Sacred Economics: Money, the Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
By Charles Eisenstein
Transcribed Talk from January 13, 2012 at “The Hive” in Vancouver, BC.
Thank you for such a warm welcome. I’m quite amazed actually. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to this large a crowd that was just here for me. I’ve spoken to more people at conferences, but that wasn’t just for me. Part of me doesn’t even believe it. Especially because last year I gave a talk by the exact same title in New York City and 6 people came.
That makes me realize how much of this is really a gift. I’m not really doing anything differently. I didn’t make this happen. I didn’t try harder or exert more effort and that’s why there’s 200 people instead of six. But it happened through some mysterious means. In a way it’s not that mysterious; I could say that it’s because of Natasha – but how did she find out about it? I’m very aware that I can’t create anything by myself, that everything I create is only because of the gifts that I have received and that I can pass on.
So, thank you. And it just so happens that gratitude is the foundation of sacred economics.
It’s a very ancient idea that the universe runs by the principles of the gift. That human life runs by the principles of the gift. And that in fact the purpose for our existence, the reason why we’re here, is to give. And that everybody has a gift that is important and meaningful, and maybe even unique and essential. It’s certainly true in an ecosystem where every species has an important function, and without that function, without that gift that it gives to the ecosystem everybody would be a little bit poorer. The system as a whole would be a little bit weaker.
And this is a new understanding that may be only 40 or 50 years old, in the west at least. A hundred years ago, or even 50 years ago, scientists thought that you could eliminate one species, eliminate in fact all the bad species, and make nature better. But we’re understanding now that every being has its gift to give. And this shift of perception hasn’t been integrated yet into our institutions.
So my book, Sacred Economics, is about how to make an economy reflect the basic nature of the universe, which is of the gift. And it’s about how we can live – not just in this theoretical future, but also starting right now – according to the principles of the gift.
I just kind of made this claim that you are here to give and that you have a unique gift to give. Maybe some of you have had the experience of being in a job where the pay is fine, secure, but for some reason you’re just not that happy there. You don’t feel fulfilled. It’s because your gifts aren’t being expressed. And you might have had the feeling, “I wasn’t put here on earth to do this.” And it’s not just menial labor that gives you that feeling. I’ve met people with 6- and 7-figure incomes that have that feeling, “I wasn’t put here on earth to maximize a number.” That’s what a lot of jobs are. Wall Street jobs are like that – trying to make a number go up in a computer. Or marketing executives try to make market share go up, or in business you try to make profit go up. “Was I really put on earth to do that?”
Not only do you have to be expressing your gift, but also it has to be going toward a purpose that you care about, that is beautiful to you. And no matter how much money you’re paid, you won’t be happy if you’re not doing that.
Mainstream economics doesn’t really understand this. It says that human beings don’t really want to work. There’s a phrase in economics, “the disutility of work.” Human beings don’t want work, so we have to make people work with these incentives, this money that overcomes your natural disinclination to create, to be productive, and to give something to other people. You have to get something in return, otherwise you won’t want to do it. And it’s considered good that we have a system based on scarcity, that creates anxiety, that kind of forces you to work.
I was just at a meeting of some “Occupy” folks, and one person told a story about one thing they loved about it. It was that any time that they left off some project and had to go somewhere somebody would take it on. They had just started a library, and when they got back 2 days later somebody else had taken it up. Everybody was doing stuff just because they wanted to. And there was no money involved. But it was an expression of human nature. And if you go to Burning Man or something like that, too, there’s this feeling that this is how human beings are supposed to live. If you’re a stranger in a city and you’re walking around and you ask directions, people are happy to give you directions. They’ll even go out of their way. Why is that? One reason is that in our current society, we have so few opportunities to give. And we’re just wanting to do it. (The book isn’t all about gifts, but somehow I’m starting about this now.)
One thing that gifts do is that they create ties among people – which is different from a financial transaction. If I buy something from you, I give you the money and you give me the thing, and we have no more relationship after that. I don’t owe you anything, you don’t owe me anything. The transaction is finished. But if you give me something, that’s different because now I kind of feel like I owe you one. It could be a feeling of obligation, or you could say it’s a feeling of gratitude. What’s gratitude? Gratitude is the recognition that you’ve received, and the desire to give in turn. And that’s why we are driven to give. Because everything we’ve received is a gift. Our life is a gift. Having air to breathe – we didn’t earn that. We didn’t earn being born. We didn’t earn having food. We didn’t earn seeds being able to grow. Everything that we have is a gift. Every breath that we have – we didn’t earn having algae that can make air. Therefore our natural state, our default state is gratitude. And therefore, our default state is a desire to give, a desire to be generous. And you can feel that desire coming up, but then there’s something that stops you from being as generous as you could be.
