Thursday, October 25, 2007

Money and Community, part 1

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S Eliot

Often, when I discuss intentional self-sufficient community with those who are unfamiliar with the concept, one of the first questions that people have is: how can I earn a living and pay for the outside things I want? How can I afford to travel to visit extended family, for medical care or education, for purchasing the things our community does not create (eyeglasses, certain types of clothing, etc)? These are legitimate concerns, for in this culture, money is the major medium of exchange. Most of us are not very good at bartering, hitching rides, or creating energy for ourselves in other ways.

The answer is simple: because permaculture focuses on maximizing yield and increasing surplus in any system, our community will create a surplus to the degree that we apply permaculture design correctly. We have several cooperative businesses going now – we understand the importance of economics.

However, in our process, we are also redefining economics, bringing that subject back to its roots – in the derivation of the word from the ancient Greek oikonomia which means “care and management of the household.” The modern dictionary definition of economics, however is: “the science that deals with the production, consumption and distribution of wealth.” Hmm, how did this word evolve so as to eliminate or ignore the core meaning – care of the household?

Mark Anielski, in his book “The Economy of Happiness,” (which is one of our core books), explains it thus: “Aristotle made an important distinction between oikonomia/economy and chrematistics…[which] comes from the Greek meaning the art of money-making; with the root chrema meaning money, riches or something useful.

“Ecological economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb Jr. define chrematistics as ‘the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner.; In stark contrast Daly and Cobb define oikonomia as ‘the management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run.’ Daly and Cobb draw these distinctions:

“Oikonomia differs from chrematistics in three ways. First it takes the long-run rather than the short-run view. Second, it considers costs and benefits to the whole community, not just to the parties to the transaction. Third, it focuses on concrete use value and the limited accumulation thereof, rather on abstract exchange value and its impetus toward unlimited accumulation. Use value is concrete: it has a physical dimension and a need that can be objectively satisfied. .. By contrast, exchange value is totally abstract: it has no physical dimension or any naturally satiable need to limit its accumulation. Unlimited accumulation is the goal of the chrematist and is evidence of Aristotle of the unnaturalness of the activity. True wealth is limited by the satisfaction of the concrete need for which it was designed. For oikonomia, there is such a thing as enough. For chrematistics, more is always better’

“….chrematistics is really modern capitalism: the hedonistic accumulation of riches or material wealth without any moral or ethical limiters on sufficiency or a sense of what constitutes a virtuous a chrematistic world, sustainability, sufficiency or even flourishing are unacceptable destinations for progress. Without understanding the very nature of the chrematistic system we live in and the nature of money and its creation in this system, the pursuit of sustainability as an objective will remain an impossible dream.”

A few years ago, I visited a Native American educator at the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation, and when he saw me looking around at his very modest home, though I knew he was quite wealthy with land (owning thousands of acres), he told me, “The Lakota do not have a goal of accumulating and displaying material wealth. We are more focused on spiritual things. Our goal for material ownership is that what we have is adequate for our needs.”

This word stuck with me: adequate. I started looking at my own life in terms of that word, and really thinking about what that meant for me personally. I had accumulated a luxury home, many toys to go with it, and large amounts of material goods to fill its cavernous closets, drawers and shelves. I started divesting myself of these things, and found that in fact, what was adequate and comfortable to me was to own a fraction of the things I had accumulated. I moved into a much smaller home and now own about 1/10th of the material things I used to own, and I don’t miss any of them! The important material things to me were things that demonstrably increased my quality of life – books, musical equipment, nice artwork, comfortable working and living furniture, a few key kitchen supplies to prepare and store food, gardening tools. I started sharing books with like minded community members, tools with neighbors and lo, I needed even less things. And guess what? I have more time to do the things I love, because I am not taking care of things I don't need or use.

So, what is wrong with accumulating wealth, if one likes that game? It’s a game, after all, it’s not about the money. It’s about winning the game. That’s why Donald Trump plays it, and why many multi-millionaires are always trying to be bigger and better. Nothing stays the same – if you stop accumulating, you start losing.

There is enough truth to this idea to make it stick. However, there is a gaping logic hole in this viewpoint, and that is this: Whatever you take, comes from somewhere. The Donald Trump viewpoint assumes there is unlimited resources on the planet and therefore, there is no harm in taking as many of them as you can lay your hands on (either that, or the resources that exist, including other people and living things, are not as important as Donald Trump, which is also a possible viewpoint, one would have to ask him).

If one spoke about one’s bank account or the neighbor’s apples in these terms, most people would consider that pretty irresponsible or even criminal, but on a planetary level, it is completely acceptable. Maybe this is because the planet is so large, that people can’t conceive there is a possible end to the resources.

But if one actually examines this premise, it turns out to be far from true. There is plenty of documentation to illustrate that the planet is running out of resources – for instance, we are using up the Ogallala Aquifer and other major water sources so fast that the earth is collapsing at points where the internal pressure has been compromised. In some areas the Ogallala aquifer, which irrigates a huge portion of our cropland, is already compromised to the degree that it cannot be used any longer for irrigation.

Our forests, soils, waterways and oceans are all being depleted of resources faster than we are replacing them.
(there are many more resources on the ‘net that provide the facts, including google Earth satellite photos that show the rate of desertification, forest depletion, ocean dead zones, erosion, etc, so you can observe it for yourself, just use google to do your own search)

Regardless of what people may believe about the earth having unlimited resources, the statistics show quite a different picture. Thus, until that changes, it is simply an irresponsible and ignorant viewpoint to operate as if material wealth accumulation is an unlimited game which does not adversely affect others or the ability of future generations to survive.

Which brings me to the definition of sustainability that we have adopted, from the Pachamama Alliance ( “The ability of the current generation to meet its needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do so.”

This is something it would do all economists well to take into consideration when calculating value, wealth, economic indicators, etc. “The Economics of Happiness” offers a model of how these calculations can be done. Measuring one’s ecological footprint is one indicator that each of us as individuals can do – this is a measurement of how many resources you are using individually, giving one an idea of what one would need to do personally to replace those resources for future generations.
(this gives some general data about footprints)
(This is a quiz that gives you your personal ecological usage measurement)

When I went over these concepts with my home-schooled 15 year old son, unlike some economists I’ve talked to, he had no problem understanding the math, and became quite outraged. He said, “Why mom? Why leave us kids with this mess to clean up and not enough resources to clean it? Do parents hate their children? Why did you have me if this is what you’re offering?” Needless to say, this was quite a visceral addition to the motivation I already had to reduce my consumption and take better care of the land and resources around me – and to really find out what sustainability means, not on a glib level, but really. For me personally, for my family, for my groups, for all living things on this planet, human and non-human.

True economy involves much more than money and its uses. For the sake of our children, please, we need to pull out those calculators and start crunching the real numbers, now.

No comments: