The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.
It’s the ‸Stupid Economy
The economy can be looked at through a variety of lenses, but one of the most basic divides it into three sectors. The primary sector has to do with resource extraction. Everything from logging, mining, and drilling to farming and fishing belong in this category, as well as basic alterations to prepare the materials for shipment or use. The secondary sector is responsible for producing finished goods from the raw materials. Factories, mills, and cottage industries all contribute to this sector. The tertiary sector is also called the service industry and encompasses financial concerns, education, government, health care, entertainment, waste management, and so on. As countries “progress,” their economies move from an emphasis on the primary and secondary sectors to the tertiary.
In today’s economy, individuals hold specialized positions in a long and integrated production line, but this often deprives us of a sense of accomplishment. Much in the same way that an autoworker who tightened a single bolt on each truck that was assembled in a factory might not have a sense of pride in what he or she is producing, many of us are such small cogs in giant machines and do not feel ownership over what we do. Furthermore, most jobs are so far removed from fulfilling our basic needs and desires that they are mere abstractions. Service-sector jobs especially can absorb an infinite amount of hours from their employees, and many people are induced to work more than the “standard” forty hours each week. This is not the only way to run an economy.
It is entirely possible that we could reorganize our economy so that each person can be involved in a wider variety of tasks, perhaps even working in each of the three sectors. This may sound like regression, but human beings are not made to perform a single task every day for their entire lives. If anything, industrialized work appears to be an aberration. Not only would people benefit from variety in their work day, they would feel a greater proprietorship over what they produce. Furthermore, if we were able to provide for even a few of our own needs directly through our labor, it would increase our sense of fulfillment.
Finally, by diversifying our individual skill sets, we’ll be able to create a wider variety of solutions to new problems, which allows us to be adaptable to changing conditions. By producing for ourselves, it frees us from being obligate consumers (e.g., in our current system, even farmers must buy their food at the grocery store). Although many people pride themselves on self-sufficiency, we have built a system that is overly dependent on far-flung resources transported by fossil fuels. Take that cheap fuel source away, and the entire scheme collapses. By diversifying ourselves, we will soften this blow.
Banking and Finance
We are too enamored with the Gross Domestic Product. Something is perversely wrong with a measurement wherein a traffic accident that totals a car is seen as a positive because of vehicle replacement and medical costs. All too often, economists present our system as if it is a game that we all must play. When the numbers go up, we are doing well, when they fall, it is a catastrophe. We recognize that stable systems in nature are just that, stable, not growing or shrinking. Infinite growth is impossible in a finite world.
To put it another way, our economy runs on an “empty-world” model in which inputs and outputs are seen as infinite. The economist Herman Daly (1996) contrasts this with the “full-world” model, which recognizes that the world has finite resources. It would force the economy to deal with unwanted byproducts and unexpected effects such as pollution and land degradation. Large corporations would have to recognize the ramification of their actions on all of the population and environment, not just their shareholders.
In the same vein, Derrick Jensen (quoted in McCann 2010, 110), an activist best known for his campaign against hydroelectric dams, recounted that
[Editor’s Note: Warning, vulgarity ahead] Canadian lumbermen have a great line, “When I look at a tree I see dollar bills.” If all you see when you look at a tree is dollar bills, then you’re going to look at them one way. If you look at trees and see trees, you’ll look at them another way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about trees or fish or women. If I look at women and see orifices, I’m going to treat them one way. If I look at this particular woman and see a particular woman, I’ll treat her differently. How we perceive the world affects how we behave in it and this culture has systematically driven us insane.
In the same way, if we see the earth as just a big pile of resources waiting to be exploited, we will view it in a unsustainable way.
We link this lust for resource acquisition to the all-consuming desire for wealth. We understand that from an intellectual perspective, most people link wealth to having their needs and desires met and would argue that this is the root of their quest to accumulate money. This belief so pervades our society, however, that money has become fetishized. It is imbued with value, as if it was a real thing. Alan Watts (1986, 6), better known for his popularization of Buddhist philosophy, sums up the absurdity of money:
Remember the Great Depression of the Thirties? One day there was a flourishing consumer economy, with everyone on the up-and-up; and the next, unemployment, poverty, and bread lines. What happened? The physical resources of the country—the brain, brawn, and raw materials—were in no way depleted, but there was a sudden absence of money, a so-called financial slump. Complex reasons for this kind of disaster can be elaborated at length by experts on banking and high finance who cannot see the forest for the trees. But it was just as if someone had come to work on building a house and, on the morning of the Depression, the boss had said, “Sorry, baby, but we can’t build today. No inches.”
“Whaddya mean, no inches? We got wood. We got metal. We even got tape measures.”
“Yeah, but you don’t understand business. We been using too many inches and there’s just no more to go around.”
In other words, money is a measurement, a yardstick.
A final component of our financial economy that must be jettisoned is the idea that companies exist to create a profit and those that run companies can be shielded from their bad decisions. We have taken this mistake so far that business leaders are more likely to be sued for not turning a profit than for reneging on pensions, cutting corners on worker safety, or ignoring environmental regulations, and even then it is the company that would be liable, not the person making the decision. In a new economy, organizations should exist to produce goods for the benefit of their customers and employees, but not for mindless profit-seeking. If greed was not the underlying incentive, a worker-run, not-for-profit cooperative could certainly churn out quality materials, goods, and services without sacrificing the health and safety of the employees or general public.
Money may still be a useful tool for comparing the relative value of items, though, and some communities may experiment with different economic systems on a local scale. The most effective practices can be shared for everybody’s benefit. For example, prices might be reckoned by strictly adding the costs that went into producing an item. A loaf of bread could be priced by adding the cost of flour, water, yeast, and salt (material inputs) plus the overhead costs (rent, utilities, and repairs of the bakery divided by number of loaves produced) plus labor (baker and staff salaries divided by number of loaves produced). Markup and profit are unnecessary because the costs are covered. Essentially an at-cost economy would benefit everybody more equitably than the so-called free-market, which inordinately benefits the wealthy.
Daly, Herman E. 1996. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.
McCann, Anthony. 2010. “A gentle ferocity: A conversation with Derrick Jensen.” Dark Mountain 1: 108–18.
Watts, Alan. 1986. Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality. New York: Pantheon Books.