Sunday, July 29, 2012

The connected selves of alternative economics

Mark Boyle, author of 'The Moneyless Man' and founder of the Freeconomy Community, and Charles Eisenstein, author of 'Sacred Economics' among other books, spoke in Dartmouth Square in Dublin 6 on Wednesday 25th July.

Addressing around 150 people sitting on the grass on a rare sunny evening of this wet Irish summer, Boyle began by taking a small sheet of birch bark from his pocket and setting it alight, noting that it was very good natural firelighter. He asked the audience if they recognised it; few, if any, did. Then he took out a five Euro note and set that alight.


Blowing out the flames when the note was half-way gone, he offered it to a member of the audience, raising a laugh: "here's 2.50". He asked whether people had different emotional reactions to seeing the five Euro note burn compared to seeing the birch bark catch fire. He wondered whether people would think it was irresponsible, because the money could have been used to help a homeless person on O'Connell Street get a bed for the night, or medicine for a child in Africa, or many other uses. And he reflected that in some ways it was irresponsible, but the value of this paper was due to the symbols on it, and burning it made us think about its real value.

Thus began an oddly encouraging evening. Maybe it was encouraging because this man was genuinely trying, with difficulty, feeling the pain in the world around him, to live according to his principles, to find a better way, out of concern for people and the planet. Maybe it was that so many people had turned out to hear him and the other speaker, that looking around I saw faces I knew from varied walks of life and many I didn't, all interested enough to hear about something different, to try and do something, in their own varied ways. Maybe it was that I heard many things that I already knew about – most people with an interest in alternative economics would already have been familiar with much of what was said – but it was affirming to hear others express their interest in these concepts, and to put the ideas together, illustrating their connections. Maybe it was the unusual venue, outdoors on the grass in the quiet sunshine in the city, made more unusual in that it's partially managed by the people who live around the Square. All these things and more, created an energising evening, one that left me and others thinking, what do we do? What's next? How do we put this into action, and soon? And that spur to action is an encouraging outcome for any informative and reflective event.

Boyle went to to discuss the value of money as partially dependent on it being made '"falsely scarce", which reminded me of my own idea of the 'myth of scarcity', and its counterpoint, an economics of enough. What is enough, in what dimensions of life, what would it take for us all to have enough, how many people, how much of everything, what systems could enable it, without too little for some, too much for others? Enough. In Irish, dóthain, or sáith or, better, go leor, because that also means plenty. Diane Coyle has now written a book with that name, which is heartening as unsurprisingly I never got around to it and probably never would have, seeing as how I first came up with the concepts and their so-catchy names ten or more more years ago, and apart from mentioning it in passing, have only explored the economics of enough in writing a little once before. Not having done anything with interesting ideas, especially not having written much about them beyond a line in my notebook (yes, actual paper) or a stuck-to-the-wall postit (again, paper, therefore accessible to no-one else – remember when that was the norm?), and then watching someone else get off their arse and do it, used to kind of depress me regarding my own ineptitude, as I suspect it does for anyone even nominally associated with academia or the world of information sharing (which is all of us now, right?), but lately I find myself more encouraged that the ideas are shared, that I'm not alone in that particular perspective, and that someone is making them known and useful to the wider world because it's the value of the ideas, not who spreads them, that matters. I'm sometimes a little less sanguine when someone makes millions or billions of Euro off yet another internet idea I had a decade or two ago and never did anything about (seriously, would just registering a domain name have been beyond my capabilities?), but being at a talk about alternative, gift and moneyless economies blunted that personal financial pokey-stick too.

Minor mental irritants aside, for me the bigger issues are about what's worth doing, what would be good or even best for me to do, to apply my gifts and skills to, what needs to be done in the world as it is, all the wonder and joy and pain of the human existence shared with the planet and other species. Boyle talked about his own process, thinking about many problems in the world and struggling to decide to which one he should dedicate his life, and realising that they had a single cause. "You probably think I'm going to say money," he correctly predicted, but he had the insight that many of these problems come from what he termed the "separate self," the false sense we have that we are separate from the world, from everything around us.

In my own life, this realisation came a long time ago in the form 'one is all, all is one', or 'all is one, one is all'. Everything is connected. Not a new realisation for humans, of course, just a fundamental one. The oneness, unity, a planetary ecosystem, an holistic approach, whole-systems thinking, there are probably as many terms for it as there are people. And perhaps this idea is at the base of everything. It certainly makes it easier to understand the world, and a little easier to know what to do in it.

