Economics or Humans: Choose One
In the attempt to direct human energy, two approaches represent polar extremes. One extracts, while the other renews. Understanding the end game of each couldn’t be more germane to our survival.
What’s the meaning of life? It’s a big question, but most of us would agree that the fundamental notion of our survival is central to the argument. That is, to argue the meaning of life is moot in the absence of life to debate it — without people.
The title of this essay is intentionally provocative. It seems dramatic: the idea that economics exists in an inverse relationship to human life itself. That we — both individually and as a species — must choose between economics and living. I mean, really?! Isn’t that as alarmist as it is totally misguided? After all, one is just a system for organizing human activity, right? Economics seeks to empower, not kill, right? Most of us know that economics has led to a life of plenty. It has provided us with food, clothing, medicine and a home — the things we need to live. The fundamentals. In fact, the more money we have, the better things get, right? Food gets fancier. Homes get larger. Clothing becomes more luxurious, and with more choice. The more money we have, the healthier we become, right? So our goal should be to maximize gain, so that we can maximize our wellbeing. Economics is a self-perpetuating cycle. Just look at how far we’ve come in the few hundred years of science and economics since both were invented in Britain. Look at all the leisure activities that would’ve been unimaginable just a hundred years ago. Today, we have the luxury of absent-mindedly swiping through an unending Instagram feed while sipping on our $10 Grande extra-hot doppio no-foam skinny half-caf caramel Frappucino, to the sountrack of whatever Spotify is playing at the local Starbucks, instead of outrunning lions, breaking our backs while toiling in fields, or dying from waterborne bacteria in the fetid streets of pre-industrial Europe. Come on! Economics drive growth! And progress! And prosperity! And comfort! And no less than human purpose, itself!
Am I right? Am I right?
Indeed. I am 100% right. The smartphone or laptop you’re reading this on is proof positive of all the genius that economics has unlocked. Admittedly, the Internet — supercharging the economy in the process — hasn’t necessarily saved lives as dramatically as the purification of water or plumbing did. But nonetheless, pulling radioactive atoms from the air, then coercing them to transmit pictograms (these words) from my screen in Toronto to yours in Ulaanbaatar, is truly remarkable. Unthinkable, even. How amazing it is that humans have funded one another’s audacious, physics-bending activities for long enough to lead to this — and myriad other intangible and life-changing — breakthroughs.
Not So Fast
Except that there are two dirty little secrets that must also be considered before we deem economics the greatest of all human creations.
First is that the underlying premise that economics — capitalist and otherwise — are a foundational precondition for these things to happen is… delusional. And offensive. The conceit that we couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten to where we are developmentally without economic coercion is to sell the entire human race short. It is to imply that without subjugation, bribery, pain and greed, humans would have been either incapable or unwilling to do exactly what we have.
I call bullsh*t.
Second — as, or more critically — economics is extractive. As in, net reduction — not expansion — is baked into its DNA. For every win, there is a loss. For every increase, someone pays a price. For every advancement, a gap grows between those on either side of the participatory divide. And worse of all, the time scale of economics is wildly at odds with the timescale of nature, upon which we still rely, in dramatic and conclusive fashion, to survive.
And we are jack-hammering at the ground underneath our own feet.
Said another way, unless we find a way to replenish the Earth itself within the time frame of quarterly returns — not æons (literally one billion geologic years) — then forget human prosperity: it’s game over.
If you’re under 30, know this: unless we replace economics wholesale with a new human system of cooperation, in time, I believe you will not live out your full, DNA-encoded, life potential. And if you do, it will be due to further scientific intervention in spite of economics, for which there will be a very, very heavy price. If you’re over 30, you may still snuff it, prematurely. If not, then congrats, but you’ll have to break the news to your kids, or the ones they would’ve had the pleasure of raising, if it weren’t for what we did to destroy the house before it was their “turn”.
