Beyond the green economy

Summary of Charles Eisenstein's talk

Niels I Meyer's talk was very much about systems and the physical world, while Dhanasvara's talk was more about the internal. I feel that these two realms need to come together. I've noticed a convergence between activism and spirituality, that I saw a lot in the occupy movement. There has been some hostility between the two camps where the activist is seeing the spirituality as escapism, while the spiritual practitioners would say: "How can you even know that you are acting in a wise way, if you haven't done work on yourself?" So I celebrate the coming together of these two threads at this conference. And even though I don't necessarily agree with everything that has been said, I think we can all recognize the desire to take personal responsibility and to live in a way that is consistent with the world we are trying to create.

I want to bring the sacred back into the most profane thing of all, which would be money. Money seems quite the enemy of everything that is sacred to us. Any of you who are engaged in social activism quickly find that money is not your friend. You are not going to make a lot of money by working for social justice or environmental healing. To the contrary. Most of the money is in the opposite. In exploiting our fellow human beings and destroying ecosystems around the world. So my question is: how can we make money as sacred as everything else in the universe?

Economic growth means increase in the totality of all goods and services exchanged for money. Things like nursing a child is not considered part of the economy. If you help out your neighbor, it is not considered part of the economy. If you cook food for an extended family, that's not part of the economy. But if you split up that extended family, put them into nuclear housing units and have everybody pay for food preparation, then the economy has grown and, according to the economist, everyone is wealthier and happier because our standard of living has risen.

The economist believes that specialization is more efficient so we can have more leisure. Well that's funny. Leisure peaked in 1973. After two hundred years of labor saving technology, why do we work just as hard as ever? Why do we work harder than hunter-gatherers? We have made the collective decision to consume more rather than to work less. In fact, this decision has been forced upon us by the nature of the money system, and the more general economic system that we live in. Our financial system only works in a context of growth. When the economy stops growing, debt rises faster than income, wealth concentrates on fewer and fewer hands, unemployment proliferates and the system begins to fall apart. And the politicians and the elite say that we have to increase demand to fix this. We have to consume more.

That worked for a long time. There were always ways that we could consume more. Create new needs. Alienate people from their connections to each other and to community. Take away their ability to live off the land. Take their land away from them, and privatize it. Find other cultures that are not part of the market, and convert their cultures to be part of the market society too. There has been lots of ways that have enabled this growth machine to continue. We are extending our ability to convert nature into product and human relations into services. That's what economic growth is. If, at bottom, growth is a conversion of nature into product and community into paid services, then how can green growth be anything but growth with green paint on it?

It's not only the ecological limits of growth that we are facing. It's also the social limits of growth. Some people might say: ok, maybe there is not a lot of nature left to grow into products, but we can still grow in the realm of services. What is a service? A service is something that we once did for ourselves and each other for free, that we now pay for. Even if it seems like something new, like telecommunication, the basic function of communication is something we didn't pay for until quite recently. Most of the main growth areas of the economy in the last generations has been the monetization and professionalization of functions that were once in the social commons, for example entertainment.

Today we are facing a crisis because there is almost nothing left to convert into money. We are paying for almost everything now. Even the functions of friendship, we are paying a psychotherapist or a coach for. Part of friendship and community is the circulation of stories about each other. Cut off from our neighbors, we don't know what is going on behind their walls anymore, so we consume stories that are produced in TV-studios far away. We know celebrities better than we know our neighbors. This is another example of the limits of growth. The exhaustion of social capital which mirrors the exhaustion of natural capital.

Why is it that money drives the conversion of everything into itself? It has to do with the way money is created as interest-bearing debt. Money is mostly created through bank loans that have to be repaid with interest. It is necessary to keep lending more and more money into existence in order to pay the interests of the previous debt.

You may have experienced this in your lives. This tug of war between what you want to give, who you want to be, and what the economic system tells you have to be. They'll say, that's all very nice, but how are you going to make a living? You are forced to participate in this system that converts beauty into money, otherwise you go bankrupt. There is a constant debt-pressure. You have to find something to convert into money.

The more political power the banks have, the more they can make your lives miserable if you don't do everything you can to pay back your debt. If you're a country like Greece or Portugal, they can impose austerity on you, tell you to sell away your water rights or your public services, dismantle your pension funds, sell away your future. Commit your earnings in perpetuity to the payment of debt service.

The underlying crisis we are facing is the end of growth. It suggests that we need to change the money system on a really fundamental level to one that works in a zero growth or de-growth context. Maybe we can have more of the things that we don't pay for? Any move toward a sharing economy actually hurts economic growth. If you use open source software; if you start a bike-share or a car-share program; if you start a tool-lending library, this is all hurting the economy. Like Niels said, we need to work less hard to consume less stuff. All of these movements toward a sharing economy will actually hasten the collapse of the system that depends on growth.

Meanwhile, those who are in charge of the system are always trying to find some new realm to keep growth going. That is what free trade is about. It is saying to third world countries, let us convert your social and natural capital into money.

This monetary structure that we live in is part of what I would call the defining mythology of our civilization. It drives endless growth, and it separates us from each other and puts us into competition with each other. But other cultures don't agree on that. They might say that you are a totality of all your relationships. You are not separate from any other being. You are not separate from the world.

We have the mentality that we can engineer a solution to the environmental problems. We can invent a technological fix. Again, Niels is critiquing that we might seed the ocean with iron oxide or the atmosphere with something to stop global warming. Because the ideology says that fundamentally we can escape the consequences of our actions. We are separate from the universe. This contradicts the teachings of karma that says: what you are doing to others, you are actually doing to yourself. Right now, we as a species are learning this the hard way when we can't escape what we have done to this planet.

However, we still live among the institutions that enforce the old story. It is not just the money institution, it's the media, the educational system, the political system, the medical system. All of these things are based on conquering nature and overcoming nature, on separation in some way. The challenge in front of us right now is how do we recreate these systems so that they are in alignment with the new and ancient story that we are stepping into - the story of the interconnected self. No longer overcoming and conquering nature, but in partnership with nature, in love with nature. That is what my book is about.

I think that we will be entering a time of a lot of experimentation. As today the elites are trapped. The only response they know is to somehow keep the system going a little longer. To somehow squeeze a little bit more growth out of the system. But there are lots and lots of alternatives out there. The way that it works right now isn't written into the laws of the physics. Money is nothing but an agreement. It's an interpretation of symbols. We are talking about trillions of dollars of debt, but really what is this debt at a physical level? It is 0's and 1's in computers. It can be wiped out just like that. Gone.

Watch the talk on video