There’s a little voice that constrains us from giving in a lot of situations, which is, “Can I afford to do that?” “I’d like to spend much more time volunteering at the animal shelter, but can I afford to spend that time? Can I afford to quit a job that isn’t allowing me to express my gifts?” Money stops us. In many cases, not all, but many times what we really want to give to the world isn’t where the money is. Why should that be? Why is it that the beautiful things that people want to do… Where is there more money? Say you want to devote yourself to saving old growth forests from being chopped down, like is about happen on some of the islands on the coast here. Is there a lot of money in that? And the people who are dedicating themselves to stopping that from happening, they’re just doing it to get rich, aren’t they. They’re in it for the money, right? Obviously not. But the people who are cutting down the forests, or the lobbyists in Parliament who are trying to facilitate this happening, is that because they have a passion for cutting down forests, and they would be doing this even if they were no money in it? Obviously not. Well, maybe a few twisted souls… But why is that? Why should money be a force toward cutting down the forests, and not toward preserving them? Why do we consider one option to be valuable and the other one not valuable?
Money is just an agreement. Money only has value because people believe it has value. It is something that we create through our agreements. You can say that money is a story. It’s the symbols that we interpret in a certain way, and that means that they’re valuable. So why have we agreed to create a system of value that is the enemy of all of the beautiful things we want to do? I’m generalizing here a little bit, but generally speaking, those things are not where the money is. And you look into any phenomenon on earth that disturbs you, and you dig down a couple levels, “Why is this happening?” and soon you get to money. Why should that be? Why should the money power push us toward the destruction of all that is good and beautiful?
We’re so used to it being that way that it’s hard even to imagine a world that’s any different.
And so we think money is this bad thing, and that a good person or spiritual person therefore shouldn’t be motivated by money, and maybe shouldn’t have anything to do with money. And maybe we think this world of commerce, this world of the flesh, this world of matter is something that is bad, lowly, and degraded. And maybe we think that virtue and spirituality involve stepping back from that world and not having anything to do with that world. But that’s only because of the way money is today.
One of things I do in the book is that I identify exactly what it is about money that makes it this way. Now some of you might be thinking, “Well, I’m making lots of money and I’m a good person.” And that can happen. The way to decide whether you are expressing your gifts isn’t by calculating what the ecological footprint is and “What’s this going to cause, and what’s that going to cause?” It’s really a feeling of trust. It’s a feeling when you wake up – it’s that feeling of being excited about your day and that feeling of, “Yes, this is what I was put here on earth to do.” And wherever that feeling guides you, that’s where to go. And that’s actually a deeper kind of revolution than the idea that “I’m going to have to overcome something bad inside of myself.
The idea of “conquering evil” has been around for about 3000 years, and the results haven’t been too good. It takes on all different kinds of forms. That’s part of one of the deep stories that carries the story of money. It’s not just a coincidence that money is the way it is. It grows out of the invisible myths, the invisible stories that create our civilization. I’ll tell you what those are in a minute; I want to point out one more thing.
I mentioned that monetary transactions don’t create a bond, but gift transactions do. And that’s one reason why gifts are sacred, and we understand that a little bit. We make a ritual sometimes out of gift giving. It’s a special act, we understand. Primitive societies were all gift economies, if you go back far enough. (No barter – barter was not how primitive economies worked.) In a gift society, to refuse a gift that was considered a hostile act because it was saying, “I don’t want to be tied to you. I don’t want to have a relationship with you. I don’t want to owe you one. I don’t want to be part of your circle.”
Gifts create circles. A basic principle of ecology is “waste is food.” Everything that any being produces is useful for some other being, and eventually it comes back to you. A gift economy is like that, too. Because if you have more than you need, you share it with somebody, you give it to somebody who needs it. And that person will feel gratitude, maybe toward you, maybe toward the community. When that person has more than they need, they’ll pass it on to somebody else, and eventually it comes back to you. And you see that happening, so you understand that somebody else’s good fortune is your good fortune as well. And you’re not in competition. And it’s not because you’re self-sacrificing. It’s simply the way things work.
So if you want wealth in that society, if you want security, if you want social status, the only way to do it is to give a lot. It’s the generous person who is the wealthiest in those societies. If money is the opposite of the gift, if it creates the opposite effect, then no wonder that in our society wealth is not a matter of how much you’ve given. And security is not a matter of how much you’ve given. It’s a matter of how much you control, how much you’ve accumulated.
So what is it about money that makes it into the opposite of a gift? Why should it be evil?
At its foundation money is a beautiful thing: It says “I want to give you something and you don’t have anything I need right now, so instead you’ll give me a useless thing. It’s pretty, but it’s just a shiny piece of metal. It’s a useless thing, but it facilitates and it shows your gratitude.” So how has it turned into a society where there’s so much that people want to give and so many people who need those gifts? Look at all these homeless people here in Vancouver. There are all these homeless people and there are many vacant properties at the same time. Why is money not connecting these gifts and these needs?
