The next ten years are the prelimaries for our species' final exams, in which we discover whether this bold evolutionary experiment of combining a large forebrain with opposable thumbs was really a good idea. Practically, that means: can we get our act together enough to do what we know how to do to solve our environmental problems or, better still, eliminate and avoid those problems, not at a cost but at a profit, in a way that is trans-ideological, attractive to everybody, and with no, or hardly any, losers?
Economics is a topic far and cheap to my heart. This is because traditional economics only sees the environment as a source of raw material, and therefore as a part of the greater economy. As my heavily German-accented TA from one of my graduate seminars in international relations put it: "[economists] worship a false God". From a guy who started out his academic career in Economics, that's something of a grand condemnation. Our current economic trajectory is set by an economics of endless growth:
"The current system is broken," says Bob Watson, the UK’s chief scientific advisor on environmental issues and a winner of the prestigious Blue Planet prize in 2010. "It is driving humanity to a future that is 3-5°C warmer than our species has ever known, and is eliminating the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and senses of self." (emphasis mine)Economics itself is, at best, a pseudoscience. It is a dark art that attempts to explain complex, multidimensional, and cyclic behaviour through simple, monovariable, and linear means. It is better explained as part of the ecology rather than with the ecology as part of the economy. The problem is that many people conflate the word economy with money, or Capitalism - as if all economies since the Cold War are Capitalistic. Money economies have the problem that they tend to need to grow in order to survive, and that infinite growth has an inevitable run-in with a finite planet.
Capitalism today abuses the people, environment, politics and culture in equal measures. It has fostered new extremes of wealth and poverty inside most countries, and such extremes always undermine or prevent democratic politics. Capitalist production for profit likewise endangers us by its global warming, widening pollution, and looming energy crisis. And now capitalism’s recurrent instability (what others call the “business cycle”) has plunged the world into the second massive global economic crisis in the last 75 years. Manifesto for Economic Democracy and Ecological SanityEconomies are not all money-based, and it has taken a huge economic downturn - that is to say, a gigantic failure of Capitalism to do its job and spread the wealth equitably - to bring alternative economies to the fore. The Occupy Gift Economy is a prime example of the genre, but there are others. In Greece, for example, alternative economies are emerging to free the people from the yoke that money imposes. Such debrouillard economies - Systeme D - are growing like an economic superpower across the world. Their adherents know - just like your mechanic knows - barter is nigh impossible to tax. They also know that the purpose of the economy is not to amass the most green pieces of paper, it's to redistribute wealth. Accumulation is about the ego, redistribution is about the community. It's hard going in Greece, but they have been given an opportunity to show the world that the birthplace of Democracy - a force far more important than cash - can democratise economics, too.
Ironically it is in the gaps of a broken system that the shoots of a different, new economy get a chance to grow. ... But while disaster reveals a society’s economic and social weaknesses, it also reveals where true resilience and real value can be found - in the ability of people to cooperate at the local level to meet a community’s needs.The change into a local economy, based on barter and a local - informally issued - currency, can actually serve to revitalise the economy without need of money. Europe, especially Germany, has been experimenting with local currencies for years now. They are complete fiction, just like any other currency, but they get buy-in because they can be spent locally. Local merchants make excellent first adopters because they realise no big-box store would ever accept such stuff. In Canada, we have the brilliant idea of Canadian Tire Money, which some local bars even accept on the occasional special promotion night. Canadian Tire knows that Canadian Tire Money keeps people coming back. Parts of Greece are now using the Local Alternative Unit to purchase goods. Does money have to be centrally issued? No. In Canada, you can settle a debt for goosefeathers if both parties agree. You can't pay taxes with them, but contract laws allow you to barter anything for anything, so long as both parties agree to the transaction.
People are even considering new ways of making business equitable. Co-ops are growing in popularity. There is a plethora of startup information online for creating co-ops, and analyses of how a cooperative economic system might develop.Other systems exist, such as a "Circular Economy" based on recycling; Holonic credit networks that are holographic groups of groups of groups that trust one another and are willing to extend one another credit based on their relationships; and Sharing Economies much like the gift economy discussed above. These are all viable ideas that fly in the face of the monetized "everything has a dollar value" paradigm.
Economies that run on money work, but they don't work equitably. Certainly they drive all sorts of interesting social and industrial forces... but I'd rather be assured by my economy that I can eat than be assured by my economy that I can keep my teeth white and hair tangle-free. The goal of an economy is to redistribute wealth fairly. A even a free market can distribute wealth fairly - if we construct it with that aim in mind.