While we’re at it, it’s not just humans. It’s all the other living creatures, too — flora and fauna — whose existence hangs in the balance of your title choice. It’s not just for the cute bunnies, or for the pleasure of walking in a pretty forest while on vacation. The biome has been kicking around for 2.4 æons, since the Great Oxidation Event (GOE) birthed an oxygen-centric atmosphere on Earth, leading to billions of years of ecological co-evolution. Everything on Earth relies on everything else. Not one thing is extraneous, or can be removed without cataclysmic impact. Nature has created both the ultimate house of cards and a 100% closed loop system. Many of us realize how exquisite this is, every time we leave our man-made environments long enough to marvel at the outcome of her efforts.
Well, guess what? We’ve pulled enough cards out of the ecosystem that they are now all engaged in real-time freefall. We keep changing our minds about what to name this phenomenon: global warming; climate change; climate crisis; mass extinction; the Anthropocene; and now climate cancer, to borrow Simon Sinek’s latest term and attempt to make us think about it differently.
Dramatic? Not remotely.
Economics, bar none, is the single most destructive human construct in the history of human constructs. It is the only one — and in its early adolescence, no less — whose end game is the wholesale destruction of the human race. It isn’t a “risk”, or even “just” a foregone conclusion. Again: the destruction of all human (and other less valued) life on Earth is baked into the DNA of economics’ conceptualization.
In a 54-minute talk he gave at the 2018 Cambridge Forum, former Greek Finance Minister and Professor Yanis Varoufakis spoke at length on the topic of Capitalism — The Beast That Dominates Our Lives. Or, as he nicknamed it, “the death of democracy”. It’s worth a listen. In an earlier lecture, of his newfound Marxist appreciation, he said:
“What caught my eye was Marx’s mesmerizing gift for writing a dramatic script for human history, indeed for human damnation, that was also laced with the possibility of salvation and authentic spirituality.
Marx created a narrative populated by workers, capitalists, officials and scientists who were history’s dramatis personae. They struggled to harness reason and science in the context of empowering humanity while, contrary to their intentions, unleashing demonic forces that usurped and subverted their own freedom and humanity.
This dialectical perspective, where everything is pregnant with its opposite, and the eager eye with which Marx discerned the potential for change in what seemed to be the most unchanging of social structures, helped me to grasp the great contradictions of the capitalist era. It dissolved the paradox of an age that generated the most remarkable wealth and, in the same breath, the most conspicuous poverty. Today [his speech was given in 2013], turning to the European crisis, the crisis in the United States and the long-term stagnation of Japanese capitalism, most commentators fail to appreciate the dialectical process under their nose. They recognize the mountain of debts and banking losses but neglect the opposite side of the same coin: the mountain of idle savings that are “frozen” by fear and thus fail to convert into productive investments. A Marxist alertness to binary oppositions might have opened their eyes.”
Varoufakis, whom economist John Galbraith considers the world’s reigning expert on economic Game Theory, is too kind in his descriptions of “shortcomings”. The cost of Game Theory-fueled economic manipulations that benefit the market at the cost of “steady-state equilibrium” is, in my view, no less than the wholesale and not-too-distant end of human life.
I’ll explain that shortly.
A Choice To Be Made
We have a simple choice to make, but it’s one that must be made for the equally simple reason that these two things — human flourishing and economics — cannot coexist in the long term. Doing so is an impossibility because one of these — human flourishing — is inherently creative, while the other — economics — is inherently destructive.
The notion that economics is the driver of societal development, and that without it we would not have developed science or thrived, is sociopathic delusion: it sells humankind woefully short of our true genius.
To put a finer point on it, the idea that without a carrot — an exclusive and limited prize in the form of personal gain — and a stick — in the binding form of debt-shackling, obligation and fear-based incentives — the scientific method would never have been developed, or led to the advancements we enjoy today, is to miss the central point of what it has to be a human being, full of wonder, curiosity, brain power and creative ingenuity. It is, moreover, and more importantly, to forget that to be human is intrinsically to be part of a social species, given to cooperation and bonding.
Said another way, it is human to indulge curiosity creatively and solve problems together — per se — without conniving. We don’t need economics for that. We can’t not do it, any more than we can’t not make friends, or share stories, or laugh and cry, or think, play, tinker and dream.
