How a Nature-based economy could save us
“There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.” Herman E. Daly
Modern market economies are based on a series of lies, and these lies have brought us to the brink of disaster. We may have gone over the brink already, but Nature has formidable healing powers. If we replace a market system based on maximizing wealth, with a sharing economy based on the well-being of all, our sacred planet may still recover.
The most blatant lies say that Earth’s resources are inexhaustible free goods, to be scooped up and sold off for the profit of whoever can exploit them. Nobody owns the minerals, the oil, the jungles, the oceans, the animals or plants, so any corporation with guns and bulldozers can take them.
The second, related lie proclaims that people are motivated by bottomless wants and prize material possessions over other values such as human connection or a healthy environment. So increasing material wealth increases human well-being.
These lies are easily refuted. If resources were inexhaustible, why would corporations be using ever-more dangerous, expensive, and destructive technologies to get them? Why would we be fighting wars to get at readily available minerals? If endless material desires were the humans’ natural state, why would we have want-stimulating advertising, aimed at promoting dissatisfaction with our lives?
How money drives misery
“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Oscar Wilde
Before industrial capitalism and its marketing narratives, people were happier with far less in material goods. A study of indigenous Australians by the University of New South Wales and the First Nations Foundation found that, “Wealth was more commonly perceived in non-monetary terms, such as caring for family. Few participants expressed a desire to be rich or have a large amount of money.” Before capitalism, we weren’t “consumers;” we were citizens. Some indigenous cultures still live that way.
Industrial market-driven societies give everything a price, which we mistake for its real value. That is why, as Adam Idek Hastie says, “Under capitalism, a forest isn’t worth anything until it’s cut down.”
Equating a thing’s worth with how much money it will bring in the market, gives no value at all to Nature until it’s turned into products. That’s how corporations find it rational to permanently pollute water, the eternal source of life, in order to extract oil, another nonrenewable resource, which is then simply burned.
Modern finance capitalism has made the price/value disconnect worse. Business journalist Hans-Jürgen Jakobs says, “The people who control the international finance economy have next to no contact with the businesses they own. All they care about are abstract numbers and hitting abstract targets.” Why would they care about their businesses’ impact on their workers or on Nature?
Professor Kathleen Vohs from Minnesota University found that, when people think about money, they “think transactionally, and they become more callous towards other people.” Now imagine those other people are far away, don’t look like you or speak your language, may not be human, and you will never meet them. Do you see how money-based economies can lead to horrors like slavery, factory farming, or mountaintop removal mining?
An economy of gift
Money did not always rule us in this way. Indigenous people traditionally used gift and barter as their means of exchange. They were materially poorer than capitalist or socialist societies are now, but their lives were richer in connection and mutual support. They were also sustainable; they didn’t have to destroy Nature to survive.
Imagine an economy in which things people need — such as housing, food, clothes, and tools –were treated as gifts. People who have them share them. Exchange without price may sound ridiculous to minds raised on capitalism, but indigenous people have employed gift economies for thousands of years.
Can we have gift economies in our complex capitalist world? People are creating them. One example is the Buy Nothing project, in which local groups in 44 countries (so far) “creatively and collaboratively share (through online connections) the abundance around us.”
Sharing is gifting. People are sharing bikes, cars, homes, and other things you can see on the website shareable.net. Companies like Uber and AirBnB have monetized sharing, which IMO damages but doesn’t completely negate the benefits.
For the foreseeable future, there will still need to be money, and a gift-related form of that, Universal Basic Income (UBI) already exists. UBI is money given by society to everyone. Why can’t we expand UBI everywhere?
Credit unions are forms of sharing money. Alternatively, we could leave money out of the story and gift people housing, food, and healthcare directly, as countries like Finland do.
A sacred Earth economy would have to be more local. No more picking up a fruit grown in Chile on our way to work in Chicago. Instead, we could grow lots of food in urban farms like these in Milwaukee. Shipping stuff and people all over the world is a major cause of climate change and ocean pollution.
Workers and users living close to each other know of each other and might care about things like product safety, working conditions, and the environmental impacts of products. People living around the world from each other probably won’t.
What couldn’t a sacred Earth economy do?
In a sacred Earth economy, Nature wouldn’t be brutally exploited, and workers would not be driven by the threat of hunger and homelessness. Could such an economy create large numbers of cars, airplanes, or bombs? No. Could it provide cheap fast-food hamburgers? Probably not. Would people buy lots of plastic junk? Not so much.
Then it gets more complicated. Would we still have computers and smart phones? What about travel? What about the Internet? The hows and how-much of these things still need to be worked out.
Things we would have more of
● Agriculture –Without mechanized, petrochemical farming, many more people would have to be involved in growing food.
● Environmental restoration — there would be a lot of unmaking, replanting, and cleaning up to do.
● Creativity, art, and fun are always wanted and needed. People would still invent things and do science for the common good.
If a gift economy sounds like a recipe for poverty to you, it’s not.
In his research on gift economies, scholar Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift, and Common as Air found that “Objects will remain plentiful because they are treated as gifts.”
Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote that gifts in her culture are passed around to those who need them, gaining value each time they are passed. Gifts create a personal relationship, very different from the shallow market relationships we are used to. They lead to more exchange and cooperation, instead of exploitation of each other and of Mother Earth.
We could learn to live like that.
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