During the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched a plan, The Great Reset. It aims to rebuild the world economy more intelligently, fairer and sustainably while adhering to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). These SDGs include ending poverty, improving health and well-being, better education, equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, jobs and economic growth. That sounds great, but is it a reset? It would be up to so-called responsible corporations and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to implement the agenda before 2030. Not everyone thinks that is a great idea.
The change is supposed to be powered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a fusion of technologies in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing. I get an uneasy feeling when I read that. It looks like an excuse for technology addicts to play with our future. Is it because I am against progress, or is it because of a rational fear that something is about to go seriously wrong even though I don’t know exactly what?
Under the umbrella of the Great Reset, so-called young global leaders of the WEF came up with new ideas. For instance, new technologies can make products like cars and houses cheaply available as a service, ending the need to own these items. A young global leader wrote an article titled, ‘Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better.’1 She hoped to start a discussion, and the article produced a slogan that also became an Internet meme, ‘You’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.’ There certainly is an economic rationale for sharing items like cars, most notably if they become more expensive to keep because of technological innovation.
Property, for instance, a home, can give you economic freedom. If you own a home, you don’t have to pay rent. And you own some capital when you retire. Some people think the WEF is a sinister elite club scheming to achieve a secret agenda where the elites own everything, and the rest of us ends up with nothing. And that might happen anyway if current trends continue because that is how capitalism works. Capital accumulates and ends up in the hands of a few because of interest. It is not a secret since Karl Marx figured that out. And it leads to a crisis when the impoverished masses can’t buy the things that capital produces. With negative interest rates, there is no need for that.
Property rights have become a semi-religious value in Western culture. That prevents us from taking the property of the elites and ending their stranglehold on our political economy. Marx advised that workers or the state would take over corporations. That might not be a good idea because workers and governments often do poorly at running corporations. Markets and private enterprises can efficiently provide goods and services, but it comes with wealth inequality and happens at the expense of future generations. Our societies must find the right balance. At some point, the disadvantages of the current political economy start to outweigh the advantages.
We use far more resources than the planet can provide, and wealth inequality is now so extreme that we might need a genuine Great Reset. Taking the wealth from the elites and discontinuing enterprises that don’t provide for our essentials is not communism, as long as there are markets and private property. People should prosper if their work benefits society and enterprises often do better at providing for our needs. But we don’t benefit from the corrupting influence of oligarchs. Their wealth comes from inheritance, criminal and shady activities, and, most notably, accumulated interest on their capital. That arrangement may have suited us in the past, but not now.
Economists believe property rights are essential for economic growth, and that business owners should be able to do as they please. For instance, Elon Musk has the right to ruin Twitter because he owns the company. Should employees and others suffer from the irrational behaviour of their owners? In the Netherlands, a series of interesting trials took place, where corporations tried to escape the influence of their majority shareholder Gerard Sanderink, who allegedly didn’t act rationally in the interest of these companies.2 Limited property rights and a collectivist attitude have not prevented China from becoming a large and advanced economy surpassing the United States and may have contributed to China’s success.
The degree of individualism currently existing in the West may do more harm than good. They promote political fights and litigation and prevent us from doing what we should do. And perhaps, less privacy can go a long way in reducing crime. Property rights and individualism were crucial to start capitalism and made the West dominate the world for centuries. And so, we have learned to see them as necessary, inevitable or even desirable. But once the European imperialist capitalist engine ran, these features became less important than economic stability. If you start a business, you must be able to estimate your returns, but you can lease everything and own nothing.
Individualism and property rights also play a positive role in society. The cultural heritage of the West is extensive compared to other cultures, for instance, if you express it in the number of books written or discoveries made. Self-interest and personal responsibility can inspire us to work harder and do a better job. The Soviet Union failed to produce enough food for its citizens while there was enough arable land. In the Soviet Union, farmers had to work on collective enterprises where they could not do as they saw fit and didn’t share in the profits. The tragedy of the commons is that we don’t care for public spaces as much as our possessions. Homeowners usually take better care of their houses than tenants. The same is true for car owners.
As they are now, property rights protect the elites. And the WEF plan is just a fart in the wind, not a Great Reset. We face unprecedented worldwide challenges while wealth inequality is at extreme levels, so individualism and property rights need limits. And we need a proper Great Reset, or a switch from economic to political control of the world’s resources if we intend to live in a humane world society that respects our planet. It is what a corporation named Patagonia did in 2022.3 We can do that on a global scale.
It begins with seizing the wealth of oligarchs and criminals and all hidden wealth in offshore tax havens, including their so-called charities, placing them in sovereign wealth funds, and setting a limit on what individuals can own or earn. And perhaps, we need to build our future on values rather than balance sheets. And everyone should contribute. Capital accumulates by interest, and people who live off interest don’t work for a living. That might be as bad as being on the dole while you can work. And peddling unnecessary products that harm life on Earth could be as bad as being a criminal.
Laws should prevent people and corporations from doing wrong, but they often fail to do that. Corporations pollute the environment or exploit employees to make a profit. But consumers desire excellence for rock-bottom prices. It is profitable to break the law if you can get away with it or when the gain is higher than the fine. And if there are loopholes, they become exploited. The anonymity provided by money, large corporations and markets turn us into uncaring calculating creatures. That is why big pharma, the military-industrial complex, the financial industry, and the Internet giants threaten us. If corporations do right out of their own, many laws and regulations become redundant. If moral values can replace the law, it could be better.
Less efficiency, poorer service and a smaller choice of products can be preferable if that doesn’t lead to deprivation and starvation. For instance, why must you get your meal from a takeaway restaurant instead of preparing it yourself? Or why do you need to dress up in the latest fashion if you have ample wearable clothing? And you must work to pay for these things, so if you don’t buy them, you have time to prepare your meal or mend your clothes. We don’t want to give up these things, so in a democracy, we can’t fix this problem. Perhaps we might accept the change if God sends a Messiah who tells us this is for the best.
That might be wishful thinking, but what else can make it happen if it is not religion? Do you believe we will come to our senses, become one humanity, and do right on our own? That is wishful thinking. God is our only hope. As we are heading for the Great Collapse in one way or another, the End Times could be now. We might live inside a simulation run by an advanced humanoid civilisation.4 Hence, God might own this world, and you might soon discover that you own nothing and be happy. God’s kingdom might be a utopian society as early Christians lived like communists (Acts 4:32-35).