Economics — the Anti-Life
Economics is by its very nature extractive, and is therefore a destructive act of hostility and nihilism. It is, by extension, self-hating, and self-destructive. There is no such thing as “creative” economics unless, as Varoufakis said to eloquently, we are speaking about the banks and financiers who create money from thin air, “like magicians”. In fact, its most insidious form, zealously practiced by American Reaganites, is called “supply-side economics”. In it, the theory goes, reduction in taxes and regulation drives economic growth and prosperity. What it has truly done instead is to create the largest wealth gap in human history, and in four decades has driven half its host nation to subsistence living. Supply side economics has simply accelerated the inevitable drive to the end, by consolidating unseen power in the hands of a few. Their economics demand to be fed, lest they collapse. Without growth, there is no economics, and thus nothing to write about, or discuss. So we are talking about the delusion of “growth”. Growth, as such, is not true growth, the way we think of it, but rather increasingly efficient means of extraction and redistribution, consistent with Marx’s observations.
We extract things from the earth, like ores, water, oil, trees, plants, animals, etc. What remains when this cycle is complete is clear. We get deserts: devoid of nutrients, devoid of animals and plants and inhospitable to life. To cross a desert literally, we must now move through it with our own mini-ecosystem (food, power, shelter) in tow — one that lasts long enough until we again reach a place that can sustain us, per se.
To dive deeper into this phenomenon, the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was first born 13,000 years ago, in a place bursting with enough supply and surplus to allow us to finally stop chasing food, after hundreds of thousands of years of foraging and hunting, was sucked dry as a result of our first proto-economic system of exchange. The Fertile Crescent gave birth to the first interhuman hierarchy (aka haves and have nots). Once that happened, within the blink of an eye, we turned the Crescent into a desert. Read Jared Diamond’s brilliant book, Collapse. In it, he reviews countless societies that depleted their own resources and then, without access to resources outside of their own borders to decimate, invariably collapsed. Well, today we have planes, trains and automobiles to connect the planet and its resources, economically, unlike those earlier societies Diamond writes about. But we are still limited by the boundaries of planet Earth. At some point not so far in the future — unless we find another orb to plunder in compensation for what we’ve destroyed, then just like the Mesopotamians and every bygone society before us, it’s buh-bye.
It’ll also happen quicker than you think. In a 2004 exposé by Elie Elhadj that I read years ago, titled Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom, a handful of Saudi royals were given permission from the king to tap an ancient aquifer that lay hidden under a desert that their progenitors had created following the Agricultural Revolution. This aquifer was well-known enough to be referenced repeatedly in the Bible. So in a bid for economic gain under the pretense of “wheat independence”, they plundered the aquifer. What happened next is that Saudi Arabia extracted enough water from it to sell every Saudi wheat, then continued to extract to the maximum extent and rate they could, for economic value creation, because the system was already in place, and humans aren’t good at self-limiting when there’s a juicy carrot to gnaw on. For a few decades, Saudi Arabia sold the lion’s share of its wheat production to foreign countries, because it couldn’t use even a fraction of what it created. This netted the royals untold wealth. It also took them just 30 years to completely empty out an aquifer equal to the volume of Lake Erie — one that took nature 20,000 years to fill.
Thus, as I like to think of it, the Saudis — one of the most water-poor nations on Earth — exported its own life-giving liquid, bound up in a container of wheat, in order to make a fortune.
As a 2015 Public Radio article put it, “the Saudis are drinking desalinated water from the ocean — a process too expensive to use for irrigating farmland.”
California is close behind. 50% of American produce is made there. To feed the demand, the state has been doing exactly what the Saudis did. By some estimates, there are perhaps 3 years of water left to plumb, before it, too, goes dry. And here again, it is irreplaceable, because quarterly returns, or our empty stomachs, cannot wait 20,000 years for what we extracted to replenish itself naturally.
So to summarize: in the desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the aquifer is gone; one of humankind’s two basic needs will now forevermore remain unmet; the financial cost to the government to supply water to its own people is greater now; and the cost to provide their other need — food — is now prohibitively expensive, because there’s no longer any water with which to grow it.
When the Agricultural Revolution started, they had more of both than nearly any other known place on Earth. Which is why it occurred there.