Boyle explored one aspect of this concept by asking for a show of hands in response to the question of whether your leg is part of you. Almost everyone's hand went up. How about the microbacteria in your gut? Substantially fewer hands, but still a large number. Given that your body is mainly water, how about if you've just drunk a glass of water, is the water part of you? Fewer hands again, but close to the microbacteria response, and he mused that this was quite high for audiences he'd spoken to. Finally he asked, what about if you're crouched by a stream, cupping your hands about to scoop some water from the stream, is the stream, the water in it that you are about to drink, part of you? Almost no hands up, maybe one or two. Interesting.


There was a lot more to his argument, but if we are connected to this world, the idea of charging money for what happens in it is as ludicrous as the idea of your hand charging you for scratching your face. Instead in a more natural, gift economy each element of the whole does what it's natural to do, for example, plants using carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, humans breathing oxygen and producing carbon dioxide, and rather than a monetary trade there is a true or mutual exchange, as happens in nature. He also mentioned gratitude, we're born into this world, cared for, given this life. We didn't ask for it or do anything to deserve it, we're given into what exists here and now, this gift of being alive, being here. And that is something to be grateful for.

After a beautifully voiced musical interlude from local resident Eoin, Charles Eisenstein began to talk. He also emphasized the connected self and noted how a now-outdated idea of physics as forces operating on separate bodies fuels ideas of having to force others to change, of seeing the world as zero-sum where if you gain, I must lose. He touched on many other topics, in an address that felt unfortunately a little unfocussed to me, and less convincing. He talked about older human systems of mutual obligation and owing, borrowing a ladder from a neighbour and then knowing that if she came to borrow something in future, you would feel inclined and somewhat obligated to provide it, a relationship has been created between you stretching into the future, and if you had offered to pay for the 'rental' of the ladder, it would be weird and she would naturally feel slightly offended. When you exchange money instead for a good or service, then there is no further relationship, you are under no obligation. These networks still exist, some as obviously and many more subtly in Irish society, between friends and colleagues and between citizens and the state, though that last is often forgotten, and some more powerful, explicit and elaborately structured systems in other cultures, the gifts provided by those hosting weddings in Tanzania as a practical example I've seen. I asked Eisenstein later about the problem of networks of obligation becoming suffocating and constraining, and how happy people have been not to be eternally condemned to the company of and dependence upon the people of the village or neighbourhood where they live, to which he replied that travel and the internet could help with these restrictions.


Something that is finally getting more widespread attention in these times of financial (not to be confused with economic, as Boyle highlighted) crisis, Eisenstein also referred to the central problem of interest-bearing debt. As banks create money by issuing loans to people with interest, they must then make more money to pay them back, which can only mean getting that money from others. If there is a limited supply of money, not everyone can obtain more money, some must lose, so not everyone can pay the debt back, some must go bankrupt or remain perpetually in debt; alternatively, as usually happens, more money is created through more debt when the loans are due, so interest-bearing debt creates an endless cycle which can never be escaped. It also necessitates 'growth', an ever expanding process which creates more money but never enough, and which can generally only be done by making people pay for things that were formerly free, renewable or commonly managed, whether land, water, air or other resources, a process of bringing more and more things into the money economy. I found myself thinking again of the extremely clear and compelling explanations of debt and the perpetual problem of growth that can be found in two books by Irish economist Richard Douthwaite, 'Short Circuit' and 'The Growth Illusion', which which are still very relevant twenty and sixteen years after their publication, respectively. I recommended them to friends from Occupy at the talk, and another friend reminded me that 'Short Circuit' is available online in its entirety. It can be downloaded from Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, a group founded by Douthwaite many years ago and which is another valuable resource for anyone interested in alternative economics, or simply in finding a way out of the current monetary and ecological crisis. Sadly Douthwaite passed away last year, a great loss to these efforts in Ireland and globally, but at least we have his many writings of lasting value.