So what can we achieve by taking political control of the world’s resources and means of production by seizing the elite’s wealth and placing it in sovereign wealth funds? You can think of the following:
We can direct our means to the goals of a humane society, be respectful of this planet, and plan long-term.
We can dismantle harmful corporations or give them a new purpose without starting an economic crisis with mass unemployment.
We can make corporations employ people in developing countries and give them an education and decent salaries.
We can fund essential government services in developing countries and eliminate corruption insofar as it is due to insufficient pay of government employees.
We can make corporations produce sustainably and pass on the cost to consumers.
We can determine the pay of executives.
We can halt developments like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nuclear energy if we believe they are undesirable.
We can end the incentive to produce and consume more and stop the advertising industry from tracking us.
We can end stress in the workplace if we axe bullshit jobs and redirect workers to the needs of society. A twenty-hour working week might be enough.
Interest stands in the way of a better future. The economy ‘must’ grow to pay for the interest. We ‘must’ work harder in bullshit jobs to pay for the interest. Corporations ‘must’ sell harmful products to pay for the interest. Corporations ‘must’ pay low wages or move production to low-wage countries to pay for the interest. And because of interest, money disappears from where it is needed most and piles up where it is needed least. Interest is our tribute to the wealthy. If we hope to live in a humane world society that respects creation, ending interest might be imperative. That is where Natural Money comes in.
Latest revision: 28 April 2023
Featured image: You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy. WEF.
1. Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy And Life Has Never Been Better. Ida Auken. World Economic Forum (2016). 2. Zakenman Gerard Sanderink tierend in rechtszaal: ‘Deze rechtbank deugt voor geen meter!’ AD.nl (2023). 3. Patagonia’s Next Chapter: Earth is Now Our Only Shareholder. Patagonia (2022). 4. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom. Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.
That was a great speech. Only, these were not Seattle’s exact words. Based on Seattle’s speech, a screenwriter wrote a text that became a religious creed within the environmentalist movement. I shortened it as it is quite lengthy. The message strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. The pursuit of money destroys our planet and values. This version of Seattle’s speech aims to make Creation sacred. The white man may think he owns the land, but he does not. He may think he controls his destiny, but he does not. Whatever befalls Earth befalls the children of the Earth. We have no destiny, no dream we pursue. Things just happen, not because we intend them to happen, but because they are the outcome of a process over which we have no control.
Perhaps, you care for our planet, but what do you mean? If the last white rhino disappears, the Earth is still there. Most of us will survive the demise of the rainforests. Humans have finished off other species for thousands of years, so why stop now? Soon we might create new species using genetic engineering. And nature does not care. Predators kill prey all the time. So, why should we care? Mr Lind, a professor at the University of Texas, wrote an article, Why I Am Against Saving the Planet. He says, ‘Saving the planet has become the de facto religion of politicians, business elites, and intellectuals in the West, replacing Christianity’s earlier mission of saving individual souls.’1 He claims environmentalism is rooted in German 19th-century Romanticism, typified by a bias against society and civilisation and a pantheistic awe before an idealised Nature. In other words, environmentalists suffer from a religious desire for Eden.
In doing so, Mr Lind inadvertently tapped into another 19th-century German tradition, that of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche hoped to leave traditional morality behind, so he said, ‘God is dead.’ He meant to say that religions like Christianity were ruses to enslave us with a false sense of right and wrong under rules imposed by a priestly caste. Nietzsche favoured the values of the aristocracy of ancient civilisations, the values of the strong, to those of the enslaved masses, the values of the weak embodied in, for instance, Christianity and socialism. Slaves think in terms of good and evil rather than good and bad because they resent the ruling class. Nietzsche divided humanity into superhumans and slaves. He aimed to liberate us from our self-induced slavery and realise our potential. But what happens when eight billion people try to realise their potential and strive for wealth and power? We might all end up as free people in hell.
Mr Lind argues for doing away with false sentiments. He goes on, ‘There are costs to mitigating climate change as well as benefits, and rational people can prefer a richer but warmer world to a poorer but slightly less warm one. These individual policies benefit humanity, so there is no need to justify them on the basis of a romantic creed that defines the planet or the environment.’ That may appear nice and dandy from behind the desk of Mr Lind’s air-conditioned Texas room. If you live below sea level or in an area threatened by climate-change-related natural disasters, you might view things differently. Ten million Dutch live at or below sea level, and hundreds of millions more risk suffering climate-related disasters like floods, hurricanes and failed harvests. And Mr Lind is not planning to compensate them for that or invite them to stay in his mansion. And the rainforests and the animals and plants living in them might be better off if the likes of Mr Lind go extinct.
As our production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than we can solve existing ones with laws, technology, targets and other solutions. More technology, rules and controls do not solve these problems. In the 1990s, the environmentalist group Strohalm wrote a booklet named Towards a Philosophy of Connectedness.2 It lays out Strohalm’s vision for a sustainable and humane society. The principal founder of Strohalm is Henk van Arkel, a dedicated individual who remained its driving force for decades. Van Arkel is a moderate man who does not blame anyone in particular.
Everything is interconnected, so actions have consequences. We often do not know them and may not be affected ourselves. Wall Street traders who sold bad mortgages contributed to the financial crisis. Do you think there are no consequences if you dump plastic in a river or post hateful comments on a message board? Western thinking, reflected in the scientific method, deconstructs reality to analyse the parts. In doing so, it focuses on detail, and the whole can get lost. It makes us act irresponsibly. A few hateful comments don’t make someone take a semi-automatic rifle and shoot innocent people. But if we think like that, we remain locked in a cynical and uncaring world.
And God is not dead after all. This world is virtual reality. You may think you make your own decisions, but you do not. You play a role in a script. You say the lines and do the things the computer has written out for you. And so, we may soon find ourselves slaves in God’s Paradise. It is not slavery as we understand it, the exploitation and repression of one group of people by another. It is slavery in Nietzsche’s sense, which is living under a self-imposed moral system. God owns this world, so it is not ours to destroy. So yes, the sacredness of Creation is a religion.