I’m going to give you a very quick explanation of why money is the way it is. It’s a partial explanation but it covers a lot of territory. And it’s very fundamental to what money is. It has to do with the way money is created, and the way that money circulates. Five years ago, almost nobody understood it, but today a lot of people understand that money is created as interest-bearing debt. Either the central bank buys some kind of security on the open market creating the money basically out of thin air when it does so, or a bank lends money to a borrower and that’s new money that’s created.
When a bank lends you a million dollars, it creates that money by writing it into a ledger or typing it into a computer. It creates a million dollars. And at the same time, it creates more than a million dollars of debt. Maybe over 10 years you have to pay back two million dollars. How are you going to do that? You’re going to have to make more money from someone else. You’re going to have to take somebody else’s money. Maybe in a very good way. Maybe you’re going to make some great invention and sell it to them. But you’re going to have to get more than that original million dollars. That should be no problem, except that everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody needs to get money from outside of themselves. So the system is set up to force us into competition. To force us into scarcity. No matter how we program our minds to be in a state of abundance and say “Money is just neutral, and it’s our attitudes about that count.” No matter what new age stuff we do, the mathematical fact remains that there’s never enough money. There’s always more money being owed than there is money in existence. The only way that debts can be paid is if you create even more money next year, or the year after. But that creates even more debt. So not only does interest create competition, scarcity, and anxiety, but it also creates a need for endless growth.
Anyone see a problem with that?
What happens when there’s no more room for growth? What happens when growth is killing the planet? What happens if there’s no more room to create new goods and services? Well then the debts can’t be paid from new growth anymore. And at first that’s not too big a problem, because say you owe me a million dollars and you’ve been making the payments out of your income, but now you’re falling behind. Well, fine, you can give me your house, give me your car, pledge your future income in perpetuity. In ancient times, people would also have to pledge their children, their wives, their land, and themselves, and they became debt slaves, debt peons. Most human beings who have lived on earth in the last 5000 years have been debt peons. I’ll get to the good news later. It’s a problem.
Basically it causes a rapid polarization of wealth and then the system collapses and can fall apart. In the mean time, there’s endless pressure to grow the money economy, which means to convert more and more of nature into product, and more and more of human relationships into services.
I used to live in Taiwan, and I moved back to America with this kind of idea of what suburbia was going to be like: Kids running around in groups playing, neighbors chatting with each other over the fence, helping each other out – these things that were left over from my childhood. I got to this suburban development and the first thing I noticed is that there were no kids outside. There was a big playground in the middle of the neighborhood, and it was empty. When I was a kid that place would have been packed. There would have been kickball games, and baseball games, and football games, and kids on bikes everywhere. And it was gone. And it wasn’t because there weren’t any kids – they were all indoors. Why is that happening? Why don’t the neighbors know each other?
We tried to create community. We tried to invite people to our house and have mixers, but people weren’t really that interested in coming, and when they came, no strong relationships were created. What happened to that? What happened to community?
Everywhere I go, people tell me that community is what’s missing most from their lives. What happened to it is that community got converted into money. I mentioned how gifts create ties, they create a bond. If you live a highly monetized life, there are no gifts, there are no bonds. You don’t need anybody. So we had our neighborhood mixer and everybody knew, “I don’t need you.” Unlike an Amish community where you need people – if your house burns down you need them to help you rebuild your house. Now we pay for that kind of community support. It’s called insurance.
When I was a kid, no one really paid for childcare. Everybody watched everybody else’s kids. But now that’s something that you pay for, and as that becomes a paid service, the economy grows. It creates opportunities to lend money, for money to circulate.
So that is part of the explanation that all of the good things you want to do – there’s no money in those. And the places where there is money is something you really don’t want to do. I’m generalizing a little but I think you all understand this dynamic. In our system, money goes to those who will create more of it, to those who will create new goods and services.
I’m a bank. I’ve got a million dollars to lend. You come to me and you say, “Charles, I’d like to borrow that money and I’m going to spend it all on stopping that pipeline from the Alberta tar sands. That’s my business plan.” Even if I want to, I’m not going to lend you that money because how are you going to pay me back? Or maybe you’re going to say, “There’s some land that’s going to be developed. I’m going to save that land. I’m going to buy that land so that it’s not developed.” And I’ll say, “How are you going to make money to pay me back?” “Well, if you want me to pay you back I can sell the land again.” “But what about my interest?” You have to create even more money. But if you come to me and say “I’d like to buy that land and build a strip malls there.” Oh, then you’re going to be making new goods and services.
