My friend Jerry Michalski has the world's biggest brain. No, I’m not referring to the organ in his head. Jerry has a brain that he‘s been curating online for over 20 years. Jerry’s Brain is a marvel to behold. It can be a little intimidating at first, but once you spend some time there it becomes quite captivating. Lately, Jerry’s been hosting a series of “Inside Jerry's Brain” calls where he’ll choose a topic and demonstrate how he uses his brain to track and order thoughts related to that topic creating live links from suggestions brought forth by the participants on each call. Recently, the topic was “abundance” and the focus was on how we might design social systems based on abundance versus scarcity.
About a dozen of us logged into zoom and engaged in a lively conversation augmented by Jerry frequently sharing his screen and displaying links to various related topics. Although the stated topic was abundance, we found ourselves spending considerable time in the land of scarcity as we observed how much of our economies are built on the shifting sands of that realm. It’s a bit of a paradox that scarcity is a dominant factor our economy precisely due to the abundance of greed.
Years ago I read a book entitled A General Theory of Love, where the authors explain in great detail the workings of the limbic system – that’s the part of the brain that allows us to feel empathy and love. Towards the end of the book the authors make a provocative statement to the effect that, corporations essentially serve as a giant cerebral cortex coupled directly to society’s brainstem with no intervening limbic system. The result is impeccably reasoned actions completely devoid of empathy or even acknowledgement of the havoc that such a system of social funcitoning wreaks on both people and planet. I’ve always thought this was a superb image/metaphor for how the modern economy works. You press the greatest minds of the world into serving our base instincts and you get “This Modern World” – thank you Tom Tomorrow!
In our economy, systems of service that can scale abound, while systems of care are scarce. Scarcer still is the recognition that we (people) are both an extension and an expression of the natural world – that thing we keep labeling as “resources” and seeing as “out there,” separate from ourselves. So, we merrily enshrine the pastime of making money as the greatest good we can aspire to, while simultaneously turning a blind eye (and a deaf ear, a plugged nose, and numb fingers) to the fact that we are engaging in “defuturing.” Defuturing, if you’ve not heard the term before, refers to how our collective actions today are degrading our ability to create a safe and healthy tomorrow for the people who will live after we die. Those people, of course, would be our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren and on out as far as we can imagine in to the future – which I hope is a very long time indeed! Unless your limbic system is damaged you’ll have a natural love and empathy for your children and grandchildren. A love and empathy that isn’t reflected in the strictly rational thinking of homo economicus, that mythical strawman whose invisible hand guides most of today’s economic and monetary policy and thus shapes the future of our descendants in ways that few parents would ever wish for their children. The behvavior of homo economicus might lead one to the conclusion that the species is incapble of love and empathy or of caring for future generations. See The Corporation for a fascinating look at how the legal definition and rights granted to a “corporation” have changed over the years with mostly detrimental consequences for people and planet.
There’s an abundance of advertising and marketing that’s been incredibly effective in turning people away from an older world order where love of money was seen as the root of all evil and people were encouraged to develop inwardly and to seek meaning and fulfillment through giving back to their community rather than attempt to attain happiness and status through the acquisition of material goods. Lest you think I am romanticizing some era that never actually existed, let me quickly state that I am in favor of retrieving and reviving the notion of inner development as a more desirable aspiration than dying with the most toys. At the same time, I’m not advocating that we bring back the social conditions and repressive relational strictures that often accompanied that kind of thinking in times past. My position on this is more aligned with the Buddhist philosophy of Interbeing than it is with the Puritan ideals of piety, which brought us demonology and witch hunts.
As seems to often be the case, I discovered that something I was reading at the time of the call was closely related to the topic abundance. I happened to be reading a post on globalization in Lapham’s Quarterly. Lewis Lapham, recounts how his godfather, Torkild ‘Cap’ Rieber, a sea captain of some renown and the Chairman of The Texas Oil Company (later known as Texaco – you can trust your car to the man who wears the star), managed to get a huge oil tanker christened The Scandinavia from Europe back to the USA after the outbreak of WWII:
“The admirals in Berlin wanted to retain the tanker in German custody for fear of its use in the convoys supplying Great Britain. Cap stayed a long weekend at Carinhall, Hermann Göring’s Gothic hunting lodge in the Schorfheide, dining on wild boar, listening to the music of Richard Wagner, petting the pet lion, admiring the swans. The soon-to-be Reichsmarschall granted exit visas for the tankers in return for continuing shipments of fuel to the Nazi war effort in 1940.