If religious zeal could feed us, Mao’s Great Leap Forward would have been a success. Instead, thirty million people died of starvation. So, we should not get carried away. Jesus might have fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, but it is not prudent to bet on a miracle. For instance, if we switch to organic agriculture and do not deal with the lower output, for example, by curbing our meat consumption accordingly, the Great Leap Forward might look like a minor mistake in comparison. We can have goals, but let experts figure out how to get there. Dramatic lifestyle changes are necessary for people who have more than enough. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.’ The change will be painful. But once it is behind us, we will feel better.
You may think it is impossible, but acknowledging the problem is the first step towards a solution. Our belief that nothing will help can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, beliefs, thinking, and our place in the universe. Small steps cannot save us anymore. We need to change the way we live.2 That is what the people of Strohalm said. For a long time, I believed they were naive dreamers. I felt sure their vision of a humane world society that respects nature would never become a reality. As we head to an apocalypse, we cannot allow realism to stand in the way of what we should do. But then my life took an unexpected turn, and I figured Strohalm’s view could be God’s vision of Paradise.
Latest revision: 18 May 2023
Featured image: Earth from space. Public Domain.
1. Why I Am Against Saving the Planet. Michael Lind (2023). Tabletmag.com. 2. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.
Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface, a plant is growing, and its leaves suffocate all life below. The plant has already been there for 1,000 days. It doubles in size every day. So, here is a question. If the lake is already covered half by the plant, how many days are left to save the lake? The correct answer is one day.
Behold the power of exponential growth. The plant doubles in size each day. And so, it covers the entire lake tomorrow. It does not matter how long it has been there. It stops growing once there is no more room. As soon as the lake is fully covered, life in the lake ends. And if the plant depends on that life, it will die too.
The lake represents the Earth, the plant represents humanity, and the leaves are people like you and me. No more room for growth may mean mass starvation. As of 1971, humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently, we use nearly two times as much. By 2050, we need three Earths if we go on as we do.
There is only one Earth, so that is not going to happen. Make no mistake. This is the proverbial last day. It does not matter how long humans have already roamed this planet, the Great Collapse is upon us. In 1972, a group of scientists in the Club of Rome ran a computer model that predicted the end of civilisation as we know it when natural resources would run out shortly after the year 2000.1
Using the finest graphics available in the 1970s, they made a scary diagram. It says that doom is upon us. The end times could be now. To list the challenges we face:
We use more than the planet can sustainably provide.
We pollute and poison our environment.
Inequality is extreme.
Identity politics divides us.
There is lawlessness in many parts of the world.
World War III can wipe us out.
Technology like artificial intelligence can make us redundant.
We may soon have the technology to alter ourselves into beings who can live forever and have capabilities we do not have.
Perhaps, you want to do something about it, but you do not know what. What direction should we take? The issues we face are global. We can either take control of our destiny and confront them together or let our future happen. Maybe you do not trust the leaders that run the world. So, who can you trust? You might need a leader. This plan offers you an alternative and a leader you might find trustworthy. What will happen is up to you. It could indeed be the end unless you wake up to the truth.
This is the end, beautiful friend This is the end, my only friend The end
It hurts to set you free But you’ll never follow me The end of laughter and soft lies The end of nights we tried to die This is the end
– The Doors, The End
So, is there an alternative? And what could it be? Before answering that question, we should ask ourselves what is wrong with us and our way of living. Let us begin with that, for it is not so obvious, as the existence of another option is a miracle indeed. To enlighten you, I cite a speech the Native American Chief Seattle gave in 1854 when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe.
Latest revision: 18 May 2023
Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
Our greatest challenge at present is dealing with the limits of the planet. The second greatest challenge is to provide for an acceptable standard of living for everyone. The third may be reducing differences in income and power. To a large extent these are economic questions. The order is important. For instance, what’s the point of achieving a higher standard of living when our planet is destroyed in the process? And it may be good to reduce differences in income and power but not if everyone ends up poorer.
New technologies can make these goals easier to attain. Information technology and the Internet made it possible for people everywhere around the globe to connect and to work together. This created jobs for millions of people in countries like India and China and it provided them with a better standard of living. Imagine nuclear fusion becoming available and energy becoming really cheap. That could halt climate change and make our lives easier. But we don’t know what kinds of technology there will be in the future.
The challenges we face are of an economic nature so a model of the economy can be helpful. Economics is about deciding for what we use the limited means we have and for whom. The distinction between economics and politics is not always clear because economic choices are often of a political nature. Even when you believe that everything should be left to markets then this is a political opinion.
The economist Kate Raworth came up with the idea of doughnut economy. It can be used to assess the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s limits.1 Assessing is not the real challenge here. Making it work is. Raworth did some suggestions but this model outlines a comprehensive global solution.
Much of economics is drawn from experience. Often from experience supposed economic laws were formulated. The supposed laws don’t always work so we need imagination too. Experience may be a good guide to predict human behaviour and it can help us to see how far we can make our imagination become reality.
We can’t continue to live like we do. New technologies alone will probably not save us. The changes we need most likely are a shock for most people, except the poorest. On the bright side there is the 20/80 rule. It states that if you set your priorities right, you can achieve 80% of what’s possible with 20% of the effort needed to achieve the 100%. So if we stop the 20% most resource consuming and polluting non-essential activities then we might achieve 80% of what we can possibly achieve. That may be enough so life may still be acceptable in the future.
This plan contains ideas that ignore political borders like combining environmentalism with supply-side economics. This is a comprehensive solution. People may take their pickings based on their political views but you can’t cherry pick and expect it to work. This plan doesn’t include specific proposals like building windmills nor does it dwell on sustainable development goals. It is an economic model only.
This model gives a general outline as to how to deal with the challenges using underlying economic mechanisms. Many issues have to be resolved along the way, for instance mitigating the consequences for those who suffer the most. In short the model is:
The limits of our planet should dictate economics. That is just plain survival. Everything else should be of a secondary nature.
Ending poverty should be the second goal in economic thinking. That is our moral obligation. All other goals come after that.
People organise themselves in different ways. Organisational flexibility is the feature that made humans so successful as a species.
Setting these limits will bring severe dislocations in the economy that have to be addressed in the short term as well in the longer term.
Money is power. Ignoring money and the profit motive won’t produce acceptable outcomes. Still, it may be possible to reduce the power associated with money.
The economy has a short-term bias. An important reason is interest. Negative interest rates can lengthen the time horizon of investment decisions.