If you say “I’m going to spend that money setting up a lobbying organization so I can help get that pipeline built. Here’s my rolodex of contacts. These firms will pay me lots of money to do this. All I need is some capital.” Now there’s a business plan, because you’re participating in the conversion of the Albertan tundra into money. If you participate in that, you get money.
Well, we don’t want to participate in that anymore, do we. No. But I think it’s important to remember that we did once want to participate in that. A hundred years ago we had no problem with the conquest of nature. And if you invented a way to get that oil out faster and to cut down those trees more efficiently, then you were a hero. You felt good about yourself. But not anymore. Something has changed. What has changed?
Whatever’s changed, money hasn’t changed along with it – yet. Money still keeps us doing things that we don’t want to do. But I think that we can sense that whatever has changed is something that goes very deep, and therefore that the economic crisis is also a spiritual crisis. It’s something that goes all the way to the bottom.
One thing that I’ve noticed about the Occupy movement is this kind of reunion between activism and spirituality – whereas, 10 years ago they wouldn’t have had anything to do with each other. The activists were saying, “Here you are sitting on your meditation cushion while the world burns. Get off your cushion and do something real.”And the meditators were saying, “How do you know what to do? How do you know that you’re not just battling the projections of your own shadow?” But today these two branches that were sundered in the 1960s are reuniting.
The reason I brought that up is to speak to that sense we have that something really big is changing. Something that goes all the way to the bottom. That we’re at a tipping point of some sort, that everything is going to change. One the one hand, there’s a lot of fear in that. It’s the feeling, “The world is falling apart. I don’t know what’s real anymore.” And so many things that seemed so solid and so real are being revealed as nothing but these vapors, these illusions. Like your investments, your pension, things like that. They can disappear – like that. A generation ago we didn’t have that sense so much. Those were solid a generation ago. Someone my age would be planning for my retirement already. “I’ve got to get some annuities set up.” That’s so far from my mind and from so many of my generation. We don’t really believe in that anymore. Its reality is wearing thin.
So, I’ll say a little bit then, about what is changing… Although there’s some juicy stuff about what happened to community, too:
Let’s just say that it’s not just childcare that has been converted into money, but everything that people once did for each other as a gift economy. Technology has allowed almost every bit of it to be converted into a service. For example, my father said that when he was a kid in suburbia every Sunday afternoon the whole neighborhood would get together with guitars and they would sing folk songs. Can you imagine that happening in suburbia today? Not in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I live. Because we pay for our entertainment now. We don’t create it together. We pay for cooking – in the United States mostly, and maybe here too. When I was a kid Mom cooked, but now Mom goes to the supermarket deli and buys things cooked by other people. Medicine didn’t used to be something that we paid for. A hundred years ago it was one of the village grandmothers who knew a lot about herbs. And you didn’t pay for that. People didn’t used to pay for clothing or housing either. Everyone knew how to build a house.
Maybe some of you would like to get rich, so let me tell you a business plan that’s worked for thousands of years. What you do is you find something that people do for themselves, and you take it away from them. Or you find something that people get from nature, and you take it away from them. And then, you sell it back. So for example, you can pollute the water and then sell bottled water. Or you can scare people into not drinking the water, or you can add chlorine to it, and sell them filters. This isn’t something that people consciously are doing, but you can create a climate in which people are afraid to send their children outdoors and value safety above all else. And then, children can’t have adventures anymore. Like I had when I was a kid. Maybe many of you remember this, too. You finish breakfast, “Bye, Mom,” and then you go out and play. We used to go to the quarry and stand at the edge of a cliff and throw rocks down. Then we’d go swimming unsupervised in a local swimming hole, and do all kinds of dangerous stuff that if you let your kids do today you’d be arrested. I’m not kidding, you’d literally be arrested.
I had this happen. I didn’t get arrested, but my kid was 5 years old at the time and he was playing outside. A neighbor knocks on my door and says, “Do you know that your child is playing outside, unsupervised? I’m not comfortable with that.” Which was kind of a threat. “I’m not comfortable with that. I’m going to report you to child services.” So OK, fun and adventure now become something that you buy. That’s what World of Warcraft is. And the Pokemon game on the DS. My teenage son jokingly says, “Gee, Dad, I wish the real world were 3D, like the movies. Like the 3DS.” So now through these games kids have these adventures, these encounters, and they create this online world, when they once did that in real life. So take it away, and sell it back. Deskill people. Make it illegal to build your own house. Convince everybody that only an expert can do medicine.
I went through a period of a lot of despair when I realized the extent of what we’ve lost and the depth of our poverty. We’ve lost community. We’ve lost our connection to nature. So when I offer optimism, it’s not because I don’t understand how bad things are. It’s not that I don’t understand that in the United States there are thousands of undocumented radioactive waste sites – that have almost started to leak but not quite yet. Some of them are so secret that even the government doesn’t know where they are anymore. They’ve just been forgotten. That’s just one tiny, tiny piece of the environmental crisis. And there are other pieces that are worse – because the environment is something that you convert into money, too. The ability of the atmosphere to absorb our wastes – we convert that into money, too. This is all driven by our money system.
