(Copyright © 2009)

 

Money is a pure idea, an abstraction having only symbolic value but no concrete, existential qualities of its own. The sensory or qualitative attributes associated with bills and coins belong more properly to currency issued in tangible form by duly authorized mints in symbolic denominations having value separate from any historic, artistic, or material value they may have. With money, the value is in the mind, which may be projected onto coins in the hand, goods in the market, stashes under the mattress, IOUs, and so on.

The point of money is to facilitate past, present, or future exchanges of items deemed to have value, so enabling apples and oranges to be fairly bartered against the same standard in the marketplace over time. If the price is not right today, perhaps later.

But where does the value of money actually come from? Labor is one source, representing more-or-less skillful work enabled by calories from sunlight via Earth’s plant and animal life. Capital is another, derived from productive land itself or minerals and other commodities taken from land or sea. In this sense, money is hardly symbolic but represents value derived in every case from the nature and productivity of the Earth. In fact the entire human economy depends absolutely on value received from our planet directly or indirectly from the sun. These are tangible, extracted values indeed, not merely abstract or symbolic ones. Backing every dollar, yen, euro, peso is Earth itself, the bank on which our livelihoods depend absolutely.

The French farmer hoisting a clod of soil into the air in his fist, crying: “This is France!” has it exactly right. The state survives by the good graces of its waters and soils, not subsequent human endeavor as is commonly supposed. In the most concrete sense possible, the value of money represents labor, metabolism, food, territory, and Earth resources. In a very real sense, money is equivalent to territory giving us a foothold on Earth. That is its derivation. Territory for producing food to support a worker’s metabolism, territory providing resources—the ultimate capital. Printing money puts us into debt—to Earth itself. For which Earth gets a big fat IOU. In a very real sense, the more we consume, the more we are indebted. We withdraw, Earth pays—that is the system we have devised for ourselves without giving credit where it is due, as if Earth’s gifts were externals and not the ultimate reality.

Having gotten this far into today’s post, I visited the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor on my way to the post office. Browsing through the New York Times of April 12, I came across an OpEd piece by Eric Zencey under the title, “Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy.” Mr. Soddy being Frederick Soddy, a British chemist who became an economist active in the 1920s and 1930s. This sentence leapt straight into my brain:

The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment—and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb.

There, in one sentence is what I’ve been trying to say in four paragraphs! And I never even got to the waste part. Of course, to understand that sentence you have to know about entropy—the flip side of work in being spent energy reduced to such a low state as to be useless.

Then I read the whole piece and this 1970s revisioning of the economy as a living system by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen made even more sense:

Like all life, [the economy] draws from its environment valuable (or “low entropy”) matter and energy—for animate life, food; for an economy, energy, ores, the raw materials provided by plants and animals. And like all life, an economy emits a high-entropy wake—it spews degraded matter and energy: waste heat, waste gases, toxic byproducts, apple cores, the molecules of iron lost to rust and abrasion. Low entropy emissions include trash and pollution in all their forms, including yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s sneakers, last decade’s rusted automobile.

Zencey goes on to say [very mildly, I thought] there’s “a systemic flaw in how our economy finances itself.” In my words, we keep overdrawing our account with the Earth because we do not acknowledge our indebtedness, claiming it is external to our method of accounting. That is, it is hidden from consciousness as if it did not exist. Except it does, and we habitually avert our gaze. Our left-brain interpreters never told us; how were we to know?

It is time we learned to live with Earth as good stewards, not on it as if it were merely our pad in the universe. Which means accounting for our fouling of the environment with two truckloads of waste for every one truckload of resources we extract from it. This has been going on long enough that this imbalance is being noticed by those on the forefront of economic awareness who hope to settle our long-overdue debt to the Earth. It’s like credit-card debt, only fatal, not just extravagant.

The best book I’ve read lately is an offshoot from the Quaker Institute for the Future (in some people’s eyes, an oxymoron if ever there was one), a book by Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver titled Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009). To capture the flavor of the book, I offer three excerpts which point to the revolution in consciousness we need to establish a sustainable economy:

1. As we make the personal choices we must make each day, we face the dilemma of being dependent on a society that causes ecological destruction we abhor. We cannot turn away from the modern world, yet we must curb our demands so that the earth’s resources are sustained. We are called to show, by our daily choices and actions, the way toward a more harmonious, more fulfilling, nondestructive way for humans to live on our planet—the way to harvest the fruit without destroying the tree (page 156).

2. Do we have to wait for the earth’s decline to reach such a crisis point that it can no longer support significant numbers of people and species, before we unite with our fellow human beings to bring about the necessary economic and governance changes? If we do wait, widespread environmental degradation and escalating violent conflict over energy, water, wood, and food are inevitable, with even larger and more tragic population movements than the planet is already enduring. Many people will die, and many will endure lives of great misery (page 168).