Eisenstein mentioned many related issues, including a basic income, the Occupy movement, steady-state economics, decaying money systems, all worthy of greater examination but in a short talk he justifiably could not hope to go into the depth of his books. He reiterated the productivity of asking the question "where is the money" as a hidden but common reason why apparently inexplicable things are happening. He used what sounded like a well-practiced phrase: "co-creative partnership in love with the Earth" and while I mainly agree with the sentiment the wording made me cringe. Reflecting as to why the minimal work week has not materialised, when it has long been anticipated due to labour saving machines, he noted that at each stage we have chosen to consume more rather than work less. I later asked him, what about the misanthropes, people who really don't like other people and don't want to be around them; he responded that those people need a lot of time alone until they do reach a point when they want to be around others, for whatever amount of time suits them.

He'd mentioned that a different economics would change medicine, and when I asked him about it mentioned acupuncture and alternatives to global pharmaceuticals, that most diseases could be managed differently. Understandably he could only give a brief answer, and his book apparently addresses this in considerably more detail. This issue needs to be thrashed out – I find many alternatives to current systems unjustifiably or ignorantly presume a high level of health and physical ability for all individuals involved, and while tinctures, tea and traditional healers can do a lot, in my view modern medical approaches, surgery, medicines and appliances definitely need to be retained. Giving them up would be unwise and unlikely to improve outcomes, even given the inequities built into the current system and its very serious failings. These need to be corrected and decent healthcare made globally accessible, equitable and responsive to real needs, not economic demands. Health globally is currently deeply inequitable, it could be said obscenely unjust, with millions of children and adults dying every year due to malnutrition, millions of women dying completely unnecessarily due to childbirth, and millions more people dying and ill due to preventable and treatable diseases and other causes, with the majority of all these preventable deaths and years of illness being of people who are poor, monetarily and in many other ways. Some of these problems are caused by the current system and the way we consider and manage health, others are not; we can definitely improve the situation. Blandly assuming that we'd all become healthier, less obese and less stressed does not much help us tackle scenarios of, for example, high mortality for children under five years old, the need for lifelong and life-saving drug treatments for HIV and other diseases, high numbers of young women dying having children, heart surgery, cancer treatment or road accident injuries – that last an increasing cause of death worldwide. The issue of health, global and personal, is under-researched and under-documented in this context, and needs more explicit and detailed attention as we try to construct alternative societies and systems.

Having decided to spend a year living entirely without money, Boyle wrote an interesting, personal and inspiring account of his experiences in 'The Moneyless Man'. He extended the experiment to two and a half years, but as he outlined in response to a question at the talk, he decided to return to using money after this time because he felt he was becoming too identified with being himself 'the moneyless man'. He felt that it was in danger of becoming about ego, that he was continuing with it because it had evolved into a part of his identity, it was what he was seen as and all that people ever seemed to ask him about. He wanted to bring his ideas and actions to scale and living entirely without money "in the woods", given our current society, was not the most useful way to do that. He flagged that he's now working on a less personal book called 'The Moneyless Manifesto' that will explore the ideas in more detail, to be released in November. It'll be made available free online under a Creative Commons licence "for those that don't wish to buy it for whatever reason" and as a printed book. My own copy of 'The Moneyless Man' was in fact a friend's which she'd passed on to me; we passed it on to another friend at the event.


After two and a half hours, with sustained attention from the entire audience, the evening drew to a close, and people milled around in the park to talk. Dartmouth Square has a chequered history in that it was controversially bought by an individual some years ago, and run by him in ways that caused consternation to the locals and the city council. He closed off access to the park in 2006, and the space suffered from neglect. At one point the owner, Noel O'Gara, tried to operate it as a car park but the gates were physically blockaded by residents to prevent this happening. He attempted to sell tiles from the park, and on another occasion allowed tents to be erected which were later set alight, resulting in one man being taken to hospital. However, in 2009 he reached an agreement with residents of the Square who took over some of the maintenance and began to run events in the park. They created a great video of the park's transformation and their activities.

This situation is very unusual for a green space in Dublin, most of which are run by the county council. Because it is nominally private space and run by residents, this event could continue until nearly 9pm, well past the usual closing time of a state-run park. One of the organisers told me that the owner is now in NAMA (the National Assets Management Agency), i.e. he is in serious financial trouble and his company holdings have been transferred to the agency, so it is very unclear what will happen or what the status of the park is, leaving the residents in limbo. The council have meanwhile taken over some of the maintenance, which is positive, but according to the organiser means that some residents are now less willing to work at their monthly cleanup days. They still run yoga on Saturdays and run irregular events, such as cinema screenings. Though of course that depends on our wonderful Irish summer weather.

Interesting place, interesting event, encouraging evening. Now, what shall we do?


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