Originally presented at:
A. D. Latornell Conservation Symposium on

Your Watersheds, Our Grate Lakes

by Mike Nickerson, November 16, 2007

the Metamorphosis of Human Culture

Part 2
What I learned at the beginning of that recession stirred me to action. I learned that in a recession the economy is only standing still. It isn't shrinking substantially, it just isn't getting bigger.

Having written two books about sustainability, it was clear to me that human activity had to stop expanding, if not contract considerably to stay within long-term planetary limits. The news that our economic system gets sick when it is not growing was disturbing. How can that be? After fifteen years of research and writing , "Life, Money & Illusion" answers the question in detail.

"Life, Money & Illusion" looks at life and how it thrives; how humans have developed systems of mutual provision (economies); how the present economic system evolved and how aspects of that system, which had positive inspirations when the system was first developing, have come to be problems. It also compiles numerous alternatives that could help solve the fundamental problem, should we choose to adapt.

Of particular note are aspects of the economic system that compel expansion. There are a half dozen that intertwine. I will mention two. One which is integral in the overall process and the other, population, because if I don't mention it, someone usually brings it up.

If the population is growing, we need more food and clothes and houses and other things. While this is true, if it were the primary reason, we could quickly bring the poor populations of the world up to the level of material security at which population stabilizes on its own. Wherever people know that their societies can care for them in old age, they do not feel compelled to have numerous children for personal security.

If, rather than drawing on the poor parts of the world for additional wealth to keep rich countries growing, we were to offer access to our technology, while otherwise leaving them alone, their circumstances would quickly change. They would work to provide the food, clothing shelter and other things that they need to be secure and their populations would soon stabilize and likely start to reduce toward sustainable levels.

The other reason that has far greater consequences is illustrated by a story about four cowboys who have been out on the range all day under the hot sun. They are tired and thirsty and they want to go to the bar, drink some beer and play cards, before they go home.

After ordering their beer they ask the Bartender if they could borrow some cards.

"Of course" says the Bartender "I'll lend you a deck of cards.". "But I want some collateral to make sure you return the cards. Your saddle or holster will do." Then he added, "When you finish playing, I want you each to return 14 cards; one extra for interest."

You can imagine what happens when the card game is over.

You might be wondering what this has to do with our economic system.

The coins and bills that we use to make change amount to only two or three percent of the money used for buying and selling. The other 97% is credit. It is money loaned into existence.

It works like this.

Imagine that you have a business proposal that needs $100,000 to start up. You have convinced a bank that it is a sound proposal and they agree to loan the money. The bank doesn't give you the $100,000 from their depositor's savings. They create the money, out of nothing, by writing a credit line in your account book. "Presto!" With the stroke of a pen (or tapping on a keyboard) you can start withdrawing cash and writing cheques. The people you pay can spend that "money," or deposit it, just like any other money they have ever received.

The problems start when you pay back the loan. As you make your payments, the money disappears again. This would be a balanced process if the bank didn't want an extra amount of money in the form of interest. They didn't create the extra ten thousand dollars, or whatever the interest portion amounts to. That extra money is not available unless someone else takes out another loan and puts more money into circulation from which your business can earn what you need to pay your interest. For that person to pay off his or her loan, there needs to be another wave of loans taken out to enable those interest payments and for that wave of loans to be paid back, another wave of money, larger than the one before, has to be loaned into existence. If, in any particular year, there are not more loans taken out for businesses, houses, cars and whatever else people borrow money for, than the year before, there will not be enough money for everyone to make their payments. The hard times of recession follow as loans are defaulted and businesses, jobs, cars and houses are lost.

To be fair, the cowboy analogy breaks down near the end. They cannot make additional cards with which to pay the "interest" on the borrowed cards. We do create additional wealth with our businesses. By taking materials of lesser value and transforming them into items of greater value, wealth is created. Although causing considerable stress to debtors, this process of expanding wealth has worked for centuries. The problem is that so much material and waste are now involved that we have outgrown the Earth.

There are many ways of managing mutual provision that reduce our impacts on the Earth. Perhaps the best one to start with is to adopt a "Triple Bottom Line" accounting system. Instead of accounting only for how much money it costs to make things and how much money those things sell for, accounts would also be kept of social and environmental factors.

When we teach our children to cross a road, we don't tell them just to listen by the side of the road and then to cross. We tell them to listen, yes, and also to stop to look both ways and to feel whether or not the ground is shaking. When all indicators show that no vehicles are coming, then it is safe to cross.

With our economy, however, we only ask, "Does it make money"? If it does, it is hard to stop. It is true that a business has to make money to survive, yet we need to know more before we can tell if an activity will increase well-being. Does it disrupt communities? Does it degrade the environment?

