(Perma)Culture and Sanity
Socialism failed because it couldn't tell the economic truth; capitalism may fail because it can't tell the ecological truth.
Because of the nature of our economic system, any time money moves from one place to another ecological and social degradation occur somewhere. One reason for this is because our economy rests not on careful use and reuse of renewable resources, but instead on unrestrained removal of existing resources without replacement. The result is temporary monetary wealth through permanent or long-term impoverishment of the resource base... killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Even when we use a 'renewable' resource, we do it in such a way that the renewal tends not to occur. Examples include clear-cutting of old growth forest and then abandoning the resulting bare ground to rampant weedy tree growth, or chemically farming without bothering to return organic matter to feed the soil microbia which are responsible for making soil renewable instead of a de facto hydroponic growing medium.
When we consume non-renewable resources such as petroleum, we would be wise to use them only as investments that return more energy than is used. Instead, we take as much as we can as fast as we can without planning for later years, much less later centuries. We also consume resources which are in truth too dangerous to be used at all—such as radioactive metals or persistent toxins like chlorine and mercury—then carelessly allow them to spread unchecked throughout our ecosystems.
In our current economic system these broadly destructive acts are rewarded as productive because they generate large amounts of money over the short term. Long-term ecological and social consequences are simply ignored—we reap the benefits and leave succeeding generations to pay the costs.
Another facet of the short-sighted, exploitative nature of our economic system is the ongoing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few (in 2006, 16% of US income went to the richest 1% of individuals, up from 9% in 1983). Any time money moves, some portion of that money is shifted from circulation among the general populace to accumulation by the richest of the rich. This occurs even when we don't realize our money is moving, as when banks electronically send their depositors' funds to other banks around the world at night in order to earn interest during off hours.
Even in normal daily monetary transactions, however, some portion of every transaction is taken as profit by some already very wealthy individual or corporation. The very wealthy then either hoard the money (restricting the amount available to the middle and lower economic classes), spend it on resource-intensive toys of no value beyond diversion, or 'reinvest' it in further exploitation of rapidly-disappearing natural resources and/or of increasingly-disadvantaged human resources.
Speaking of disadvantaged humans, also critically important to our current economy is a heavily populated Third World (actually the First, but who's counting?) whose land-dispossessed indigenous inhabitants live at or below subsistence level and therefore constitute a vast, cheap labor pool. A major difference between the economy of the modern world and old-style slavery or feudalism is that today's economic and political 'lords' no longer feel any responsibility for the health of their now far-flung fiefdoms (though this situation seems lost on we the wealthy, it is no doubt painfully evident to everyone else). In addition to the social inequity this economic slavery represents, long heavy pressure by such dispossessed populations struggling to survive has completely depleted many Third World social and ecological systems.
The most radical ecological or social act possible in our society as it is currently shaped, then, may simply be to slow the flow of money: hoard it in locally-owned credit unions which lend within the community; spend it on goods that are durably made from renewable resources; avoid using money in the first place by bartering and living close to the Earth; and—perhaps most radical of all—stop spending once sufficiency is attained (very, very few US citizens can legitimately claim not to have 'enough').
Decentralization of economies (shopping locally, bartering, banking in local credit unions), community-based accounting, insistence on using renewable resources, walking and riding bicycles, etc., all slow the flow of money and, therefore, also slow degradation of environmental and social systems. The larger economic system has waste built in and in fact is designed to avoid renewability as well as social and ecological accountability, since these slow the upward movement of cash.
Resistance to sustainable systems by governments and big-business is dramatic and persistent. What does this say vis-à-vis grassroots vs. legislated changes toward sustainability and social equity in our systems of production and consumption? Change is unlikely to come from 'the top,' because greater sustainability means slower cash flow, which means fewer opportunities for monied interests to dip into and capture some of that flow.
Careful use of renewable energy and material resources; recycling; reuse; refraining from exploitative practices, whether of people or natural resources; refraining from using resources which by their nature are polluting; stopping consumption at sufficiency; cooperation; learning to allow and listen to our inner wisdom instead of immersing ourselves in diversions; simple frugality; reading, listening to music, making love not war—all these are practices that we, as common people, can use to exercise what is probably our greatest power over the way our local and global economies operate. It is difficult for my government to build bombs with the money I make for them while sitting under a tree reading.
So much of our economy is based not on the attainment of any good or desirable end, but simply on the desire by governments and the wealthy to keep money moving. Creating cash flow independent of needs or consequences is the very lifeblood of our 'growth-oriented' economy. Happily the situation is ripe for improvement. As David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says, "The fluidity of the current situation, the clear inability of conventional ways of doing things to satisfy the basic needs [of all of us], the overwhelming disenchantment with what is, afford those of us who propose bold and even radical solutions an unprecedented opportunity to be heard."
In this context, barter groups such as Ithaca Hours offer one perfect solution among the many needed. Barter is local, involves reuse and recycling, supports frugality, increases availability of skills and goods which though useful are not traditionally supported by our economic system (like reading to Elders), does not lend itself to concentration of wealth and is not easily taxed. We are very fortunate in my own local area (New Mexico Highlands) to have the opportunity to participate in one such local barter program. The fact that barter systems are simultaneously so human-oriented and radical merely serves to point out that deep changes toward sustainability and humanity are needed in our economic systems if true survivability is to be achieved by Humankind.
Reprinted from (Perma) Culture and Sanity Website