And it’s not only Saudi and the US. NASA states that half of the world’s aquifers have been—or are being—drained. By the time the next centennial comes around, they’ll be gone. And with it, conventional farming practices on a global scale.
And it’s not just wheat and “earthly resources”, either. We extract labor from people — every person on Earth. Extracting labor is so central to economics that we are not allowed not to participate in the game. If we try to, we are fined, and/or jailed. We extract money from those same people, from birth until death — and afterwards! — in exchange for all the things that will keep them alive, healthy(ish) and consuming things they don’t need, but which we keep inventing regardless to keep stoking the fires of shareholder returns. We extract emotional wellbeing from one another when we enter into economic relationships of hierarchy, disparity, inequity and competition. We hoard and consolidate everything we can get our hands on, to dizzying degrees of unusable wealth that are so abstract in their quantum that they can’t even be understood, let alone depleted in a single lifetime.
The one thing we do not do is to acknowledge our common accountability for one another, or use them instead to invent new, non-depletive, non-destructive, non-binary, non-nihilistic systems that would benefit all human beings, with few if any downsides.
If you want some ideas on how we can do that, read this. I wrote it for The Startup.
To think it is impossible to provide as much as all humans need without extraction (meaning losers) is to be either delusional or a nihilist. Core evolutionary humanity demands our social engagement and mutual investment. Or at least it did until we chose to supplant human flourishing with human terrorism. Economics, left to run its course, ends in death, not just for those who wind up on the wrong side of the balance sheet, but for all of us, including the so-called winners. That’s because ultimately, the end state of extraction is that someday… there’s nothing left.
A paradigm of extraction built on the requirement for increasing yields — dividends and growth — necessitates continued feeding, until there no longer anything left to extract.
The Earth will not continue to provide that which sustains human beings indefinitely. Or much longer. It built impossibly complex and interdependent ecosystems over billions of years, many (most!) of which we’ve destroyed in mere human generations. Those ecosystems are required in order for us to live, let alone thrive. Oxygen is a fundamental need without which we cannot survive for even minutes. Sebastião Salgado, the greatest living photographer and a man who has seen humankind’s worst side perhaps more than any other person, over decades spent filming genocide, famine and war across the planet, burned himself out just over a decade ago, and understandably, took an eight-year hiatus to restore his emotional health. He chose to visit the remaining places on Earth that hadn’t yet been destroyed by Man. At the end of this renewal, he created a show optimistically named Genesis. More importantly, he now had a non-photographic goal. He and his wife, Lélia, founded the Instituto Terra, in 1998, in their native Brazil. In 20 years, the two of them planted two million trees and created a forest. The animals came. And the biome restored itself, there. When I met him during Genesis’ vernissage, he said two things that floored me.
“How long do you think we’d last after the last tree is gone? Three minutes? Five? Without trees, there is nothing to debate.”
When asked, after his show, if he felt better after spending eight years recharging his batteries amid Earth’s remaining Edens, he smiled — the first time since he began speaking with us.
“Much better. I used to be worried for the planet. Now, I realize she’ll be just fine, once we’re gone. It’s only ourselves whose lives our actions are killing.”
These are sobering thoughts from a man who has seen nearly the entire world, in both its worst (economic) and its best (ecologic) extremes.
Trees and algae are our only two sources of oxygen. The entire biome, including the foods that keep us alive, relies on the exchange of oxygen and carbon to live. Without oxygen, or the trees that produce it — not to mention the entire global ecosystem that depends on them apart from their oxygen — we die. And it will occur in the blink of a cosmic eye.
We’ve already depleted half of the world’s supply. And we’re getting much more efficient, every year.
Speaking of eye blinks, we have engineered increasingly efficient systems — means — of both human and environmental resource extraction. In just a short century and a half, our efforts have resulted in a preposterous juxtaposition of super wealth against super poverty, in a single city, if not the same city block. Antilia—the world’s most expensive home, at an “official” price tag of $2 billion, but a “whispered” one of $3 billion, occupies the same city—Mumbai—as Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, in which one million super-poor are heaped into just 2.1 square kilometers.
