First published in Ottawa's Peace and Environment News (slightly revised)
by Mike Nickerson
When the factory production of cloth was mechanized, cloth's price dropped dramatically. This inspired a desire to apply a similar approach to the manufacturing of other daily necessities.
To do so, however, would require accumulating enough money to design and build the machines, acquire a building, set up the tools, teach people how to use them, and then get the whole system working--all in advance, before any money (revenue) came in from sales.
The capital required to do this was scarce, and so its accumulation became a priority. Capitalism began its rise.
Capital is not scarce anymore. In fact, by the 1920s enough capital had been amassed and applied to production that practically everything people needed was being mass produced.
Then, our civilization made a tragic mistake. Instead of celebrating the end of human need, and moving on to explore the many possibilities that had opened up, a new "gospel of consumption" was born.
Those owning volumes of capital liked the power that their expanding wealth gave them. By stimulating want and opening foreign markets, they sought to make the expansion of Capital the permanent centre of humanity's purpose.
Ravaging the Earth
Almost a century later, the problem is no longer finding enough money.
Instead, the problem is finding enough places to invest the huge volumes of money that investors already own and expect to keep growing.
For every dollar we spend on concrete goods and services, we spend more than a hundred dollars on stocks, bonds, national currencies and the like--and many times that amount if we count derivatives.
One might say that Capital has outgrown the Earth.
Like a giant bird of prey, Capital circles the Earth with a keen eye, seeking any forests, lakes filled with fish, or buried mineral deposits to convert into money. The resulting draw-down of natural resources and the accumulating waste left behind now combine to threaten every person's future.
However, new resource frontiers are fast becoming scarce. In response, Capital manoeuvres itself to draw the wealth away from individuals and society as a whole. Instead, small fortunes can be made from financial markets, and bigger fortunes await those who successfully tap into the biggest pools of public money.
Monopoly and Capital
The board game Monopoly was created to illustrate how Capital works. Early on in a game of Monopoly, anyone can buy property and make a go of it. As the game progresses, however, properties become scarce. If you did not have either enough luck or enough cunning in the early stages, continuing to run around the board later on can become costly.
Most players end the game when it becomes obvious who is going to win. However, the game is not officially over until all the properties gathered by players earlier in the game have been mortgaged and lost to the sole winner.
When one person owns every last property, the game is over.
The end of the game
Currently, we are in the mopping-up stage of a global Monopoly game. Austerity and privatization are transferring ever more wealth to the few winners.
As in the 1920s, though, today's winners still do not want the game to end.
Picture yourself in the lead, during the later stages of a fun (for you) Monopoly game. Another round is being played on another board on a nearby table.
If you can persuade that game to join its board with yours, you would have a "Free" Trade Agreement. You would instantly have access to new territory, to feed the continued growth of your capital.
At this point in the global game, a huge percentage of Earth's natural resources have been tapped. We withdraw many resources faster than they can naturally replenish. Practically every nation that does not have abundant, easy-to-retrieve resources is already saddled with insurmountable debt (and so are many individuals).
We know who has won the Global Game.
So, it is time to recognize them, congratulate them, perhaps pass out some prizes, then pack up the game and play something else.
A new game
Many think that the new game should follow the rules of sustainability.
The new game will require a new monetary system. With the exception of coins and bills, which amount to about four per cent of the world's current money supply, modern money is created as loans.
Interest charges on those loans require borrowers to pay the lenders back with more money than was first created. This can remain possible only if more money is being borrowed into circulation for new investments.
If the economy ever stops growing, some people simply will not be able to gather enough money to pay their loans--principal and interest. They will be in danger of losing their businesses, homes and cars.
The blood of society
Money serves the same purpose in society as blood does in your body. Your lungs provide air. Your gut gives you nutrients. Your brain provides direction. Your muscles give you motion. Blood circulates among all these parts, allowing you to operate as an integral being.
In society, some people produce food. Others maintain housing, educate each other, entertain us, and do the many diverse tasks that keep our world going. Money circulates among the people who do all these tasks, and enables us to function as an integrated society.
Imagine if every time blood passed through your heart you had to pay a fee. It would be expensive to live. Every time money passes through a bank, we have to pay a fee and it is expensive to live.
Debt and interest are like growth hormones in society's bloodstream. In years past, while our planet continued to offer new frontiers to extract resources and cover debts, we could keep up. Now that new frontiers are scarce, society's debt is becoming unmanageable.
Our nations must recognize their physical maturity and adopt a mature monetary system, one that does not depend on the growth imperative. Some communities are already creating their own mediums of local exchange, to trade local skills and products without demanding expansion. (More information on Community Currencies can be found elsewhere in this issue of the PEN.)
Rather than expecting the general population to subsist on the money that trickles down from the big players in the global Monopoly game, we need a system that guarantees basic subsistence. In such a system, no one would have to suffer because we stopped making garbage, or worse, war, just to keep the economy expanding.
A sustainable economy
Here are three components for a mature economy.
One: The imagination and creativity that presently go into designing goods that quickly break or become obsolete, would shift instead into designing goods that are durable and easily repaired.
Two: Instead of using our skills of persuasion to encourage people to throw away things and buy new stuff, we could use our communication talents to reclaim an appreciation for durable and familiar products.
Three: If we begin to seek personal fulfilment in our lives, through actions such as learning, love, laughter, creativity, friendship, service, dance, sport and the like, rather than by accumulating and consuming material goods, we would have more real satisfaction while minimizing our resource exploitation and the resulting waste.
Such steps would certainly help secure a stronger future, such as accomplishing the 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions called for by climate scientists.
Yet these same environmentally beneficial acts would be disastrous for our current growth-based economy. We must either increase the size of the Earth (read that phrase again!), or reorganize mutual provision (the economy) so that we can all share in the necessary work and revel in the new security.
There are many ways to reorganize mutual provision to serve a post-growth civilization. The first step is to choose to do so!
Is it best for members of society to maximize production and consumption, assuming as we grow that innovation will overcome planetary limits?
Or is it best to live lightly, enjoy life and manage the material world in ways that we know can serve the generations coming?
Its a Question of Direction.
Mike Nickerson is the author of Life, Money and Illusion; Living on Earth as if we want to stay. He directs the 7th Generation Initiative He can be reached through: http://www.SustainWellBeing.net