This money system isn’t just some arbitrary mistake, it rests on a deeper foundation. There’s two parts of it. One is the story of the people, and the other is the story of the self. And these are the myths of our culture. They answer the deep questions. For example: What is it to be human? Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s valuable? What’s important? Every culture has different answers to these questions. I’ll tell you how I see our culture’s story of the people and story of the self. I go into this territory because unless this foundation changes, money can’t change either, because money embodies these stories. I’ll start with the story of the self.
What are you? The story of the self says that you are this separate being, this robot made of flesh, that’s a container for a soul or mind (it depends on if you’re religious or not) walking around in a subjective universe. Every field has its own version of this. Biology says that you are a flesh, bio-physical contraption, programmed by your genes to maximize reproductive self-interest. Economics says pretty much the same thing, that you’re fundamentally driven to maximize your economic self-interest. Physics says that you are again this kind of contraption, operating in an external universe subject to deterministic forces. This is obsolete physics, but it still defines the way that we think. It’s obsolete biology too, by the way. Spirituality, religion says that we’re these skin-encapsulated souls separate from other skin-encapsulated souls. Philosophy says that you’re like this bubble of psychology walking around, floating around – this mote of consciousness peering out into the world. That’s what you are. You’re separate.
So, from that arises pretty much every institution of our culture. For example, there are all of these competitors out there, so to be safe and to be healthy you have to control them, conquer them, and defeat them. And from that we get our dominant paradigms of medicine. There are these germs out there that are fundamentally not our friends because they are programmed by their genes to maximize their self-interest. Our economic system is like that, too. That’s why the political discourse is all about competitiveness. From this point of view, if you have any stroke of good fortune it’s not like those gift economies I was talking about. Because now you’re getting more of that limited amount of money and you’re better able to compete. So envy is built into this. Someone else’s good fortune and someone else’s excellent abilities – that harms my interest. And in fact, if you have a stroke of ill fortune and become less able to compete, that’s good for me, according to this paradigm.
In our hearts, we know that is not true. We know that on some level the suffering of any being is somehow our own suffering, too. But our scientific logic contradicts that. So one of the effects of this story of the self is a disconnect between heart and mind. Our heart says one thing. Our mind says something else.
You can see that our money system embodies and perpetuates the story of the separate self. It throws us into competition. It makes it true even if it were not fundamentally true. It enacts the story.
The story of the people: Where did we come from, where are we going, and what’s our purpose on Earth? It says that once upon a time we were animals, helpless and ignorant. But thank goodness for our big brains that allowed us to develop technology and become the masters of nature. Our control isn’t complete yet, but we’re getting there. Someday we will transcend nature completely. We will conquer the atom. We will conquer outer space. We will conquer death, even. Just like we overcame the sound barrier, and split the atom, there’s no limit to our ascent. I call this myth “Ascent” – The Ascent of Humanity.
Fifty years ago, people totally believed in this. They thought that someday we will eliminate all insects and have a garden Earth. We’ll eliminate all the bad species, all the harmful species, all the pests. We’ll spray DDT everywhere, and pollination will be done by machines. We’ll have hydroponics or we’ll synthesize our food. We won’t even need nature anymore. Everybody believed it. Almost. But we don’t believe it anymore because our stories are changing. One reason they’re changing is that they’re not working anymore. Not very many people still think that all disease will be conquered by the year 2000. That was what top medical researchers were saying in the 1950s. It was obvious – cholera, small pox, plague, diphtheria, tetanus, and polio – they had all succumbed to the arsenal of modern medicine. So of course cancer is next. Heart disease. But it hasn’t happened. In fact, instead all these new diseases are appearing that our methods of conquest and control are helpless against.
Another example is the social paradise that we were supposed to have when the methods of science were applied to society. The social sciences, political science, social engineering. We were supposed to have an age of leisure by now, too. Because after all, a machine can do the work of a thousand men. People were saying this in 1790. “Very soon every person will only have to work a thousandth as hard.” Alvin Toffler was saying that in the 1980s, too: “By the year 2000 the greatest problem facing society will be what to do with all our leisure time.” But that hasn’t happened either. We’re working even harder.
We’re working harder than hunter-gatherers worked. An anthropologist, Richard Lee, did a study in the Kalahari desert where there’s an annual rainfall of about 5 inches per year – one of the harshest climates on Earth. You’d think that it was a struggle for survival there, if anywhere. But he notices “These guys aren’t working very hard. They seem to enjoy lots of leisure, no anxiety. How much are they working?” So he followed them around with a notebook and complied how much time they actually spent working. It was about 20 hours per week. And a lot of that work is what we would consider recreation. Going out hunting counts – people do that for recreation now. Or going out gathering, with the kids running around and chatting with your friends. That was what those 20 hours of work per week were.