3. Instead of the anxious, illusory pursuit of more money and possessions, people need to think about pursuing joyful, grateful, and fulfilling lives in right relationship with life’s commonwealth. Values progression of this kind is needed not only at a personal level but also in institutions and enterprises at the community, national, and international level. Many indigenous peoples already have cultural values and belief systems that support right relationships, which rest primarily on respect and gratitude for all that is (page 168).

Imagine an economy based on shared gratitude for the gifts Earth grants us, not on some mock competition for goods and wealth produced we care not where, by what or whom. That will be the day consciousness triumphs over ignorance and arrogance, the day humanity truly comes of age.

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

In Reflection 65 (I’ve Got Mine, February 18, 2009), I wrote of conflict as arising from competing needs “to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level.” Possession and control of resources is what we generally mean by “wealth.” Wealth comes in three basic forms. 1) Earth resources ranging from food and water to goods and real property; 2) human resources such as skilled labor, healthcare, and, ultimately, life itself; and 3) financial resources sufficient to obtain resources of the first two types. In brief, wealth comes down to possession and/or control of land, labor, and money.

 

Because survival depends on such wealth, a major portion of human consciousness is devoted to these three issues. The Haves have them in sufficient amounts, the Have-nots want more. Money isn’t really a survival resource in its own right, it is a means of obtaining such resources. The basics of survival, then, come down to two types of resources: tangible resources derived from land on planet Earth, and life which endures over time. World enough and time—that’s what survival at a desirable level comes down to. That is our wealth.

 

As a resource, land provides the essentials—food, water, energy, minerals, and place with enough room to move around in. As a resource, life is essential to the procurement and enjoyment of those material resources. If you have little property but live a long life, you can count yourself wealthy. On the other hand, if you have vast stores of goods—but live only for one day—you rank with the poorest of the poor. As resources, land and life are both essential components of personal wealth, which is found by multiplying your property times your lifespan, producing the wealth equation:

 

Land x Life = Wealth, or simply L1 • L2 = W

 

where L1 is in units of area (the size of your Earthly footprint) and L2 is in units of time (your lifespan in years). Wealth, then is in acre-years (or the metric equivalent).

 

Consciousness, of course, is an aspect of life, so is a vital resource in and of itself. Which elevates human consciousness to a survival necessity. Something you’d never suspect, given the ease with which we project our beliefs onto the world rather than strive to understand it, or drink and drug ourselves into warped states of awareness unto oblivion. This adds additional terms to the wealth equation to account for being bullheaded or messing up:

 

L1 • L2 = W – (BH + MU)

 

That is, each of us is accountable for the stewardship we exercise over our property and our lives. Mahatma Gandhi is off the scale upwards, Bernie Madoff doesn’t even register. Stewardship is where consciousness comes into the picture of personal wealth. Measuring personal or corporate wealth in dollars doesn’t even begin to tell the true story. Lack of conscious stewardship devalues the gross total, often severely. Usury? Forget it. Ill-gotten gains? Uh-uh. Tax avoidance? Go back to Go.

 

Think how much time and effort we put into balancing checkbooks, figuring taxes, looking for jobs, earning money, saving, spending, borrowing, worrying, fighting—all for the sake of surviving at our preferred level of wealth. While ignoring the footprint we are stomping into the Earth, as well as the waste and consumption we are inflicting for the full duration of our lives. In the U.S., most of us end up in the poorhouse, indebted to our planet, which has put up with our abuse for so long without complaint. That indebtedness is our true legacy. Maybe we did manage to get the kids through college, but then condemned them to a life of servitude on the very same planet we did our best to deplete. As I wrote in Reflection 65:

 

As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The sum total of our collective pursuit of wealth is told by global warming, peak oil, and the current financial crisis that is so extensive and so devastating that no one can think what to call it. For now, it is the crisis so shameful that it has no name. We have been living—and continue to live—at the expense of the Earth and all its creatures. We have become agents of global depletion, degradation, and destruction. Entropy, thy name is humanity.

 

Well, folks, here we are. The crisis is not out there somewhere, not on Wall Street—it is in here, inside our own consciousness, so-called. Which, much to our surprise, is now bankrupt. Our lack of stewardship over our personal consciousness has gotten us to this point. We could have seen the crash coming, but chose not to. We averted our gaze out of politeness so not to make waves.

 

What do we do now? Leave it to Obama? The only viable solution is to rock the ship of state by making the biggest waves we can to dump the sleeping passengers out of their beds onto the floor. Each one is then in charge of picking himself up, opening her eyes, and becoming fully conscious of the need for stewardship in living every aspect of life from now on. Not stewardship as an afterthought but stewardship at the core.

 

If we can do that, we may be able to restore the wealth equation to a state of balance in our case. But if we keep on being bullheaded or messing up, our personal portion of the crisis will spiral downward. I have written earlier on in this blog of various failures of consciousness. Well, our take on today’s world is what they look like. And feel like. The study of consciousness is not academic; it has profound implications for humanity and its living Earth. To save ourselves, we must first know who it is we are trying to save. As the Oracle at Delphi advised, that journey starts with an inward turn.

 

Take full responsibility for every action; look inward; act outwardly. Not later. Now!

 

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