Capital represents wealth. Capital can help to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty. Destroying capital usually is not a wise course of action.
It is probably easier to build the required capital via investment than via taxation as most people love to invest but hate to pay taxes.
It may be better not to tax capital but to tax conspicuous consumption of the wealthy instead and to ban harmful activities if that is feasible.
Caring for our planet should be central in economic thinking. In traditional economics the consequences for the planet are delegated to a marginal role. The approach so far has been that products and services can have hidden costs like the usage of scarce resources and pollution. The proposed solution is that bureaucrats calculate these costs and tax harmful products to the point that their price reflects their true cost.
The government is supposed to use the proceeds from these taxes to repair the damage done, which often doesn’t happen. Still these taxes increase the price of harmful products so people can afford fewer of them. That may help but it is a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket. Economic growth is exponential so measures to reduce resource consumption or pollution are overtaken by the growth of production and consumption.
It is hard to calculate the true cost of products and services. Another problem is that green solutions use scarce resources too. To build a windmill energy is needed, which often comes from non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. Subsidising these solutions can be inefficient. A better way out may be setting hard limits on resource consumption and pollution. That could allocate resources more efficiently and set higher rewards on solutions that really contribute to a sustainable future.
Ending poverty is not always an explicitly stated goal of economics but economics is about making the best use of limited resources. Economic thinking can help to reduce poverty. Capitalism can create wealth efficiently but doesn’t distribute it equally. An important obstacle is interest rates being limited to the downside. Negative interest rates can help to reduce poverty but poor people are often poor for other reasons too, for instance a lack of opportunities or their own behaviour.
The political economy describes how humans organise themselves. Humans are social animals that can cooperate on a large scale in a flexible way. It made humans the dominant species on the planet. There are three major forms of human organisation:
Traditionally humans lived in communities and villages where people help each other. They contributed to their community and expected their community to care for them. Money hardly played a role and trade with the outside world was often barter. People were born into a community and it was difficult to leave. Communities are still important in modern societies but leaving is easier. Many communities are communities of choice that you can join and leave as you like. These are often based on shared interests, for instance a soccer club or a message board on the Internet.2
Governments set the rules in societies and enforce them, often with the consent of the citizens. They provide public services that markets do not provide efficiently or in an acceptable manner. The organising agent is money too, in this case via taxes and government expenditures on public services. Governments can think ahead but they are less flexible. The limits of the planet aren’t flexible either so it may be a task for governments to enforce them.
Dealing with the consequences
The flexibility of the ways in which we humans organise ourselves allows us to set limits on a global scale and let governments, businesses and communities all over the world deal with them and reorganise themselves accordingly. These limits must be set from the top down like a dictate because the size of the planet can’t be changed. Being too flexible on this issue can be a greater mistake than not being flexible enough.
This requires a global authority. If adequate measures are taken, severe dislocations in the economy can be expected. For instance, if recreational air travel is to be ended, that will affect poor countries depending on tourism. The same is true for people working for businesses that use scarce resources produce non-essential goods and services. Millions of people will lose their jobs and their means of existence.
In the short run they have to be helped out with food and money. In the longer term people, communities, businesses and countries must adapt to the new reality. Multinational corporations may have to relocate jobs to areas that have little to offer to international markets. Ideally everyone has a useful role in society and feels secure but the economy requires a flexible labour market.
Money makes the world go round
Humans have social needs and varying motivations but most people are motivated by money, at least to some extent. Even when people are not motivated by money, those who are often determine what happens. That is because money represents power. Reforming the economy based on ideals and moral values will have little effect if money and financial markets are ignored. We need the goods and services money can buy.
People can be motivated by their jobs but most people work to make a living. Money plays an important role in this process. If you are not rewarded for doing your job well that can demoralise you, most notably if others receive the same reward for doing a poor job. A great experiment called the Soviet Union has proven that beyond reasonable doubt. Markets can help to eliminate businesses that are useless or inefficient.
Sadly the amount of money individuals acquire doesn’t always represent their merits for other people and society. The politically connected can enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers. Business owners can exploit labourers and enrich themselves by moving jobs to low wage countries. And criminals can become very rich too.
Rich people can buy the respect and cooperation of others. They can make others do what they want them to do. This comes with social status. People like you when you are rich because they hope to benefit from your spending. Social status also comes from the products you can afford. Differences in power and social status can lead to social instability, most notably when many are poor and the rich didn’t deserve their wealth.
It is easier to finance a great endeavours like making the economy sustainable and ending poverty from investments than from taxation because nobody wants to pay taxes but everybody is happy to invest. People may work hard to build some capital for themselves through savings and investment but they won’t work so hard to pay taxes.
This was the secret of the success of the European empires that conquered the world. England, France, Spain and the Netherlands were much poorer and smaller than China, India or the Ottoman Empire, but they didn’t finance their conquests with taxation, but with investment capita. European conquerors took loans from banks and investors to buy ships, cannons, and to pay soldiers. Profits from the new trade routes and colonies enabled them to repay the loans and build trust so they could receive more credit next time.2
Reducing the power associated with money is possible. For instance, if there is a tax on currency, interest rates can go below zero, and owners of money can’t demand interest when there is a capital surplus and positive interest rates aren’t beneficial to the economy. Redistributing wealth via wealth taxes may reduce differences in wealth and power but it can also lead to capital destruction via higher interest rates.
Capitalists save and invest while ordinary people borrow and spend. Wealth taxes divert money from investment to consumption so interest rates may rise and the effect may be a reduction of capital rather than more tax income. And it is consumption that harms the planet. Wealth taxes can be useful but they aren’t part of the solution. It may be better to reduce the consumption of the wealthy instead as they often consume the most.
This would reduce the privileges attached to wealth as it reduces the options for the wealthy to use their riches. At the same time it allows capital to be allocated via markets so that efficiency considerations apply. Hence, more investment capital may become available and the excess may be transferred to governments, people and businesses via negative interest rates.
In other words, it may be smarter to ‘milk the capital of the rich’ by giving the rich fewer options to spend their wealth than to tax their wealth. In this way their capital may grow to the possible maximum and interest rates go lower to the benefit of everyone.