Triple Bottom Line accounting would avoid the increasingly serious problem of mistaking the costs of dealing with problems as economic progress. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent yearly, in Canada, for inhalers that enable people with respiratory problems to breathe when the air is bad. With present accounting, the money spent on inhalers is all added to the GDP and interpreted as growth - the ultimate good in the present system.

When social and environmental circumstances are also accounted for, the inhaler expenditures would be seen as "defensive" rather than positive. It would be clear that polluted air is causing a health crisis. With such a view, we would be far more likely to do something about the problem.

A huge part of the compulsion to grow could be eliminated if we had debt free money. It is entirely possible to create money without a debt charge.

Imagine if you had to pay a fee each time your blood passed through your heart. Our blood serves the same purpose to our bodies as money does for the collective body of society. Our lungs obtain oxygen. Our guts make nutrients available. Our muscles give us motion and our brains organize our actions. Blood enables all these parts to trade with one another, making us a functional organism.

In society, I make furniture, you might manage a municipal water supply, another person bakes bread and others do the many various tasks that make up our system of mutual provision. Money enables us all to trade with each other and for our society to function as an integral whole.

"Life, Money & Illusion" describes several examples of people using debt free money. They include: the ancient Egyptian system using "Ostrica" which was in place when Joseph interpreted the Pharo's dream and Egypt was the bread basket of the world; a "stamp skrip" circulated in one community in a defeated country after the Second World War that enabled them to prosper while most of the territories around were in deep depression; and Local Economic Trading Systems and community currencies that are presently springing up in communities around the world.

The single, most effective thing that you can do without having to organize local cooperation, or inspire political action, is to enjoy yourself. When one can find satisfaction in what life offers, the demands made on the environment are minimal. Quality nutrition can be provided perpetually by cycling nutrients through local soil. Comfortable shelter can be maintained with small amounts of energy by designing buildings to capture sunshine in the winter and ward it off in the summer. Education is a spiritual exercise where teaching and learning take place with practically no additional stress to the Earth. Even health care, when pursued on a preventative basis, where it is most effective, is almost entirely knowledge and good will, both life-based in nature.

A well nourished, comfortable population that is well educated and has basic health care would be more than fair compensation for giving up consumerism and, instead, spending our lives enjoying the wonders of living. We would have to share the work of managing these systems, yet that too could come to be a blessing. It is one of the underlying factors in the human character, that we feel better about ourselves when we feel that we are contributing to the well-being of others. Service, in mutual provision, would round out an economic structure that can provide for the next seven generations and beyond.

"Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know." So wrote M. K. Hubbert, the geologist who, many decades ago, gave us the Hubbert curve predicting peak oil.

In the same way that we were able to solve the SO2 problem when we chose to do so, we can develop a steady state economy if we choose to do so. But we have to make that choice.

The Question of Direction program aims to stimulate a public discussion about the basic choice. What we are trying to accomplish as a society? Do we want to grow until we drop? (Pardon my bias.) Or do we want to aim for sustainability?

If we were to have this discussion openly, as a society, the goal of sustainability would quickly gain legitimacy. By approaching the topic consciously, and with an understanding of the sort of changes that can be put in place to minimize disruption to people's lives, the legitimacy of the new goal could be maintained until the transformation is complete.

Legitimacy is a key component. Imagine yourself, with a pack sac full of tools going into the wilderness with the intent of staying there, by yourself, for two years. How many of us would emerge after two years in good health?

And that is with tools that somebody else made and with a knowledge of how to use them obtained from our culture. Even the words and concepts with which we think, we get from our society. Without a society, a person is almost as useless as a computer with no programs. We would still have genius, but it would be a long shot for that to be enough to survive in cultural isolation.

We know at a very deep level that we depend on our society. Even in today's arms length world where, if an individual has money, he or she might feel independent, such people are, nevertheless, completely dependent on those who make all the things that they buy. In earlier times when we lived in tribes and clans, it was very clear that if we were left behind by our people, we would perish. At a formative level, we need, to feel that we are part of our society. The price of membership is to subscribe to the value system of that society.

As long as our society ascribes legitimacy to the goal of producing and consuming ever more, there will be a deep underlying urge for people to establish their goodness by earning and spending more. Avoiding the over-exploitation of natural resources and polluting beyond the limits of tolerance will be an uphill struggle.

If the goal of sustainability were wholeheartedly adopted, and became the underlying urge in decision making, billions of decisions would be made every day, by ordinary people, that would move us in that direction. Within a decade, we would be progressing so clearly toward a sustainable world that we would no longer be worried for our children and grandchildren.

It is a Question of Direction. What do we want to accomplish as a society?

The following quotations clearly state the visions of the different perspectives. The first, on page 158 of "Life, Money & Illusion," is from a retail analysts, Victor Lebow, who wrote for the "New York Journal of Retailing," in the 1950s:

"Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. . . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever increasing rate."

In contrast, an author by the name of Starhawk, writing in the last decade, had this to say in her ecotopian novel, "The Fifth Sacred Thing."