What’s new isn’t the idea of inequality. Rather, it is the quantum of the chasm, the speed with which it’s growing, and its hair’s breadth co-location. This is in the climate of extraction rates — and resulting wealth — that no longer have a relationship to anything we could honestly label “need”. True “needs” in the West — for the humans we’ve now downgraded to the disgusting term “consumers” — were met long ago. Well beyond “needs”, we are now in a climate of embarrassing, gross overconsumption, for no purpose other than to allow economic growth to sustain itself.
Simply put, economics now exists in order to ensure its own continuity.
That’s because once bellies are full, bodies are sheltered, diseases are (largely) in check, loneliness is at reasonable levels and relative joy fills our hearts, that’s where our empirical “needs” end. Everything beyond that is unnecessary. Certainly, the level of consumption rampant in the West could no longer even pretend to be couched in “need”. Economics now drive human activity to unsustainable levels of consumption, for no purpose other than to line pockets.
And at what cost?
Let me answer that.
We are paying with our lives.
It’s true that people lived in fetid conditions not that long ago — brimming with pathogens we didn’t understand, and which existed largely due to lack of knowledge, plumbing and infrastructure. With that said, that same infrastructure could have — and likely would have — still been invented as quickly without being funded by extractive economics that grouped humanity into black and red columns.
Adding human “color” to this idea, red numbers represent the blood of those on the losing side of economics, while black numbers reflect the hearts of those busy extracting it.
If we do not soon replace economics as the driving force around which all of human activity rallies, we will all be dead before our true lifespans would have otherwise demanded it.
Everything good we have created through scientific investment could have been achieved without loss of life or welfare. Ideas cost nothing. Human capital and energy cost nothing. Will costs nothing. Compassion costs nothing. Time doesn’t even exist, the way we define it, as units of effort and reward. All of these things are in abundance, and are as readily available as they are unlimited. No one has to come out on the losing side of ideas, energy, will, compassion and time.
To insist otherwise is to be, in my view, anti-human.
Here are some examples of what I mean by it being free. We don’t charge our spouses a set fee when we share something we learned. We don’t charge our children to dress, feed or shelter them. We don’t charge our roommates when we wash their dishes, or let them borrow our books or clothes. We also don’t insist that someone pays us when we wash our own dishes, or do our own laundry. We don’t charge our friends for reassuring them when they’re down, or psychoanalyzing their problems when they suffer. We don’t do this any more than we demand that the government remunerate us for pruning the tree in our front yard, or raking the leaves before they blow onto the sidewalk, or taking out our trash, or teaching our children, or passing on wisdom, or reporting unsafe streets to 311, or crimes to 911.
So why do others charge us for all of it, just because we don’t have an intimate relationship?
Nobody should be paying — or paid by — anyone for doing ANY of these things.
All of them — food, shelter, health, safety, education, maintenance and clothing — should be commonly held human provisions that speak to our shared decency, community and frankly, survival.
Why should they carry a price tag?!
Really. Help me understand why it is that without a financial exchange or instrument of any kind, the giving of advice, the sharing of knowledge, the investment of time and energy, listening to someone’s troubles and offering succor, or collaborating on a creative act, is impossible. That is, without extracting something from you for my time and efforts, I am somehow left with less of something than before the act occurred.
What is it exactly that I’m losing?
Nothing. These things are limitless, and free to us all. Moreover, our investment of self in one another, and by extension, our own flourishing, is the only investment that neither extracts finite resources, nor has time or capacity limits.
In fact, they both grow with our investment.
Our education pays dividends by powering new ideas that yield advancements of all kinds, including the science whose byproducts we now enjoy with our lattes. Our health allows us to maximize these contributions, in both quantum and in longevity. The health of our elderly feeds a different part of the system. Not only does it enlarge our capacity for compassion — arguably our core human quality — it is payback for the fact that without their prior investment in us, we wouldn’t even be here. Our compassion seeds wellbeing throughout the entire human community, which in turn fuels our psychological investment in what we do, and is thus perhaps the greatest fuel of all, because the notion of purpose drives everything.