In the neo-liberal era government spending was constrained by interest payments. The public sector was neglected. The price paid was often poor health care, bad roads or an overstretched police force. Once interest rates are negative, we may enter an era of abundance, and interest payments may be added to government budgets. This is to be expected when resources are diverted away from the consumption of the rich.
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.
– Queen, I want it all
These words of Queen express the mindset behind an economic system that encourages people to buy as much stuff as possible. More is preferred to less and now is preferred to tomorrow. If we stop buying stuff, or even when we buy less, businesses go bankrupt, people become unemployed, debts can’t be repaid and money becomes worthless. And so there is a quest for economic growth that’s killing us.
Economics teaches that our needs and wants exceed the available goods and services and that we always want more. This is called scarcity. Economics also teaches us that we want stuff sooner rather than later. This is called time preference. And so we must be encouraged to save for the investments needed to make more stuff by promising us more stuff in the future. And so there must be interest, economics teaches us.
To be fair, economics goes beyond this simple caricature, but the short-term bias caused by the belief in scarcity, time preference and positive interest rates, is still everywhere in economic thinking, and also in our thinking because we are influenced by economics. The existence of negative interest rates signals that the basic assumptions underlying economics may not be correct. People keep on saving without the promise of more stuff in the future. And that is a good sign.
Our way of living has to change in a fundamental way. We need to recycle more, buy second hand stuff and forego frivolous consumption. In the future employment may come from addressing needs in society. For instance, former salespeople may care for the elderly. There is an abundance of capital, and if those who have enough constrain their desires, even more capital can be available to meet the challenges humanity is facing.
To make that happen we need new ideas about wealth and poverty. It may be wiser to see wealth as the amount of time we can to sustain our current standard of living. For instance, someone who owns € 50,000 in assets and needs € 10,000 per year to live off may be wealthier than someone who owns € 100,000 and needs € 50,000 per year. This also applies to humanity. The resources of the planet can be considered as our assets. On the basis of this measure we are becoming poorer by the day.
Interest rates are important here. They affect the time horizon of investment decisions. That is because of discounting. When investment decisions are made, this usually comes down to discounting the future income stream from the investment against the interest rate. Higher interest rates promote shorter time-horizons. This can be illustrated with an example from the Strohalm Foundation:
Suppose that a cheap house will last 33 years and costs € 200,000 to build. The yearly cost of the house will be € 6,060 (€ 200,000 divided by 33). A more expensive house costs € 400,000 but will last a hundred years. It will cost only € 4,000 per year. For € 2,060 per year less, you can build a house that lasts three times as long.
After applying for a mortgage the calculation changes. If the interest rate is 10%, the expensive house will not only cost € 4,000 per year in write-offs, but during the first year there will be an additional interest charge of € 40,000 (10% of € 400,000).
The long-lasting house now costs € 44,000 in the first year. The cheaper house now appears less expensive again. There is a yearly write off of € 6,060 but during the first year there is only € 20,000 in interest charges. Total costs for the first year are only € 26,060. Interest charges make the less durable house cheaper.3
In reality things are not that simple. The building materials of the cheap house might be recycled to build a new house. And technology changes. If cars had been built to last 100 years, most old cars would still be around. This could be a problem as old cars are more polluting and use more fuel. Nevertheless, the example shows that long-term investments can be more attractive when interest rates are lower.
The interest rate is not the cause but the consequence of the time horizons of individual borrowers and lenders in financial markets, which are people, businesses and governments. The economy doesn’t magically become sustainable because interest rates are low. Interest rates are low for a reason. If we don’t buy things we don’t need, interest rates go down. The time horizon of the economy lengthens because our economic time horizon lengthens.
Capital and wealth
The painful reality of what our wealth really is has such dramatic consequences for the economy that it is hard to foresee what a future sustainable society might look like. But capital will still represent wealth in the future. The traditional definition of capital is buildings, machines, technology and knowledge to make the products and services we use. This definition ignores the planet and that is not helping us to survive.
Only if we think of the planet Earth as our main capital and believe that we have to keep that capital in tact and that we have to sustain ourselves from the interest of this capital then economics can help us to survive. We must reduce our consumption to the point that the planet can regenerate itself. A true capitalist doesn’t consumes his or her capital either. He or she lives of the interest and saves whatever he or she can for the future.
Traditional capital can help with that. For instance, internet and video conferencing allow us to meet other people without travel. If most traffic is to disappear that would greatly reduce resource consumption and pollution but that may only happen if travel is restricted. Knowledge to make artificial meat from plants can reduce the need for fertilisers and pesticides. If we don’t have to feed livestock any more, lower yields in agriculture are acceptable. This can help to make agriculture in harmony with nature.
We may need more traditional capital in order to sustain ourselves within the limits of the planet even though much of our existing capital may prove to be worthless. For instance, if research is done to make artificial meat taste better then people will find it easier to switch. In that case factory farms may become redundant. We may need massive investments in renewable energy and recycling as well as pollution reduction. If we set limits on our resource consumption and pollution then the capital that can make us live within these limits can be profitable.
As capital represents wealth, lower interest rates can increase wealth. That is because investments must at least generate returns equal to the interest rate. If returns are lower then it makes no sense to invest as it would be better to put the money in a bank account. Hence, with lower interest rates more investments are profitable and more capital can exist. It may explain why wealthy countries often have the lowest interest rates.
The requirement of making at least the interest rate in the market has enormous consequences. A corporation that makes a product people like can go bankrupt when potential customers don’t have enough money and the corporation can’t make enough profit. In other words, if an investment in this corporation yields less than the interest rate in the market, it must fail. That’s why corporations don’t make products for poor people. There is no profit in that. Some economists think this is healthy and natural.
In a similar vein a coal fired power plant that returns 6% is considered efficient and useful while a windmill that makes 2% is seen as inefficient and wasteful at an interest rate of 4%. This logic can be suicidal because of climate change. Something is terribly wrong with this. But if investments don’t make the interest rate in the market, no-one would make them voluntarily. Nowadays windmills and solar energy are profitable because the technology has improved and interest rates have fallen.
In a market economy capital exists for profit. Capital can exist for other motives too. A community can make an encyclopedia or a software product freely available on the Internet. A government can build a road or operate a library or a hospital. But history has demonstrated that people are motivated by money and profit and that a market economy is an effective way to build capital. In order to live within the limits of the planet and to end poverty, markets may need more guidance from governments.
