The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered
By John Michael Greer
263 pp. New Society Publishers – May 2011. $18.95.
John Michael Greer takes on economics, a subject in desperate need of his characteristic, level-headed analysis. The usual growth oriented fantastical notions that have plagued the subject over the last half century were in particular need of such cool headed dispatching. Greer starts with the fallacy of the law of supply and demand by handily pointing out that you cannot demand what is simply not there. Uh duh. Our economic system does not inventory the depletion of natural resources and just keeps on assuming that its existence is a given.
In addition, Greer gives us language to explain how the science of economics got so full of itself that it thought it could create its own reality. He divides up the economy into three parts. There's the Primary which encompasses all the planet's natural resources and services, the Secondary which includes the goods made by humans from these resources and the Tertiary which refers to the financial sector. It is this last category that has come to dominate, spinning a web of ever more complex derivative products that have promised the world an endless possibility of wealth pulled from thin air. That is to say, it is based on the promises of wealth from tomorrow's production from resources that likely will not even be there.
Ancient Rome was in much the same financial straights using a debt driven economy that ran aground once actual resources were unable to keep up with demand. In fact it was because of Rome's financial shenanigans that the Christians came up with the part about usury being a sin. I've always wondered why that was so important to the Christians (and Muslims and Jews). In the epoch following the Roman empire, people went back to a life without loans and a lifestyle that didn't revolve around money. Peasants survived on the land they farmed using barter and embraced a feudal lord who offered them protection in exchange for a part of their crops. This was the Middle Ages.
So forget a retirement which is just another construct of the industrial age. Greer is convinced that we are in the twilight of the age of investment. The growth economy simply isn't going to grow anymore to bring in a return. The promise that invested money will outperform the faltering economy of goods and services is simply a publicly accepted fantasy, a faith based system.
Greer ferrets out the last assumption of our flawed economic system, the one my financial advisor holds dear, and that is that the discovery of new technology and new sources of energy will bring back the economy we assume is our birthright. Not going to happen. The energy required to pull this last rabbit out of the hat will be more than the energy we can gain from such efforts Greer says, because there is no resource as dense or as easily brought to market as fossil fuels have been. Same goes for the chimera of a perpetual motion machine because of the law of thermodynamics. Reading his argument makes me feel like a butterfly pinned to a board.
He does have a series of recommendations involving the tax structure and the regulation of corporate activity. I especially like his suggestion that we take corporate personhood to its logical end and serve corporations the death penalty for murder when appropriate. But it is his advice that we follow E.F. Schumacher's small-is-beautiful principle that is the motivating factor for me because it gives me and all the other home tinkerers something to do. Officially termed the Principle of Subsidiary Function this principle puts forth that we use only as much energy as necessary from as local a source as possible to get a job done.
We, who make ourselves intimately acquainted with the amount of energy we need to house and feed ourselves (and provide hot showers and cold beer), are in a far better position to determine what changes we are willing to cultivate in order to insure a palatable future on a diminished energy budget. Because, as Greer points out, the larger economy is only interested in figuring out how to keep the existing system going and this will inevitably lead to collapse of these multi-layered complex systems. Turning away from complexity and investing in far simpler ways of providing for our needs is the solution Greer affords us. Judging from the number of books that blend emergency prep with ongoing sustainable, off-grid living practices, he is not alone in this plan. But rather than rest with the disaster scenario, Greer offers a satisfying exposé of the delusions that have brought us to this disaster prone existence. It is a less anxiety producing approach to know that we must move away from the delusions rather than just be prepared to weather the breakdowns.