The history lesson spread for three nights across a table always festive with wildflowers, oysters, and champagne, and over the many courses of gemütlichkeit, money was invariably the hero of the tale. Governments come and go, and so do wars and ideologies; money lives forever. The shipyard owners made no apologies for Hitler, nor did the captain regret his dealings with Göring and Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who made Rieber a Knight Grand Cross of Isabella the Catholic. For a good many American corporations in the 1930s, dealing with Nazi Germany was standard operating procedure; Ford and General Motors building trucks for the Wehrmacht, the Rockefeller Foundation funding Nazi eugenics programs. The oil tanker sliding the next day into the Elbe River was a multinational corporate enterprise, free and clear of romantic sentiment, union labor, or nationalist entanglements—American ownership headquartered in the Bahamas, Greek officers, Malay crew, Panamanian registry and flag.” (Emphasis mine.)
Let me tie this idea of money living forever back to the topic of abundance. Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana posits that, ’in biology everything changes around that which is conserved.” So, when we construct an economy such that its primary function is to convert the abundance of “natural resources” into money – which is inextricably tied to power and wealth in the corporate-centric mindset – then the natural world changes into dust and ash* because we conserve (make more abundant) money by making more scarce nature’s living systems.
This is the consequence of what happens when we have a corporate-centric cortex directly coupled to society’s brainstem. The destruction of the natural world shows up on our balance sheets as revenue because our accounting systems externalize the costs of ecological devastation while internalizing the profits. The bulk of those profits are distributed to a small group of fortunate shareholders whose political power and influence keeps perpetuating the destruction through what are known to people who study systems as “success to the successful" or “positive feedback” loops. There’s a shell game going on here, one of claiming that destruction of the natural world is required for the creation of shareholder value. An example of how divorced from reality the logic governing our economic systems has become is that the Deepwater Horizon disaster actually shows up as a positive contribution to GDP, as does the tremendous loss of carrying capacity for life that results from clear-cutting old growth forests or the effects that the application of billions of tons of pesticides over the decades since WWII which appears to be responsible for The Insect Apocalypse.
The goal of the alchemists of old was to turn lead into gold. Contemporary neo-liberal economics effectively reverses that goal by turning forests into deserts, mountains into open pit mines, rivers into toxic waste flows, air into poisonous fumes, and fecund soil into sterile dust. The thinking and actions spawned by our current economic paradigm are causing us to unwittingly recreate a dark and horrifying version of the fable of King Midas. In our quest to conserve money we are turning ever larger portions of the Earth into waste – wasteland, wastewater, wasteair – all of it economically profitable (gold) and all of it ecologically toxic (lead). In the same post I quoted from above, Lapham shows us that Aristotle had an insight into this kind of greed – which reminds us of just how little the emotions underlying human behavior have changed in the intervening centuries:
“ ... of everything we possess there is a primary and secondary use, the one “needed for the satisfaction of men’s natural wants,” the other for something intrinsically useful (“iron, silver, and the like”) to serve as surrogate for “the necessaries of life” (grain, cattle, wine) “not easily carried about,” i.e., a form of barter “not part of the moneymaking art” and therefore not contrary to nature. What is contrary to nature is the assigning to money a value it doesn’t possess, the conceiving of wealth solely and stupidly as “a quantity of coin.” Aristotle reduces the notion to absurdity:
But how can that be wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger, like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold?” (Emphasis mine.)
Despite Cap’s thoughts to the contrary, money does not live forever, it lives only as long as it exists as a useful idea in the minds of the people who use it. I’ll assert that the idea that money lives forever has outlived its usefulness although its currency in the minds of men still has great purchase. Given the increasing number and scale of ecological disasters that are occurring during our lifetimes, it seems both timely and necessary to replace the idea that money lives forever with the question of, “How can humanity (as a whole, not as individuals) live forever?” One step in that direction is to design our economies based on the patterns of abundance that nature provides and put scarcity into its proper context.
Other steps are being taken and we’ve still a long way to go. It is late in the game - much later than most of us think. Many among the younger generations are waking up and taking up the call to action that some of us have been working on for decades. The time grows short. The eyes of the unborn are upon us now, watching carefully to see if we will continue to conserve money or if we will make the needed shifts in our institutions and ways of living so that they can enter a world where they have the same shot at living a good life as we did when we arrived. Each of us has the power to influence the quality of life for those who are waiting their turn to inhabit our pale blue dot. The big questions are: will we act with empathy and love and will we act in time?
This post appears in Jerry's Brain.
*Another related post in Lapham’s Quarterly is A World Built on Sand and Oil - highly recommended!
This is a bit outside of the usual topics I focus on in this blog. Please let me know your thoughts - all constructive comments, thoughtful inquires, divergent views, and feedback are welcome. Thanks for reading.
Photo credits: Money by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash
Woman with bitcoins by Thought Catalog on Unsplash