With lower interest rates it may be possible to make investments in ending poverty and making societies sustainable profitable so that people will make these investments voluntarily. Perhaps it is better to make a distinction between what should be done, for instance making the economy sustainable and ending poverty, and what can be done, which depends amongst others, on the interest rate. At an interest rate of 0% the windmill could be profitable and fossil fuels can be phased out. That’s why lower interest rates can be beneficial.
Indeed, there are other measures for usefulness than profitability. Perhaps the requirement to make a specific interest rate may not seem particularly useful to humankind but it can help to allocate capital more efficiently. Hence, for the benefit of humankind capital markets must continue to exist and interest rates may need to be as low as possible to generate the investment capital needed for making the economy sustainable and ending poverty.
Governments should guide this process by defining what is legal and what is not. The investment options for capitalists depend on the products and services that are legal. As the number of options are reduced, for instance by banning resource consuming non-essential consumption, the remaining alternatives can become more attractive, most notably when the excess of investment capital drives interest rates lower so that sustainable production processes with low returns become feasible.
If there is a market
Banning harmful products can elicit black markets, most notably when these products are addictive or save you from a lot of trouble or hard work and if you can use them without being noticed. It would be hard to stop the use of alcohol and drugs because people will use these products anyway. It may be easier to limit air travel as it will be difficult to fly a plane without being noticed.
Black markets and fraud are likely to arise if limits are set on the extraction of resources like fossil fuels and basic materials. The price of these resources could rise and it could be lucrative to extract more than is allowed. It might a good idea to look for places where effective control can be established. That may be on the demand side by banning or limiting certain activities or on the supply side by monitoring production.
Distortions in the markets for resources can produce losses or profits. Governments may need to take ownership of resources and compensate the owners. A government can then contract a miner to mine resources based on quota under specific regulations, and the miners can then be paid for extracting the resources. If markets become distorted by forward-looking planning then governments must intervene.
Perhaps different arrangements are possible. When interest rates are negative then future income discounted against the interest rate will have a higher net present value so it can make economic sense to keep resources in the ground.
Global competition drives down prices and it allows developing nations to build their economies too. Free trade can benefit humankind because it allows people and countries to specialise in what they do best so more and better products can be made at lower prices. Regulations aim to increase the quality of products by setting minimum standards. Regulations can favour large scale operations if they require large investments.
If the economy is to become sustainable the energy cost of producing items as well as the cost of transport may change and affect the scale of production. Regulations can stand in the way of scaling down and localising production but in many cases regulations, for instance regulations about food safety, exist for good reason. Investments to make production processes sustainable may be costly and may also favour economies of scale.
Confidence in money and trust in the financial system
Confidence is key in the capitalist economy because credit is based on confidence. The availability of investment capital comes from confidence in financial system and the economy. Actions that erode trust affect the available credit. Bank failures shatter confidence and stop the circulation of money. The Great Depression really took off after banks went bankrupt. The financial crisis of 2008 escalated once Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt.
To ensure that businesses can prosper credit must be available. A lack of trust in financial markets results in a destruction of capital. It is not a coincidence that economic crises are often preceded by a financial crisis. That’s why governments and central banks stand behind the financial system and support it at all cost. That’s why we seem to be hostage of the financial system. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Interest on money and debts makes the financial system unstable and prone to crisis because incomes fluctuate while interest payments are fixed. And because there is currency at an interest rate of zero, investors can flee to the safety of currency at no cost whenever there is some trouble. But interest rates are poised to go negative. This may be the opportunity to make the financial system more robust by charging a holding fee on currency and banning positive interest rates on money and debts.
Trust in the financial system and debts is reflected in the interest rate. If the interest rate is negative then investors prefer a certain loss to other investment alternatives. That might happen because of confidence in the currency as a store of value, for instance when inflation is non-existent. It is imperative that governments promote confidence in their currencies by limiting their primary deficits to the point that they are paid from the interest received on their debts.
Interest is the price paid for distrust so governments must be reliable and transparent to inspire confidence in financial markets. If a government is not honest to its creditors then the interest paid on its debts can rise. People like entitlements and do not like taxes so citizens may elect politicians who promise more entitlements or lower taxes. The interest rate on government debt can therefore also reflect the confidence of creditors in the citizens of a country.
A robust financial system that inspires confidence can meet the challenges that lie ahead as they will on the one hand require an unprecedented amount of capital in form of knowledge, new products and new ways of producing and distributing them, while on the other hand there will be severe shock and dislocations in the economy that only a robust financial system can withstand.
A holding fee on currency can ensure liquidity in financial markets so that the economy will not fall apart in times of economic stress. The situation in Wörgl demonstrated that even a deep depression can soon end with negative interest rates. The transformation to a sustainable economy requires an unprecedented amount of low yielding capital that may only be made profitable when interest rates are negative.
Investment guidance policies
For markets to do their job properly, capitalists should deploy their capital in the way they see fit within the options that are available. Additional measures may be needed to guide investments into desired directions like developing countries, recycling, and affordable housing. Wealthy individuals should realise they have a moral duty to make their capital contribute positively to society and the well-being of others. And even if the wealthy do not live up to their moral obligations, the laws and the financial system must channel their efforts in the right direction.
Financing the challenges of the future by investors may work better than financing them from taxes. Investors tend to chose the options that generate the most profits. In doing so they may be able to realise these goals more efficiently and generate more investment capital for the purpose. Favouring desired investments, for instance by excluding them from a wealth tax, can be a way to make them more attractive.
Products should cause as little harm as possible to the planet. Nature should be able to regenerate itself and undo the harm done. To make that possible, corporations should be responsible for the lifecycle of their products. Even when they work with contractors, the responsibility should remain with the corporation that markets a product.
During the neoliberal area businesses were often allowed to regulate themselves. This is didn’t work out well as businesses can gain an advantage from evading responsibilities in the form of reduced costs and higher profits. Governments have a responsibility to make and enforce the law. That may not be enough so journalists and activists have a duty to press businesses into sticking to the rules and governments into enforcing them.
This is an economic model meant to identify the economics to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty. There will probably be consequences that aren’t fair and they should be addressed where possible. Capital represents wealth. To make the economy sustainable we need a different view on wealth as it not being the amount of assets you currently have but the time your assets can support your lifestyle.
