Friday, April 13, 2012

Dreaming of Equality and Fulfillment

We interviewed neo-economist
Charles Eisenstein (above).
by Joel DeVyldere

“We want freedom, but we settle for sports cars.”

A room full of hippies, environmentalists and student activists reflect in wonder at the articulate musings of speaker, author and neo-economic dreamer Charles Eisenstein, a well-spoken man with flagrantly optimistic notions. Both energetic and calm, the 35-year-old joyfully makes the case that a culture based on consuming goods is not spiritually fulfilling for human beings.

Mr. Eisenstein recently came through Eugene on a speaking tour where he expounded on topics from his book Sacred Economics. At present, he is mesmerizing a crowd at the University of Oregon, telling a story on the history of the social and economic organization of people.

A key theme in Charles’ story is the saga of human happiness and well-being. He describes a time when the social climate of small villages enabled people to provide for each other without fear of being scammed. In Charles’ history lesson, the well-being of one’s neighbors used to factor heavily in the  thought life of each member of a community; and local reputations made trade a less-than-shady affair in the economies of the not-so-distant past, he claims.

Thanks to new systems of social organization, modern people don’t interact like that anymore. A twist in the plot reveals a generation of people suffering the effects of entire lifetimes of for-profit interactions, resulting in cosmic anonymity and endemic wariness.

So where have we gone wrong? A phenomenon called Capitalism has helped us look at the world in a profit-motivated way, and the scarcity which that system creates has sapped us of the energy for thinking of others first.

In Capitalism, Charles argues, money is based on debt -- created in way that ensures that there will never be enough to go around. We are playing musical chairs in modern economies, and everyone is trying to make sure they’re sitting pretty when the music stops. The resulting atmosphere has made an attitude of scarcity and fierce competition the norm, even though abundance and cooperation might serve us better.

Capitalism uses a measure called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to quantify the health and prosperity of a group of people. But Charles is concerned that this isn’t a very good way of looking at the world -- things like human happiness aren’t even factored in, he says. Worse than that, in modern Capitalism, sectors of the economy like the pharmaceutical drug market can show increases that are dependent on human suffering.

“I think that the best way to grow the economy today is to make people miserable, alone, disconnected,” Charles offers.

Another problem is in that modern Capitalism, rapid growth is the only way to keep the economy from collapsing.  A phenomenon called infinite growth economics makes sure that we humans continue to extract unmitigated quantities of natural resources from the earth in the quickest, cheapest and often most destructive manner possible with no conceivable end in sight. “Money, as it stands today, is an exception to ecology,” Charles notes.

Soon enough, however, Charles’ rather extreme critiques of Capitalism shift into a vague optimism for future models of human organization. He starts talking about freedom, in a post-sports-car world.

But what makes this economist think a better way of living is possible? Why is a man so well-studied in the troubles of this world so hopeful for a healing and fulfilling future for humankind? I had an opportunity to ask Charles a couple of questions to clarify his positions on social and economic ills and virtues. Here’s what he had to say:

SI: I’ve heard you talk briefly about the Occupy movement, and how it reveals frustrations with society that take their toll on 100% of people. What would you say are some liabilities of the present model of capitalism for the average American?

Charles: For one thing, the present model is dependent on endless growth, which is depleting nature and destroying community. Furthermore, as resource depletion and market saturation make rapid growth increasingly difficult, debt rises faster than income, unemployment increases, and wealth concentrates in fewer and fewer hands. We see this day in the ubiquitous debt crisis.

Today college students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that they'll spend half their lives repaying. This is wrong. Just one or two generations ago, public universities were virtually free. Since then, the wealth of society has increased several-fold. Why is it that we can no longer pay for those things we once could?

There are many reasons, some superficial (such as the shifting of taxation away from the wealthy) and some much deeper (the end of growth causing concentration of wealth). But I think we should begin to question the unquestionable: for example, a system in which you have to spend half your life in debt just to get an education.

SI: What do you mean by the concept of "the discrete and separate self”? How is identity defined, and what is a 'healthier' way of defining it?

Charles: Every culture offers a different answer to the question, "Who am I?" Ours emphasizes the individual, fundamentally separate from other individuals in a universe that is also separate. Naturally, then, we find ourselves in a constant state of competition and anxiety. But other cultures had different answers, in which "self" was not so rigidly distinguished from "other" -- from community, from tribe, from the land, the planet, the cosmos.

Today we are beginning to recover an understanding of these lost connections, so that our innate knowledge that "what I do to the world, I do to myself" no longer seems so irrational. More and more of us seek to be truly of service.

Unfortunately, our social institutions -- such as the money system -- keep us in a state of separation and make it hard to be of service. Fortunately that is beginning to change; unfortunately the first part of that shift is a collapse of much of what is familiar. We are living in a time of constant crises, one after another. We can sense that these aren't bumps in the road of "normal". Huge changes are afoot in our lifetimes.

SI: What is the most important book that someone who is interested in understanding alternative economics should read?

Charles: I'd love to suggest my book, Sacred Economics, and of course there are many more. I think E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful was a really important, seminal work in the field. Also David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World. I also recommend the writings of Wendell Berry. Thomas Greco and Bernard Lietaer have made important contributions also worth reading.

SI: If you were talk to president Obama tomorrow, what would you say?

Charles: I would tell him that sooner or later he is going to have to step out of the box. The conventional tools of economic policy are less and less effective, and will continue to be so. Using them, he can only succeed in postponing the day of reckoning for a few more years, and the cost to nature and society will be high. The people are ready for more radical solutions like the ones I and many other thinkers are developing.