For many years, I have been seeking to understand why we get our economic policies so terribly wrong and how we might get them right. I have long believed the problem can be traced to a failure of economists to distinguish between money, which is just a number of no intrinsic value, and those things essential to our existence, health, and happiness. The latter includes things we can buy like food, shelter, and entertainment. It also includes those things that can’t be bought, like peace, love, and finding meaning in life.
Reading the current issue of YES! highlighted with special clarity the implications of the disconnect between money and well-being. The theme of the issue is “Dirt,” and it emphasizes the nature and importance of the living soil on which our well-being depends. It includes inspiring stories from farmers restoring and nurturing the health of soils that previous human abuse destroyed.
Humans lived nearly 200,000 years without money. No human has ever lived without soil.
Somehow the extent of our human dependence on soil as the foundation of life and all real wealth had previously escaped me. Without soil, Earth is just another dead planet among the trillions of such planets in the cosmos. We would not exist. Could anything be of greater value to us than dark, rich soil teeming with microbiomes, worms and insects?
Yet rarely will we see any mention of soil in an economics context, either in a professional paper, a textbook, or news report. They may report sales, profits, and jobs created by agribusiness corporations that profit from practices that turn Earth’s living soils into dead dirt. But by ignoring life, they ignore the foundation of our well-being.
To get our future right, we must get our economics right. We are not talking marginal adjustments, but rather a fundamental rethinking of how we define the economy and the results we want it to produce. The economics that gained global currency in the 20th century and that shapes the current global economy begins with the assumption that with enough money we can buy whatever we need or want. If we want more, we simply need more money.
Yet that argument falls apart when you consider money in isolation from an integrated economic system. Imagine you have survived a shipwreck and find yourself marooned on a desert island composed of just sand and rock. You are the only living thing in sight. You have loads of cash in your pocket and a billfold full of credit cards. But your island has no food, drinkable water, or shelter from the burning sun, and despite your wealth, your death is only a few days away.
Now change the scenario: you have landed on a lush tropical island rich with plant and animal life. Your money is still useless, but you can hunt, fish, and forage for food. You can drink from flowing streams. You can find wood to cook your food, and plenty of material to build a shelter. By applying your skills and a bit of labor, Earth will provide the essentials of your survival until rescue arrives.
Soil is what makes the difference between these two islands. Everything else follows.
Now consider a third scenario. This time you land on the island of abundance with fellow shipwreck survivors, people of varied skills. Some are toolmakers. Some farm. Some fish. Some are builders. Some know the medicinal properties of plants.
Together, you recognize you can all benefit from working cooperatively to share your expertise. So, you set up a system of exchange. It may be based on gifting according to need, or it may involve some form of money. Regardless of the method of exchange, the value resides in the gifts of the soil combined with human skills and labor.
In a healthy economy, money can be a useful tool, if we know how to manage it properly. We must always remember, however, that real value and the source of our well-being does not reside in the shells, pieces of metal, numbers on a slip of paper, or bits in a computer network. The value is in the gifts of the soil and the products of our labor.
Humanity is in deep trouble because we behave as if the value on which our well-being and happiness depends resides in the tokens of our exchange. We handsomely reward those who create and manage money, but neglect the soil and the labor of those who care for it.
We have it terribly wrong. It is within our means, however, to get it right. Although the details are complex, the principles are quite simple. We are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. We must give priority to Earth’s care.
In so doing, we need not ask the advice of an economist who believes value resides in money. Instead, we would do well to seek the guidance of a farmer who knows how to build and nurture healthy soil.
David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.