After two hundred years of technological development, can’t we do any better than that? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for such a long time. I read about children in Haiti eating dirt because they’re so hungry. Can’t we do better than that? Or just looking at all the ugly buildings in the town where I live. Shouldn’t we have a world full of beautiful buildings?
I think that everybody carries in their hearts the knowledge that a more beautiful world is possible. Children feel it. Teenagers especially feel it very strongly, and we call it idealism. But many forces conspire to tell us: “That’s just youthful idealism and you’ll grow out of it.” And the world that’s presented to us as normal is the only possibility. And there’s really nothing wrong with it. If there was something really wrong with it… Come on guys, I just told you about this radioactive waste, and you know about global warming, coral reefs dying – that can’t be true. And one in seven children in North America going to bed hungry – that can’t be true. Someone must be lying to you because if that were true, people would be in an uproar about it. If we were really destroying the basis of civilization on Earth people would be in an uproar about it, right? But they’re not. They’re reading about Kim Kardashian and interested in hockey. There’s nothing wrong with hockey… But just the fact that society is obsessed with celebrities and sports, basically it says to you: Things couldn’t be that bad.
A lot of us have been very lonely for many years in this suspicion that there’s something really wrong with the world. Maybe it’s not even a conscious knowledge. If it’s a conscious knowledge, maybe we rebel consciously and develop a political consciousness. If it’s an unconscious knowledge, we rebel unconsciously – by cultivating habits of procrastination and laziness, by becoming depressed, by getting addicted to something. This is basically a mutiny of the soul that says, “I’m not going to participate in this. I would rather stay in bed than live the wrong life.” And then we’re told, “Well, there’s a problem with you. If you are depressed, if you can’t get out of bed, if you procrastinate, if you can’t motivate yourself to be a success, to do the things that you need to do, to develop good work habits – there’s a problem with you.” But maybe the problem isn’t with you, maybe you’re actually healthy. Maybe we don’t have to fight ourselves to be virtuous and to be productive.
School, for example, is all about training us to do things that we don’t care about for the sake of an external reward. And that’s considered a good thing. It’s considered normal for life to suck. It’s considered normal to hate Monday. Can’t we create a better world than that? Where we hate life? Where we hate Monday? Where we want the week to be over? Where we look forward to retirement?
When I taught at university, 21-year-olds were looking forward to retirement, “Because then I get to do what I want to do. I get to live my life then.” And not wanting to participate in the conversion of all that is good and beautiful into money.
So like I said, these stories of the separate self and the ascent of humanity are becoming obsolete. They’re not working anymore. They’re falling apart, and giving birth to new stories. You could even say that all of the crises that we face today – the financial crisis, the soil crisis, (some of them people don’t know as much about), the water crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the energy crisis, the political crisis, health-care crisis, the educational crisis, the list goes on and on – we can look at them as a birth crisis. People don’t change individually until the world falls apart, at least I never change until the world falls apart. (Even then, I still try to make it work for a while.) Maybe societies are the same way. Maybe this is how change happens. Maybe this is how transition happens. And what these crises are propelling us toward – it’s kind of like being born. We don’t really know what it’s going to be like, this new world, but we see a light ahead of us. The cervix has opened.
The stage of birth that precedes that is the stage where the cervix hasn’t opened yet but the uterus is already starting to contract. And it’s kind of a hell stage where there’s no exit. Stanislav Groff writes about this. There’s no exit, there’s no hope, and you’re in despair. And then eventually the cervix opens and you can see a glimpse of something. Culturally I think we caught a glimpse of this during the age of the hippies. They caught a glimpse of our destination. And it seemed so obvious to them that in 5 years war would be obsolete and all of these other institutions would be obsolete because of the shift in consciousness. I think they were seeing something true. When you experience these things, it doesn’t feel like an excursion from reality, or a fantasy. It feels like a glimpse of the way things really could be.
The new story that we’re being born into, the new story of the self – everybody knows what it is. It’s the connected self. It says you’re not this discrete separate consciousness. But your being partakes in the being of everybody and of all things. To be is to relate. To exist is to relate. You are your relationships, so it’s even deeper than interdependence. Interdependency would be “I’m still separate but I have relationships.” But relationships aren’t something we have, relationships are something that we are. Therefore, when a species goes extinct, something is lost in us – forever. And it hurts. When a forest is bulldozed, when an old-growth forest is destroyed, something in us is lost and we can feel the pain of that. In the logic of separation, that’s ridiculous. Why should that hurt? Who cares about that forest? Maybe I’m even benefitting from cutting it down. Who cares about the seals being clubbed in Newfoundland? Who cares about that? That’s not me being clubbed. Who cares if people are getting sick, as long as I’m keeping my distance from them? Who cares if there are riots in the ghettos? I can live in a gated community. I can separate myself. What I do to the world doesn’t necessarily have to affect me if I can exert enough power, if I can exert enough control, if I can master more forces.
