Although economists might have you believe that capitalism is a new phenomenon, the essential building blocks of capitalist economy — private property, shared work effort, agriculture and tool-making — began about 30,000 years ago, as the predominant human culture on Earth changed rapidly from a hunter-gatherer culture (which had been dominant for three million years) to an acquirer-settler culture. This new, acquisitive economy dominates human activity to this day, and defines how we ‘make our living’: by selling our labour to commercial-industrial enterprises (extractors, producers, distributors, and servicers) whose economic mission is to create and distribute ever more goods & services to ever more consumers.
As such, this acquisitive, capitalist economy might be better called a consumer economy: It requires the human citizens of Earth to be insatiable consumers, and relegates us to be merely that. We are largely valued, as individuals, by how much we produce and how much we consume — our wealth — and most commercial-industrial enterprises aspire to be the largest, most profitable and fastest-growing enterprises in Earth’s history. We have become wage-slaves to this economy, toiling away at an unprecedented rate so we can afford to consume more, believing this is the only way to ‘make a living’.
In addition to our indentured state as ‘human capital’ in the life-long service of commercial-industrial enterprises, the cost of this new economy is:
so that much of the planet’s land, air and water have been poisoned, and our planet’s biodiversity is in a tailspin.
Some economists have postulated that the change from a hunter-gatherer to an acquirer-settler culture, with its associated acquisitive economy, was an adaptation by man to sudden scarcities of food 30,000 years ago, as the large, slow game that was our natural and easy prey became scarce as Earth’s climate changed.
We face comparable challenges today: Overpopulation, inefficiency in enterprise production and the endless drive to produce and consume more every generation, have made us realize that our 30,000-year-old acquisitive economy is unsustainable. We know we have to change. What we need is a new model.
Perhaps the best way to identify this new culture, and new economy, is to describe what it would look like and how we might achieve it, and then give it a name.
In an earlier post, I proposed that the first step must be a radical shift in our tax system, to tax non-renewable resource use, pollution and waste (the activities shown with red arrows in the chart above), instead of taxing activities, as we do today, that create employment and are neutral or even beneficial to our environment. The consequence of such a tax shift would be to make products produced from non-renewable resources, or from processes that pollute, much more expensive. Other goods, and almost all services, would become much cheaper. That would inevitably lead to a shift in our consumption patterns, to a dramatic reduction in importation of goods that can be produced locally, and to a cleaner and less destructive world. As one example, a music CD would no longer cost as much as a tank of gasoline. Natural foods would become much cheaper than processed foods, and vegetable products would become much cheaper than animal products.
The next step is more difficult. It requires a complete change to our value system, a repudiation of excess consumption and excess wealth, so they are viewed as something deplorable, not admirable. It requires us to value freedom and mobility highly, such that our ‘possessions’ become a burden rather than a blessing. It requires us to refuse to consume, and refuse to be treated as consumers. Instead, our new value system should be based on the elements of well-being instead of wealth . These elements include health, learning, enjoyment of each other’s company and of nature, and the pleasure that comes from sharing and self-sufficiency and recreation. It would be a much simpler life, but arguably a much richer one, and certainly one with much less toil.
There are two ways in which this change to our value system can occur, one economic and one social. The economic change requires people to walk away from the capitalist economy and to establish new collaborative enterprises that are motivated strictly by the well-being of their members and not by profit or growth. I will be writing a great deal about such ventures in the next few months. If enough such enterprises were established, a parallel economy would be created that would use its members lack of consumption of shoddy, overpriced goods produced by traditional enterprises (i.e. the power of the consumer) to undermine and eventually replace the acquisitive economy.
The social change is more subversive, and if it occurs will probably be led by the group that almost certainly ushered in the acquirer-settler economy 30,000 years ago by developing agriculture when the men no longer brought home the beef: women. Throughout our culture, women ultimately do the choosing of partners and dictate how the household is run. It is women’s leadership that drives human culture. It is their willingness to adapt their lifestyle to the needs of our acquisitive economy — staying home to raise the family, or bringing in a second income, and providing the support and sustenance that men need to operate in the economy (vastly more than men reciprocate), that allows the economy to continue. If they refuse the life-style choices that perpetuate the economy, the economy will change.
How could women do this? By refusing to work for, or allow their spouses to work for, or deal with, enterprises that take excessive time away from the family. By refusing to support governments that put corporate profits above citizens’ well-being. By refusing to buy products that are exorbitantly priced, or poorly made, or imported at the cost of local jobs. By establishing new collaborative enterprises of their own to show men how to do it. By choosing mates that have the values and qualities necessary for the next economy — fairness, tolerance, pacifism, strong interpersonal skills, recognition of the importance of well-being versus wealth, sensitivity to the needs of others — and not choosing aggressive, materialistic, competitive, emotionally shallow men. And, most important of all, by educating themselves and their children on the horrendous consequences of continuing to try to sustain our unsustainable economy.
I am sure you are incredulous. Surely four changes:
couldn’t undermine and replace an economy and culture that have dominated for 30,000 years? I would argue that the huge economic and cultural change that occurred 30,000 years ago happened with even fewer levers of change than this. So did the industrial revolution. As it was then, our survival is at stake.
Until someone comes up with better designations for the next human culture and economy, I would suggest the following uninspiring but accurate working names:
I’ll conclude with two quotes, for the skeptics:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Buckminster Fuller)
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Dying of Despair
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No Use to the World Broken
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The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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All the Things I Was Wrong About
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We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
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Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
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Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
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