A new definition for economics

By Austin Johnson, essay written Dec. 2012 for UAA Honors 192 course, Limits to Growth

Le moulin de l'oubli (Mill of oblivion), Gilbert Garcin, 1929 Value added modern business?
Le moulin de l’oubli (Mill of oblivion), Gilbert Garcin, 1999 Value added modern business?

“There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” The legendary Sierra Club executive director David Brower spoke these words. I have found no quote that ties business and earth together with such profound simplicity. I will use the inspiration from this quote to look at our current system of business and give examples of more sustainable practices. To conclude this UAA Honors course on limits to growth, I revisit my earlier definition of our system as one based solely on the production, consumption and exchange of goods

L’atelier de Sisyphe - Sisiphus’ workshop, Garcin, 2001
L’atelier de Sisyphe – Sisiphus’ workshop, Garcin, 2001 The business cycle

tied to a free market, whereby anyone can envision, develop and deliver products as long as the end cost is competitive. In the market place, the consideration of “good” or “bad” in products is seldom distinguished. This has led us to a place where missiles and solar panels are evaluated using the same economic metrics. Both items have a purchaser and can be produced competitively within their own markets. Both count as forms of economic growth. Companies playing the economic game continually search for the edge that will maximize profit at other’s expense. We live in a society that constantly reminds us that at the end of the day the person who profits is the “winner”. When profit is of utmost importance, we ignore other values like happiness and spirituality that offer new ways to measure wealth. It is clear that this current economic system has major flaws that render it broken.

I prefer a different definition of economics that, if followed, could change the way we act toward each other and the environment. This new definition reintroduces the root of the word economics, which is “loving care of the household”. This new term encompasses the stewardship role of humans to the global household known as earth. Economics should not be a business term used to calculate the bottom line but a holistic idea that encompasses the well-being of the person and his community. In order to adopt this new term, we must change the way we think and act.

There was a time when people had relatively equal resources. Many people could gather food from the same tree and drink from the same river. This condition was set by the lack of agricultural techniques and tools. But lo and behold, the wheels of the resource economy were set in motion. First, the land, which held the tree and the river, was claimed. This land was used as a leverage point to get power, resources and materials. So the landlord turned capitalist became wealthy in the society while the men working under him remained poor. This gave rise to the class system still seen today. In this system, a few men were stronger, smarter and quicker than the others. Over time the “few” became extremely wealthy. They made all their money off the work of others. The gap between the rich and poor has now arrived at a point where the bank CEO can receive a fifty million dollar bonus while countless other people are in a mortgage crisis.

Changer le monde - Change the world, Garcin, 2001
Changer le monde – Change the world, Garcin, 2001 A new order?

The most radical idea in a new economic system where the “household” is cared for is the possibility of achieving abundance for all. The potential of humans cannot be measured and thus the idea of prosperity cannot be either. This abundance would feed, clothe, house and educate all who wished for the simple things of a decent life. The true wealth among us would surpass that of today’s lonely billionaire. There should be a collective goal to build tremendous wealth in communities by liberating citizens from the cold grip of the Exxon Mobils and Cargills of the world. Let us be clear that corporations are the pervasive, wealthy, powerful, and influential organizations on earth. They are also the current instruments of destruction. Fortunately, the people on this earth are capable of great turns in thought. I am optimistic because of the potential that an engaged mind can have and the speed at which change for the better can happen.

While working at the homeless café where the poor come for food, I noticed an oversized check on the wall made out to the café. It was written by Wal-Mart to the order of twenty thousand dollars. This was a generous donation to say the least, a donation that made me think. Is that not a small price to pay for the 1.5 jobs lost for every job created when Wal-Mart comes to town? And what about the Wal-Mart employees who work for poverty wages? The corporation, no matter how pleasant its façade, will do unconscionable things to make money, please the stockholders and keep the end price low for the consumer. Cargill, the largest private corporation in the world (in terms of revenue), and Monsanto are responsible for about 100,000 Indian farmers committing suicide because they fixed the price of grain and cotton lower than the farmers could grow it. This put them into a state of extreme poverty, where death was a better option than life.

There are a handful of companies that are considerably clean with only a small environmental impact. They are the renewable energy companies that sell only clean power to the grid as well as clothing companies like Patagonia who are continually striving to respect their workers and the environment.

afraidofchangeIn order to rethink the way our economic system operates, there needs to be a shift in thinking about the systems of this planet and the people on board. We must acknowledge the mistakes that we have made while operating as if the earth is at our disposal. From this place, we must begin to understand that we are sharing the fruits of the land among all creatures. This is an educational opportunity for all of society. The clearest reason to invest in education is because the returns are exponential. As a group of learners becomes wiser they are more apt to handle the world’s complex affairs. This new intelligence could be passed on for generations to an incredible number of people.

Currently, much of our energy is wasted through luxury and inefficiency. With a newfound understanding of our earth’s systems, civilization can work to streamline the use of energy. With the efficient use of energy, the competition and selfishness of capitalism will become obsolete. There will be abundance for all. Humanity will soar to new heights where all can live and prosper. The inefficiency of our society is partly due to the technological premise used to invent and construct weaponry. Destruction is waste! We must turn weaponry into livingry (Fuller, 1981).

Connaître ses limite – Knowing one’s limits- Garcin

After World War II, the munitions plants had an excess of ammonium nitrate. They decided to spread it on the American crops. A great increase in production was realized but at a tremendous cost. Now soil erosion has become a problem because farmers no longer have diversified farms. We cannot invent soil. Once it is gone we can only help nature replenish its fertility. Along with all other chemical products that hinder the environment more than help it, it is clear that weaponry does not belong in our lives due to its profound negative effect on the environment. Livingry will always be associated with ethical products and services. Livingry aids in the survival of man. We have shown the world that overnight our factories can retool and begin producing new products. Our wartime efforts need to be mimicked by the sustainability industry so that it can expand rapidly and become a staple in our lives (Orr, 2006).

Many things are driven by economics. Business is one of them. While greed of money and power exist around every corner in the current economic system, the future system could support more people on a level where poverty, starvation and sickness do not exist. This is why we must lovingly care for the global household in every business action. It is in our best interest and the best interest of the earth.

Ed note: We just need to get started, self-organizing from the bottom up on small, local projects for descent. Next week, part II on Green Business Incubators.

Surrealist photos by Gilbert Garcin; header is L’avenir n’est plus ce qu’il était
The future was not what it was, 2006