More force. That’s the logic of separation. But it’s phony logic because we can feel – in our hearts. It hurts right here. We can feel that what happens to any other being is happening to us, too. Which is actually much more visibly true in a gift economy. If you start alienating people then you’re going to suffer. If someone breaks their leg, that’s less gifts that are going to come to you. But it’s not true in a money economy like ours where it’s not as obviously true.
So that’s the new story of the self – the connected self.
The new story of the people – I’m going to elaborate on that one a little bit. Part of this despair that many of us go through is that we look at human behavior, we look at what civilization has done on earth and we think that maybe humans are just bad. We’re nature’s mistake. We forgot something important and we’re destroying the earth because of it. Some radical writers say that. Derek Jensen, John Zerzan. They say agriculture was a big mistake. Or even symbolic culture – language was a big mistake. It began to separate us and we became more and more separate from nature and now we have almost destroyed it. “We should go back to being hunter-gatherers.” And no other being in nature thinks that it can grow forever. “Exponential growth – that doesn’t happen in nature.” But actually it does happen in nature. If you introduce bacteria into a medium where there are no bacteria yet but there’s food, they will grow exponentially for a while, until the population levels off. It might peak and then dip and then level off. But there is a growth phase. Same with an immature ecosystem. Same with an immature person.
There’s a phase where you grow and you are entitled. You feel entitled to receive from your parent. That’s what your love relationship is. It’s one of receiving, and you grow. And that’s humanity’s relationship with Earth up until now – where we’ve pretty much taken nature’s gifts for granted. But then at some point, growth ends. The ecosystem reaches maturity, the child reaches adulthood, and as growth ends two things happen. First, there’s some kind of ordeal that marks this transition. Ancient cultures understood this, so they created coming-of-age ordeals for the children to mark the passage into adulthood. Coincidently enough, these rituals involved your world falling apart – either through psychedelic plants or physical pain or isolation. Everything that you thought was so solid and secure and permanent – your child’s world fell apart. You didn’t know who you were anymore. Your identity fell apart. And then you gained a larger identity, an understanding of your place in the tribe. Therefore, you were an adult, and you joined the tribe for real. That’s what is happening now to humanity. We’re going through a coming of age ordeal that feels like the world is falling apart that is changing our identity in relationship to nature. No longer separate from nature. And then we’re joining the tribe of all life on earth.
The other thing that happens at this stage of life is that you fall in love. And this love relationship is different from the relationship of a child to a parent. Because you no longer just want to receive. You also want to give. Even as a teenager, you want to give something to your sweetie. And then you want to co-create. And that’s what humanity now is moving into. It started again in the 60s when the environmental movement was born into mass consciousness and people wanted to protect Earth, and give back to Earth. And it happened when the astronauts beamed down those photographs of the planet, which was the first time that most people saw Earth without borders drawn on it. People had never seen that before. Today it’s almost a cliché image – planet Earth. But even today it arouses some kind of wonder and reverence. When it first came down it was a revelation to people. The astronauts felt it. They all fell in love, too. “I was up there and I didn’t see any borders on Earth and I felt an overwhelming desire to protect this planet. And I felt love for every person on the planet. I could cover the Earth with my thumb, and I realized that everything precious to me was on that little dot. All of literature, all of music, everybody I love, all of history, all of human striving is on this little, fragile, dot.”
And so we fell in love with Earth. And today, everybody on some level wants to devote their gifts in service of other beings, and in service of the earth. For the connected self, it’s not true that we’re in competition, and that more for you is necessarily less for me. More for you is more for me, too. And those are the things that we’re attracted to now. We are no longer attracted to the conquest of nature. Unfortunately, our institutions haven’t caught up with the shift. Especially the institution of money. It still embodies separation and ascent, too. It compels both.
What I write about in my book is: What would money have to look like to embody the new story of the people and the new story of the self? What would money have to look like to make wealth be a matter of how much you give, not how much you keep? What would money have to look like to obey the law of ecology – that there’s no waste, that everything you create needs to be food for something else. How can we create an economic system that embodies those truths? It’s not a rhetorical question. That’s what I write about in the book.