In the prelude to the novel, she presented a declaration to the four sacred things. In the fist couple of paragraphs she explained that Air, Water, Soil and Energy are essential to all life. She goes on to say:

"To all these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws and our purpose must be judged. No one has a right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protest them forfeits its legitimacy."

The cards that you were handed at the beginning of my talk are a simple medium for presenting the choice between perpetual economic expansion and sustainability. Many people understand the issue, but are not versed enough to present it verbally to others. The cards provide the basic words. Whether passed to friends or strangers, any concerned individual can provide the sincerity that gives the message a strength and credibility that commercial advertising can only fake.

In the struggle to shift legitimacy, we are faced with the $450 billion a year advertising industry. The media subsists on commercial advertising, so they are unlikely to help initiate such a review of society's goals. It is up to us.

There is only one power available to citizens which does not require great wealth or the use of violence. It is the power of collective persuasion. It works on the subtle levels of thought and conversation and it works directly through democracy.

On your way out, please help yourself to a number of the Question of Direction cards. Pass them to friends and family and to anyone else you have a chance to relate with person to person. [See "Seeds for Change" at: http://www.SustainWellBeing.net/scards.html ]

I carry them in my shirt pocket for such occasions. When I hear someone complaining about the weather or the price of gas, I hand them a card. Sometimes I don't say anything. Sometimes, "You might find this interesting." or some other comment. Almost always, the recipient will read it carefully and pocket it for future reference.

Over the years that we have been handing out such cards, I have seen them attached to refrigerator doors, bathroom mirrors and several times, when talking with someone about the program, I've seen people reach into purses or wallets and pull out a well used card, dog eared after being retrieved many times to clarify what sustainability means.

Please take some with you when you go,

The transformation through which civilization must go to survive with dignity is well illustrated by the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

A caterpillar spends its entire life consuming natural resources and growing. This is what industrial civilization has been doing.

When the caterpillar comes to the point of "enough," it spins its cocoon and begins its transformation. Enough is the cue that civilization missed in the 1920s when industrialization, in the countries where it was established, had advanced to the point where human need was vanquished.

When the butterfly emerges, it is beautiful. It lives very lightly on the Earth; if it has mouth parts at all, it sips the nectar of flowers, and its primary purpose is the well-being of the next generation.

I interpret the beauty of the butterfly to be the pursuit and enjoyment of the wonders that life offers. Relationships, knowledge, appreciation and the enjoyment of art, music, sport, spiritual aspiration and all the other marvels that are ours, because we are alive.

Care for the generation coming represents the responsibility we have for leaving the Earth in good condition, so that our childrens' children can raise children of their own.

In an earlier discussion, a participant offered an additional parallel. In the cocoon, when the first cells of the caterpillar become butterfly cells, they are attacked by the immune system of the caterpillar. If you get the message of the transformation and begin to work seriously toward sustainability, you too may find yourself being attacked by those who still see legitimacy in the old order. This is entirely natural as it is in the interest of any order to maintain itself. Under such circumstances, however, you can take courage from the knowledge that the butterfly eventually overcomes the caterpillar's resistance.

The growth phase of civilization has to end. To continue would be collective suicide. We humans are too extraordinary to sacrifice our young on the alter of profit. We will become the civilization of beauty and sustainability that is required to secure the opportunity for future generations to celebrate the wonders of this special planet.

[Comments, questions and answers exchanged for a time before this closing story:]

In January of 2006, my daughter phoned me up and said, "Dad, you're a Granddad." It was a rite of passage for me. She had put me through a similar threshold 23 years earlier when she wrapped her then little arms around my neck and called me Daddy. Then I had arrived at parenthood, now I'm a grandparent.

This story is about Lillian, my granddaughter. One day Lillian will be a grandmother and she will tell stories to her grandchildren. One story that she will tell is the story of the Great Transformation. The transformation of civilization from its long childhood and adolescence to a mature steady state.

The transformation will have to have taken place by the time Lillian is a grandmother. For the present economic structure to remain healthy, it must grow by around 3% per year. That rate has a doubling time of 24 years. By the time Lillian might be a mom, the economy would have to be twice its present size. By the time she might be a grandma, it would have to be four fold what it is today.

The economy is not going to be four fold its present size by the time Lillian is a grandmother. The Earth is reeling at our present level of activity; strategic resources are already running into short supply and we are pushing against the Earth's ability to absorb our waste. The transformation will have to have taken place by the time Lillian is a grandmother.

What we don't know about Lillian's story is whether it will be a story of denial and disaster, or, one of creativity and celebration.

The answer depends on how quickly the people alive today recognize that we are now mature as a species and that we need to metamorphosis from our long period of childhood growth into a mature steady state. We need to enjoy living and preserve the health of the Earth so that future generations can do the same.

This is our task and I welcome your participation.