And yet: we charge outrageous sums of money for all of these things: education, health and elder-care. And if you can’t pay the piper, you suffer permanently, and die prematurely.
That is the legacy of economics.
All of these things can be measured directly, by the quality of our wellbeing, and that of our families and communities. But they are also measured by the degree of participation within those communities — that is, how many of us — what percentage — are receiving the benefits, and thriving because of them.
But they can also be measured indirectly, because if you’ve been listening, we live in a closed loop system. Rainfall in one place impacts rainfall across the globe. Ditto tree cover, carbon dioxide, food chains, climate, chemical use and depletion of anything.
Depending on whether we choose life or economics, our acts are inherently restorative or extractive, respectively. When we set a price on access — to anything that benefits other individuals in the human community, or on the non-human resources on which humankind itself depends — it creates an imbalance, with winners and losers. “Winning” only encourages more extraction, well beyond that which is necessary. As we have seen, it knows no limits. Deserts for everyone!
The billions that some humans have amassed in a few decades can never be spent. At some point, the numbers become abstract, and can’t be translated into material change for their owners. The same is dramatically untrue for those with nothing, for whom a single dollar may make the difference between eating and starving, or life-saving antibiotics. “Billions” return no measurable advancements over “mere millions”. There are only so many homes, planes, boats and cars we can own. There are only so many watches we can put on our wrists, or jewels we can adorn our bodies with. There is only so much food we can eat, so many children we can bear and lavish, so many trophies of any kind we can claim to have earned, and consumed conspicuously, and so much Botox we can inject into our bodies, to remain “forever young”.
So whatever our balance sheets or tax returns say, when the true cost is being borne by a planet that can no longer produce enough oxygen, or fish, or cooling, it’s too high, even when we don’t care about our fellow man. For those who may, the price being paid by a population of malnourished, homeless, sick, uneducated or abandoned-and-withering people is not only too high economically and pragmatically, it is too high morally.
That is, it is inhuman.
The modus operandi of economics is that without growth, it fails. So what happens once basic needs are met? How does economics work then? Well, it must create a market for consumption of non-necessities. That is, it requires our overconsumption.
Which is exactly what has happened.
We know well what this looks like. Humans swelling to the point of dying, physically, under their own crushing weight, and bodies in meltdown. Obesity, and the fact that it kills more people now than anything else on Earth, is a pure and exclusive byproduct of expert economics. We couldn’t continue to sell more cheese or meat unless we tricked humans into eating more — some double, at 3,600 calories per day, for the average American, to what nature requires for our thriving. We also couldn’t add to our quarterly shareholder returns unless we produced foods cheaper, which meant transmogrifying them into things that don’t even resemble food anymore, or sustain anything that could pass for health. But being sick is good for the economy! To paraphrase Umair Haque, “Breaking your leg is good for GDP. It’s good for the doctors and surgeons, the drug companies, the rehabilitation professionals, the medical device manufacturers, the food supplement-makers, the pharmacy, the fitness centers and the government.” In fact, human sickness in all of its forms — economic, socio-political, physiological, emotional and psychological — are almost required if the modern economy is to thrive.
The sicker we are, the more money changes hands. If the quality of our lives suffers in the process, at least the balance sheet looks good. From poisoned bodies to poisoned watersheds to fallow fields to states on fire to nation-sized floating plastic gyres to pestilence to empty oceans to supercharged storms, the signs are everywhere.
Left unchecked, extraction continues until nothing remains, at which point the beast moves on to feed elsewhere. Like in WALL-E. We find another planet. Except that until Elon Musk solves space travel and trans-planet colonization, we don’t have a Plan B.
In 2020, eight billion people have a cumulative capacity for extraction that is cataclysmic in its potentiality. Science aimed towards these ends is now so efficient in its reach and rate that we can easily foresee annihilating all of human life — both directly (sickness and death) and indirectly (obliterating what we need to live) — within the span of my lifetime, which is about half over.
If we do not replace economics wholesale with a new system (or systems) of net positive cooperation and human activity, it’s most likely game over, this century.
By far the worst creation in the history of humankind has been economics. Unless of course, mutually assured destruction was our end goal, in which case it’s been the best.
