The Good Life

The eco­nomic sys­tem we live in is not sus­tain­able, but what would an al­ter­na­tive look like?

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - MUR­RAY GRIM­WOOD

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 ( 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.

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