The planet should be seen as our main capital, not the buildings, machines, technology and knowledge to make the products and services we use. If we use more than nature can replenish, we use more than the interest of our main capital, and we become poorer as a consequence, even when the interest rate on traditional capital is positive.
To make the economy sustainable and to end poverty while maintaining an acceptable standard of living requires an unprecedented amount of traditional capital. The effort can better be financed from investments than taxes. Lower interest rates can make investments in making the economy sustainable and ending poverty more attractive.
Limiting our production and consumption will depress interest rates. Low interest rates require trust in the financial system and currencies. The financial system is based on debt, hence the integrity of debtors. A maximum interest rate of zero can improve the quality of debts. A holding fee on currency can ensure liquidity in financial markets.
Instead of spending on frivolous consumption everyone who can afford it should become a capitalist and invest in his or her own future. That can help to make the economy sustainable and to end poverty. Governments can support this process by legislation that bans harmful products and supports investments in areas that are beneficial.
Featured image: Doughnut economic model. Kate Raworth (2017).
1. Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. Kate Raworth (2017). Vermont: White River Junction.
2. Political economy. Wikipedia. [link]
3. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
The future prospects for humanity appear grim. At best we manage to avoid a planetary ecological disaster. And that already may be too high an aim. So what will our future look like? Which direction should we take? Can we build a sustainable and humane world society? And what is wrong with our current way of living? Perhaps the answer can be found in a speech the native American Chief Seattle allegedly gave in 1854 when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe. Here are his first words:
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.
Only, Seattle never said this. It is fake history. It has been made up by a screenwriter in 1971. Still, the speech strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. The pursuit of money destroys our values and our planet. For instance, it is argued that if we don’t allow the airport to expand, money and jobs will be lost. This is killing us. The speech contains some more interesting words:
This we know – the Earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth – befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life – he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
We know this deep down in our hearts but it is hard to deal with it. What can we do? The people from the environmentalist group Strohalm worked for decades on an outline for the society of the future. They were not hindered by established interests nor did a lack of perspective deter them from continuing their search. They tried to learn their lessons from history and were part of a small group of people that kept on caring and never gave up. Here is another take-away from the speech:
Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – Our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot.
In 1991 Strohalm issued a booklet named Towards a Philosophy of Connectedness. It lays out their vision for a future society that is both sustainable and humane. It gives possible steering mechanisms that can help to achieve such a society. It is a vision that long seemed unattainable, not because it is impossible to do, but because vested interests stood in the way. Seattle also never said:
That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.
In 1994 I was an active member of the environmentalist movement. In this way I became familiar with Strohalm. For a long time I believed them to be naive dreamers. Most people I know do not like environmentalists. And indeed, they weren’t always realistic and sometimes decades ahead of their time. I kept on supporting their work because there is no alternative. You can’t allow realism to stand in the way of what needs to be done. And so this vision is here because of the hard work of environmentalist groups like Friends of the Earth and the Strohalm Foundation.
A new perspective
We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, our beliefs and thinking and our place in the universe. There is no other choice. Small steps can’t save us anymore. We need to fundamentally change ourselves and the way we live. The planet we live on is given to us on loan to live off and not ours to destroy. Sadly, the fate of our planet does not compel us to do the right thing so God may be needed to make it happen.
As long as we do not completely change our approach to the major issues of our time, our societies will not become more humane and respectful of our planet. As long as production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than old problems can be solved with laws, technology, targets and other solutions.1
We are not confronted with an array of regrettable separate incidents, but with a culture that is on the loose. It is a throw-away culture in which not only materials and energy are wasted. Human relationships and values end up on the waste dump too.1
You probably know that but you may find it difficult to admit. It can make you feel hopeless. And so you may be inclined to ignore this, to focus on smaller and more concrete problems, or to withdraw yourself1 by fleeing into cynicism, new age spiritualism or conspiracy theories.
Most of us believe that massive structural changes are impossible and that we can’t influence the course of history in a meaningful way. And I can’t blame you for having what I for a long time believed to be a realistic view on this matter. And so we choose to manage existing developments with smaller measures. That is not going to help us in the end.
There is another way of looking at the situation. Acknowledging a problem is already solving it half. Our belief that nothing will help can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as there is a realistic perspective for change, many of us will let go of their cynicism and help to make it happen1 and then it can happen fast. Twenty years may be all we have left. And twenty years may be all we need.
Natural World Order
You do your job and perhaps you achieve something. Your activities do not only have the intended consequences but many others as well. If you succeed and get a promotion, a colleague might get jealous. If you go to your job by car, the exhaust gases can make other people sick.1 The unintended consequences of your actions hardly play a role in your decisions but they change our reality in unexpected ways.
The world is complex so the models we use can’t get a proper hold on what is going on. And so it appears that we can’t change our future in a meaningful way, and that at best we can anticipate what is going to happen. The failure of communism demonstrated that centralised planning does not create a happy society. That left us with capitalism and markets. They brought us prosperity while our living conditions are being destroyed.
Perhaps nature can show us the way. Organisms start relationships with each other. These relationships can become permanent if one organism makes something another organism needs and the other way around so that both benefit. For instance, plants and animals have such a relationship. Plants produce oxygen that animals need while animals produce carbon dioxide that plants need.1
Plants and animals are part of a self-sustaining cycle. They are connected. They are parts of a whole. If plants die then animals including humans die too. There are many of such relationships in nature. Such a natural order emerges spontaneously but it takes a long time. It starts with individual organisms starting relationships. These relationships can grow to a global scale as long as the external conditions allow for it.1
External conditions are like a dictate. If there were no fossil fuels then we can’t burn them. If there was no technology to build cars, we can’t drive them. External conditions are usually taken for granted but when they suddenly change then we must adapt and that can be brutal. For instance, the spread of the corona virus brought long-distance travel to a standstill. And climate change can become far worse than that.
Make no mistake. Running into the limits of our planet will be more brutal than anything that ever happened before in the course of human history. That leaves us with no other choice than setting global limits on human activities before the planet does it for us. But the sudden stop of air travel also teaches us that we don’t really need it. And there are many more things we do not need.
People, businesses and governments must deal with these limits. Once they are in place, communities, governments and businesses all over the world can reorganise themselves via communities, so that the Natural World Order will arise more or less spontaneously. Humans can make this happen fast because they can quickly change the ways they cooperate by changing their cultures. That doesn’t require planning every detail but it does require altering the steering mechanisms of our societies and economies.
