What he said was “Christchurch is back in business” and nobody demurred.
That lack of objection is quite telling. Increasingly, since around 1980, we have found less and less new things - new physical commons - to monetise. Increasingly, the combined desire to be richer has shown up as a rise in the valuations of existing things (like houses) and as a veritable flood of financial transactions which create exactly nothing. Business, that thing that Cantabrians are apparently back in, is increasingly an artificial construct.
If we manage to think our way past denial, remove our personal involvement, and work out where it all goes, we can see this monetising, trading, consuming and avoidance resulting in cascading environmental collapses, species collapses and extinctions, and ultimately in our own societal collapse. All this because of a parallel universe-style chase for what are nowadays just digits in a bank computer somewhere. Obviously that's not the smart way to go.
What are our options?
It might seem entirely logical that if we are having trouble dealing with a problem when it is one stage removed, in this case by our focus on money where we appraise everything by it and exclude inconvenient realities, we should start by removing the stage. Simple! Remove monetising, head back where we came from, and call it all a ‘commons'.
Except that back in 1968, a fellow by the name of Garret Hardin penned an economic theory he entitled The Tragedy of the Commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/tragedy_of_the_commons). He used the example of a village with a common grazing ground that anyone could graze where nobody had superior rights. What happens, he postulated, is that each individual grazes as much of the common as they can because if they don't, someone else will and the combined result is a dustbowl; the message being that private ownership will foster good husbandry of a piece of land and therefore private ownership beats communal ownership.
The flaw in that argument is that you must have the ability to do the husbanding. If you can't afford to replenish the soil - for example, the bank demands that debt repayments come before fertiliser application - then the
result is still a dustbowl.
What we need to do is both identify the Commons - things we all need to be there for a quality life - and to de-monetise them. You could do this by ruling that an area of land is a national park and there will be no mining, no logging, no roads. You could decree a bottom line for water quality where no argument about jobs or wealth will change it. You could say there is a maximum CO2 (or whatever pollutant) figure and we won't go beyond this. This is the maximum fish-take, resource-take or draw-down, and so on.
Given that there is no evidence that a barter economy would fit those limit rules any better than a monetised one, it is reasonable to assume we won't revert to something that never existed, outside of economics folklore anyway. If we want to fit in with that set of defined physical limits they'll have to be global and commonly-held, so let's call those limits the Global Commons. To not go growbust, grow-bust, grow-bust-collapse, we'd need to sort out a steady state economy. Mother Nature won't mind if there's money or not, only that we don't overdo things.
Assuming that we are capable of agreeing that this is the way to go and agreeing to go there, what would a steady state economy look like? Here's how Herman Daly, ex-world Bank senior economist and steady state guru, puts it:
“A steady state economy… aims for stable population and stable consumption of energy and materials at sustainable levels.”
Notice that the definition contains none of the economist words we are bombarded with daily. Notice that in his rules for a steady state economy (see box at right) Daly doesn't mention money. It is quite likely that if we attempt to go steady state, we will attempt to adapt our existing money system but that won't work. We will need a system capable of handling no growth indefinitely, which values the long-term not just as if it were equal to the short-term (as NZ'S Resource Management Act pretends to do) but actually puts the long-term above the short.
Some cultures, notably the North American Indians, have always taken the long view, and there is a timeless Cree proverb which sums the problem up well:
When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted,
When all the waters are polluted and when the air is unsafe to breathe
Only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
I'd like to think we're smart enough to do something before we get to that stage. Establishing a steady state economy would seem to be an infinitely better way to go.