Basically the book is how we got here, why money is the way it is, what would it look like to be something that we would call sacred, and then how do we align ourselves on a personal level with this shift. I kind of get sick of stuff about what “we” should do. What about me. What can I do now that doesn’t depend on lots of other people doing the same thing? That’s another source of despair. “I can ride my bike, recycle. Then there’s all those greedy people in those SUVs and what difference does it make, what I do?” I act from my heart and I rescue a puppy. How is that going to make a difference? The logic of separation says: It couldn’t make a difference because you’re just a separate little being and change is governed by the laws of physics, the laws of force. How could it make a difference – anything that you do? Especially if it is taking care of a puppy, or taking care of a sick person. How’s that going to change the world? But, again, that’s the mind and the logic that we’ve received, but our hearts know that those are all significant acts. That somehow that makes a difference. The connected self, the story of the connected self, understands that: Of course it makes a difference. Of course. Because anything that you do affects all beings. So logic and heart don’t have to be in contradiction anymore. That’s the significance of this transition in stories. We no longer have to enact this war against ourselves.
I’ll say just a couple things about what money will look like. I also write about how the transition can happen.
We have Michael Linton in the audience. He’s one of the pioneers of a different kind of money system, where money is not scarce because it is created by the transaction itself. Where it’s kind of like an ancient gift economy, where you do something for somebody and the community witnesses it. They don’t necessarily keep track of exactly how valuable it was, but there’s a general sense of who’s been giving a lot, who’s been receiving a lot, who’s been generous. For someone to be generous in that setting, they don’t have to have a lot of wealth. But that wealth is created through the giving. So why not have money like that, too? Why not say, “OK, I’m going to mow your grass, and we’ll make my credit go up by $10, and yours go down by $10. We create our own money, we create our own credit. We don’t have to go to a bank to get the money to create transactions. This system is known by the acronym, LETS: Local Exchange Trading System. So that’s one thing that I write about.
Another thing is what money would look like if instead of bearing interest, it had the negative of interest. If it decayed, just like everything else in the universe decays. Right now, money seems to be an exception. If wealth is in the form of grain or potatoes or iron or anything that you have to keep – the grain decays over time. How are you going to stay rich? You can’t be rich by just having a lot. But money’s not the same. Money doesn’t decay. So if I have a thousand loaves of bread right now, how am I going to be rich? If I keep them, they’re going to be stale in 3 days. The only way that I can be rich is to give everybody in this room a couple loaves of bread. It could just be a gift, but maybe we’re in a money economy, maybe I’ll say, “I’ll lend you these at zero interest, and you give me two loaves whenever you have more than you need. Or, whenever I need it, I’ll ask you for those two loaves of bread.” If I’ve given out a thousand loaves of bread, I’m really rich because for the rest of my life I’ll be able to get bread.
But that’s not the way we use money. If I have this bread and I say, “OK, I’m going to lend it to you, but only if you give me 3 loaves of bread back in a year,” I don’t have the leverage to do that. Everybody knows that if I keep them, they’re going to go bad. Money could work that way too, if money decays. This feature of money isn’t a half-baked idea, actually, it’s been developed by economists. John Maynard Keynes spoke very highly of it. It turns everything on its head.
So for example, (this story is based on something that actually happened): Let’s consider a company that owns an island with old-growth forest. They have a decision. “Either we can log this island sustainably and make a million dollars per year forever, or we can clear-cut the forest and destroy it, and make 100 million dollars this year. What should we do?” What would you do? Well, if you are rational you would clear-cut it and get that 100 million dollars, invest it in treasury bonds at 3 percent interest, and make 3 million dollars per year, not just 1 million. Well, maybe you are an environmentalist and you don’t want to do that. So you say, “Sorry, I’m the CEO. I’m not going to do that.” Fine. But now a corporate raider comes and says, “Your company is poorly managed. You could be having a cash flow of 3 million dollars from this asset. But you’re only getting a cash flow of 1 million dollars from this asset. Your stock price is based on lower corporate income than you could be having. Therefore, your stock is undervalued. So, I’m going to go to an investment bank, borrow enough money to buy your company, buy the company, cut down the forest, pay back the bank, and get rich.
This actually happens. As CEO, the only way you can stop this hostile takeover is by raising your stock price. And the way you do that is you cut down the forest. So that’s market discipline for you. It hardens a soft heart.
Now suppose you are the CEO of Earth and you are absolute dictator. Extraterrestrials come and they say, “We’d like to buy Earth, and we’re going to make it worth your while. Gross world product right now is 60 trillion dollars per year. How would you like 10 quadrillion dollars? Right now. Why, the interest on that alone is way more than 60 trillion dollars per year. You’ll be rich! We’re going to buy the planet from you. We’re going to destroy the atmosphere. We’re going to pollute the oceans. We’re going to destroy the planet. We’re going to mine it and build a big amusement park in another galaxy with the raw materials.” So do you want to say yes to this deal? Obviously not. But we are saying yes to this deal – collectively. And it’s driven by the money system. But if money has negative interest, then you’d rather have a million dollars per year in perpetuity rather than 100 million dollars right now.
Those are just two little examples of how to align money with what has become sacred to us.