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Life, Money and Illusion
Living on Earth as if we want to stay

Reviewed by Ian Doig:

For anyone who cares about the Earth, and wonders what he can do about our present situation, this book is a must-read. It is the most thoughtful, cogent, and yet readable study of the quandary we currently face that I have yet read.

In no way does Mike fail to recognise the seriousness of the crisis we are now facing; indeed he goes into the issue with a depth and precision that is admirable. Yet what grabs me is the constant tone of optimism that prevails throughout the book. These issues are indeed critical - potentially terminal, even - but they can be solved.

One-time students of biology may recognize the statement "Phylogeny repeats Ontology".  What this claims is that the evolution of an individual organism repeats the development of other organisms earlier on the evolutionary scale. Thus my first-year Biology prof at McGill observed that at certain stages of the development of the human embryo it develops, for example, fish-like gills.

In just this way, Mike Nickerson contends that mankind is repeating the development of the individual human, and that we are now at the point of transition from irresponsible teenager, self-centred to a fault and prepared to vandalise other people's property just because we can, to responsible young adult. So the question becomes, can we, as a species, make that transition, from reckless child to responsible adult, before we have caused irreparable damage to our Earth home? Clearly, Mike thinks we can, but that we had better get serious about it now.

The fundamental difficulty is that our global economic system requires constant growth in order to function, and we have reached the point where we have abutted against our planetary limits. Simply put, further growth is no longer possible without causing unacceptable damage to the systems that sustain us, so something has to give.

He points out that the accepted financial and accounting systems have been engineered to value only monetary gain. Costs that should, in a true, fair and reasonable accounting system be reckoned into the equation are termed "externalities", and disregarded; things such as natural resources which are taken from the common wealth of the nation and ultimately of the Earth herself are treated as the personal property of the corporation without any reimbursement for their loss; the free release into soil, water and air of environmental poisons without any obligation to pay for the damage so caused (as a child I didn't know a single person who had asthma, and allergies were so rare as to be unusual).

He observes that by the 1920s humankind had reached the point at which a decent living was available for every living soul on earth, with future advances in technology able to afford an ever-shortening work week, giving the population the free time for self-satisfying creative or sports activities or whatever; call it "quality of life". Instead the decision was taken to promote consumption for its own sake, and to accept that a "healthy" economy required a certain proportion of unemployed.

During the period of industrial cooperation between management and labour that followed the Second World War and continued into the '70s the accepted ratio between shop floor wages and CEOs salaries was about 30 times. It is now well into the thousands, often in the form of "performance bonuses" awarded within that culture whether the company thrived or was run into the ground.

He questions the real practical value of the GDP as a measure of national performance because it disregards all value save that expressed by money changing hands, pointing out that when pollution makes people sick the cost of treating them is added to the GDP, as is the cost of replacing stolen property. A disaster such as that caused by the two storms that hit France just after Christmas 1999, that killed 91 people, turned off the supply of electricity to over three million people, ripped out 360 million trees and caused an estimated $11,8 billion US in damage, of which only $7,2 billion was covered by insurance was recorded as a very positive stimulus on the GNP! Nickerson proposes and defines what he calls a Genuine Progress Index, or GPI as being a much more reliable indicator of progress than the GDP we now use.

In fact, our present system is a giant Monopoly game, and he points out that the whole point of a Monopoly game is for one participant to end up owning everything. Does this sound familiar? He quotes Dr. Brian Czech in his book, Shovelling Fuel for a Runaway Train, that in the year 2000 the top 1% of the population of the United States had a net worth equivalent to that of the bottom 90%, and were garnering unto themselves 62% of all the new wealth being created. Democracy, anyone?

But then he turns to practical changes that could, with minimal dislocation, turn the system into one that would benefit all humanity and Earth and nature as well. The question, he underlines, is one of "legitimacy". By this he means that the rules that are currently accepted as being the rules, regardless of their justice or even their morality, are accepted as being "legitimate" in the public mind. Individual changes that would level the playing field, that would calculate and charge for harm caused in the course of doing business and so forth would naturally be accepted, even called for, once they had gained this quality of legitimacy in the public mind.

I come away from a reading of this most readable book with a much deeper awareness and understanding of the nature of the quandary we face, but also with a sense that if we want to have change it is possible. During my three years in the Czech Republic during the 1990s I saw first hand the vast societal changes that completely remodelled life there after the fall of Communism. They were amazing, involving economics, politics and the entire way of life, and were carried out within a very short period of time. Why? Because they reflected the popular will. In a word, they became the new legitimacy.

So it can be done. And I would heartily recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand this dilemma, and to see a way past it. If it isn't available from your nearest bookstore it can be ordered from Seven Generations Publishing, Lanark, ON, K0G 1K0,, or 

Life, Money and Illusion is a finalist in the Nautilus Book Awards in the Environment/Ecology category.

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Last Update: September 1, 2006