One of the most important things we must change is the way we look at wealth and conspicuous consumption. Wealthy people are seen as great examples and their consumption is seen as good for the economy. If conspicuous consumption is frowned upon, there is less fun in being extremely rich, and a lot of crime becomes pointless. For example, what’s the point of risking your life by being drug dealer if you can’t drive around in your expensive cars any more? This way looking at wealth and consumption is essential to make the Natural World Order come to pass.
Money is now the most important steering mechanism in society. Realising goals of any kind usually requires the cooperation of others and therefore money. That is understandable. Everyone needs money but it may be better that we are motivated more by our job or our contribution to society and less by money. Economic decisions are affected by interest as well. Interest is a steering mechanism. High interest rates promote short-term decisions while low interest rates promote long-term decisions. So how does that work?
If the interest rate is 5% then € 1,00 next year is worth € 0,95 now. That makes you prefer to get € 1,00 now rather than next year, even when you need the money next year simply because you can receive interest and will have € 1,05 next year. Interest reduces the value of future income and therefore the future itself. Interest makes people and businesses prefer the present to the future and short-term gains at the expense future generations.
This is why a sustainable economy requires low or even negative interest rates. Ending growth also requires negative interest rates otherwise the interest on debts can’t be paid. Interest is any return on capital so interest doesn’t depend on money but on capital. As the wealthy own most capital, interest is a flow from everyone else to the wealthiest. A humane society may therefore need to end positive interest rates. Central banks do not determine interest rates in the end. The supply and demand for money and capital do. But ending interest may soon be possible.
In markets competition is a steering mechanism. Competition promotes efficiency and progress but it also causes problems. Competition affects economic decisions.1 It can force corporations to produce as cheaply as possible or to produce stuff that no-one really needs because it can be sold at a profit. Some corporations faced with intense competion see little room to treat their employees well or to care for the environment.
If you desire that latest model, the best service, the lowest price, and want more money to buy even more stuff, you are part of the problem like many others, and that includes me. It may be strange to realise that you have enough, or even have far more than enough, and that you can do with less, older models, poorer service and higher prices, so that local businesses may survive.
Another important steering mechanism is the distribution of cost. Short-term gains are for corporations while societies deal with the long-term cost like pollution and unemployment. Education and health care are public costs that corporations often do not pay for. Taxing systems do not take into account the limits of the planet. They need to be changed in order to attribute the true cost to the products and services people buy.
Shifting taxes from labour to raw materials and energy can help. This measure can induce people to use items longer and promote repair and recycling. Corporations must be responsible for the entire life-cycle of the products they produce. Non-essential products that are harmful can be banned completely. The advertisement industry can be regulated to stop people from buying items they do no need.
Laws are a steering mechanism too. What is legal isn’t always fair. Unethical behaviour is often not punished by the law. A greater role for ethics in law is needed, most notably in matters of business. Savvy people and corporations use loopholes to their advantage or bribe politicians into changing the law into their favour. Exploiting people, misusing public funds, and harming the planet should be sufficient ground for persecution and conviction, even if the specific activity is not declared illegal.
Most people take the existing steering mechanisms for granted. A few people like the anti-globalists and religious extremists think of an alternative. Only most people would not like a reign of terror. And so we limit ourselves to taking small measures in order to reduce the fall-out. It is hard to believe that the steering mechanisms themselves can be changed. Perhaps technology will save us, we hope. That may not be the case.
The throw-away culture
Science, technology, society and culture are closely interconnected. It is fair to say that we live in a technological society and a throw-away culture. If we have a problem then we look at scientists and engineers to solve it. Even our emotional problems we address with therapy sessions and pills. This is also true for environmental problems.
A good example is perhaps a report of the Dutch research agency TNO in the 1980s about replacing milk bottles by milk cartons. Milk bottles were used many times while cartons are thrown away. The discussion that followed was about the number of times a bottle was reused, which determines whether or not the bottle is better for the environment. That depended, amongst others, on the number of times a bottles was reused.
These discussions can be useful. What was not discussed however, was the throw-away culture. Milk bottles were part of a culture of reuse that was disappearing. The cartons are part of the new throw-away culture. Discussions are about quantity, objectivity and efficiency, but not about fundamental questions about the way we live.
The things we use deserve more respect. Valuable resources and energy have been used to make them. We should not depart from them until they are worn out completely. If they are broken we should fix them until they can’t be fixed any more. And why should we buy frivolous items or make long distance trips for recreational reasons?
The fourth way
The damage done to our planet is escalating. There is a lot of excess. Nowadays there are more obese people than hungry ones. The end of our way of living is here. Communism and state planning have failed. Capitalism and free markets have failed too, but most people have yet to find out. Many countries have combined state planning with market economies and called it a third way. That didn’t change much either. Many people have become cynical. But there is no need for poverty.
It is not surprising that people distrust stories that have a claim to the truth like religions, ideologies and science. But it is the absence of great stories we can believe in that makes our societies directionless. Individuals and their desires are now at the centre stage. So is there anything left that binds us together? Sure there is. A soon as a crisis emerges people join and help each other. The future is not without hope.
There is a fourth way. It can be called the Natural World Order. It is setting limits on a planetary level and letting people deal with them via communities, governments and markets. It is not clear from the outset what will happen because this can’t be planned from the top. Developments can take different turns. For instance, if energy is to become expensive, international trade would diminish and local products would be favoured. If most people do what needs to be done then it can be done.
This is the time to act. The current order can’t be sustained. The limits of our planet should be respected. Administrating these limits would require a global government and the same laws everywhere around the planet. It can only work if people, communities and businesses help to make it become reality. It can work when we want to make it work whatever it takes. It all begins with admitting that enough is enough.
We want more stuff because the advertisement industry tells us that we need this or that product or that buying it will make us happier. Our current economic system needs growth. We must buy more to keep the economy from collapsing. That is why fundamental change freaks us out. There can be enough for everyone. Eve and Adam had everything they needed. And so we may enter the Final Gardens of Paradise that await for us at the End of History. The change is not going to be easy but there may be no alternative.
Featured image: the only known photograph of Chief Seattle taken in 1864
1. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.