I might be brash enough to call our feverish participation in the endeavor… shortsighted.
Calling Your Bluff
If you truly believe in economics as the best way to organize humankind, then you need to start charging your children anytime you help them figure anything out about themselves, or with their homework. While we’re at it, charge them rent. Start charging a fee every time you offer to share your food with a spouse or a coworker. Charge others any time you keep them company, like an escort does. Charge them for listening to them, the way your therapist charges you for helping you understand yourself. Send someone a bill anytime something you owned ends up on their bodies or in their homes. I don’t care if it’s your sister, or a friend. If they won’t pay you, then repossess it, and burn or destroy it so we don’t end up with surplus we can’t monetize. Or throw it in the ocean with the other garbage. Start charging everyone around you for your time, your ideas, your kindnesses, your participation, and in fact your very presence. Start demanding returns — or fractional percentages — of everything that anybody else creates, grows, cultivates or contributes, if you’ve had anything to do with inspiring it, or can reasonably claim so, in a court of law. That includes others’ good moods if you smiled at them; the paychecks your coworkers bring home on the backs of projects on which you collaborated; and the quarterly earnings of waste collection companies whose raw materials you gave to them, gratis, without which they would go out of business. While you’re at it, demand occasional use of the mayoral home in your town or city, because without your hard work, tax contributions and very existence, its current occupant would be out of a job.
Why would you give a single minute of your time away for free? Isn’t this tantamount to anti-economic heresy? Doesn’t it speak to sub-optimal efficiency? Could we not generate even greater returns if we monetized every act, every erg expended, every interaction, every second? Would that not be economic Nirvana?
Today, human beings are largely seen as resources to mine, deplete and replace, when they are no longer of maximal benefit.
We call it business.
And yet, there are things we could do — ways we could organize ourselves — that are not extractive, but rather regenerative, and limitless. Each person has his or her own strengths, passions, drives, demons, needs and desires… If each of us is not just allowed but encouraged — through mutual investment — to invest in our self-discovery, then to redirect the insights and inspirations gleaned toward our individual — then collective— wellbeing, the members of our communities would contribute what is necessary and advantageous to the whole, each according to his or her abilities and passions. Some of us would organize; others would dream and create; some would transform and optimize; yet others would distribute; some would educate and train, while others would coach and troubleshoot; and some would observe and measure, while those who work with them can develop insights that could lead to new discoveries, and seed the cycle anew.
If this sounds a lot like the society we live in, that’s because it is. But there’s a difference, too. If the end goal is our thriving, then any imbalance threatens the whole, just as it did when we lived in Dunbar-sized tribes. Which is why, back then, we invested heavily in one another, to ensure our collective survival. That’s because in a community where the cost of any one person lacking tools, ambition or health is their potential contribution, and the health of the whole, it’s an unacceptable outcome. It’s doubly true when you know the person, intimately. And it’s true of the planet, as well, when the unbalanced, unchecked extraction of any single thing, as we do giddily today, throws the whole system off, in a domino effect that kills the very thing we depend on to thrive: the biome.
Putting a finer point on a “creative” system of human exchange, the more educated and informed everybody is, the better that benefits all individuals in the community, bar none. The healthier everyone is, the better that benefits all individuals in the community, bar none. The happier each person is, the better that benefits all individuals in the community, bar none. The more passionate and engaged and encouraged and optimistic everyone is, the better that benefits all individuals in the community, bar none.
It’s not rocket science.
These things are not only non-extractive, non-diminishing returns on investment. In fact, they stand at the opposite pole: they are both additive and regenerative, resulting in more than the sum of their (invested) parts.
Each and every one of these things empowers human beings to do their best, because it engages that which drives us intrinsically, beyond fulfilling (truly) basic needs. It feeds our larger, uniquely human desire for love, acceptance and purpose. The only inexhaustible fuel on Earth is that which we generate internally from these three things. In order for that to happen, we need to empower one another, not disempower — or extract — one another’s health and internal resources for personal gain.
Because when we do that, as we are today around the world, it is called economics, and the end of that story is the end of ours, as well.