The following chapter is from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. Return to the Sacred Economics content page here.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings —Wendell Berry
In the introduction, in dedicating my work to “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible,” I spoke of the resistance of the mind to the possibility of a world much different from what we have always known. Many centuries and millennia have indeed accustomed us to a world of great and growing inequality, violence, ugliness, and struggle. So used to it are we that we forget that anything else ever existed. Sometimes, an excursion to unspoiled nature, to a traditional culture, or to the sensory richness veiled behind the impoverished modern world reminds us of what has been lost, and that reminder hurts, rubbing salt into the wound of Separation. Such experiences at least show us what is possible, what has existed and can exist, but they do not show us how to create such a world. Facing the enormous powers arrayed to maintain the status quo, our minds quail in anguish. The temporary glimpses of a more beautiful world that we might catch in nature, in special gatherings, at music festivals, in ceremony, in love, and in play are all the more disheartening when we believe that they can never be more than temporary respites from the soul-crushing, money-driven world we are used to.
A primary goal of this book has been to align the logic of the mind with the knowing of the heart: to illuminate not only what is possible but also how to get there. When I use the word possible, I don’t mean it in the sense of “maybe,” as in, “It could possibly happen if only we are very lucky.” I mean possible in the sense of self-determination: a more beautiful world as something we can create. I have given great evidence of its possibility: the inevitable demise of a money system dependent on exponential growth, a shift in consciousness toward a connected self in cocreative partnership with earth, and the many ways in which the necessary pieces of a sacred economy are already emerging. This is something we can create. We can, and we are. And given how much of the evil and ugliness of the present world can be traced to money, can you imagine what the world will be like when money has been transformed?
I can’t imagine it, not all of it, though I do sometimes get visions of it that take my breath away. Maybe it isn’t that I can’t imagine it; maybe it is that I dare not imagine it. A vision of a truly sacred world, a sacred economy, makes all the clearer the magnitude of our present suffering. But I will share what I have seen in my visions, even the most speculative parts, the most naive, impractical, dreamy parts. I hope my sharing won’t compromise the credibility, if any, that I’ve built by presenting the concepts of sacred economics in a coherent, logical fashion.
I have given many other examples in this book of ways in which the sacred economy I describe not only is possible but is in fact already starting to emerge. The old ways are still dominant, but they are unraveling at an accelerating rate. I wrote this book between the first stage of this Great Unraveling—the financial meltdown of 2008—and the second, which I imagine will begin within the next year or two. No one can predict how it will unfold. Depending on geopolitical events and even natural disasters, the old regime may be able to maintain a semblance of normalcy for a few more years. But the end of the Age of Usury is near, the end of the story of Ascent, the end of the Age of Separation. The birthing of a new era, the coming-of-age ordeal of the human race, may be a bit messy. It will probably involve the usual accompaniments to economic collapse—fascism, civil unrest, and war—but I think this dark age will be far shorter and mostly more mild than one might reasonably expect.
I think so because of all the enlightened people I keep meeting! We humans have learned a lot in the last half-century, and our consciousness has reached a critical point in its development. It will be the same as it is with transformation on a personal level. In transitioning into a new way of being, we might revisit the old once or twice and try to fit back into the womb; but when we do, we find that it can no longer accommodate us, and a state of being we once inhabited for years becomes intolerable in weeks or days. So it shall be for humanity generally—a few short years of darkness and upheaval. Perhaps this phase of accelerated transition will be what I speculated about earlier as the rapid succession of mini-ages completing the millions-of-years-long age of tools, hundreds-of-thousands-of-years-long age of fire, tens-of-thousands-of-years-long age of symbolic culture, millennia-long age of agriculture, centuries-long machine age, and decades-long information age. The singularity is nigh and then a transition qualitatively more profound than any before it.
Now that I have entered the realm of speculation, I would like to describe a few more aspects of sacred economy that I believe will unfold over the next two centuries. This book has described developments that we can create in the next twenty years, and in some cases the next five. What about the next two hundred years? (I am being cautious—maybe I should think big!)
A corollary to the nonhoarding of gifts and to the social nature of their giving is that wealth in gift cultures tends to be publicly transparent. Everyone knows who has given what to whom, who has how much, who is hoarding, and who is generous. Translated into modern money dynamics, this suggests that all monetary holdings and transactions should be publicly transparent. With the advent of money, a new secrecy came to infect wealth that had been impossible before. When wealth was lands, sheep, and cattle, there was no hiding one’s wealth, and therefore no shirking the social expectations incumbent upon it. But money can be hoarded in the basement, buried in the ground, stashed away in numbered bank accounts, kept secret, kept private. To undo the negative effects of money, eventually this characteristic of money must pass.
The transition from physical cash to electronic currency makes this feasible but of course raises the specter of totalitarian control. Do we want the government to be able to survey every transaction, as part of Total Information Awareness? Probably not—unless every expenditure of the government is also available for public view. It will not do for the financial doings of some people and institutions to be public, and others secret. Money must be universally transparent.
Obviously, a system in which every transaction and every account balance is available for public view would radically change business practice. If you have ever been in business, imagine if you will that every customer, supplier, and competitor knew your true costs! However, monetary transparency fits in naturally to the gift-inspired business models I explored in Chapter 21, which require that you honestly reveal your costs and invite gifts on top of that. No longer would one be able to lie about one’s costs in order to profit from the other party’s lack of knowledge.
Many people would find the idea of no financial privacy very threatening. Since money today is so bound up with self, we would feel exposed, vulnerable—as indeed, in today’s society, we would be: exposed to envy and judgment and vulnerable to criminal extortion and demands from importunate relatives. In a different context, though, financial transparency is part of a way of being that is open, trusting, unguarded, and generous—being a person who has nothing to fear, who is comfortable in society. Moreover, financial transparency would make many kinds of criminal activity more difficult.
As with the other developments of sacred economy, there are signs we are already moving in this direction, not only with the digitization of currency, but with the new “social currencies” of various online ratings systems that are, by their very nature, public. Ultimately, money is a token of society’s gratitude for one’s gifts, so it is fitting that the tokens themselves be public as well.
Another basic feature of money as we have known it is its homogeneity: any dollar is the same as any other dollar. Thus money has no history, no story attached to it. In addition to homogenizing all it touches, this feature of money also disconnects it from the material and social world. In former times, though, gifts were unique objects that carried stories. In gift-giving ceremonies, often the entire history of a gift would be recounted (we still do this today, acting on a primal urge; we want to tell about where we bought it, or how Grandma received it as a wedding present). Money’s homogeneity and anonymity (my dollars are the same as yours) therefore make it incompatible with gift principles and with the two features of sacredness I described in the introduction: uniqueness and connectedness.
Therefore, I foresee money eventually losing its homogeneity and gaining the capacity to bear with it its history. With electronic, transparent money, every transaction that a given dollar has ever been used for could be attached to it in an electronic database. In making a purchase, then, you could decide whether to use the money from your salary or the money you were given by a friend, and even if it were in the same bank account, it would be different money. The child’s intuition that the bank keeps “your money” and returns those same physical bills when you make a withdrawal would become true. (This system does not conflict with credit creation—money could still be born, circulate for a while, and die.)
The history of civilization, of growing separation and its imminent transcendence in a long age of growing reunion, is also a journey from an original abundance, to the extreme of scarcity, and then back toward abundance at a higher level of complexity. I have written herein about the abundance economy emerging via digital media, thanks to disintermediation and the dropping to near zero of marginal production costs for “content.” In the long term, this abundance economy, limited in scope today, will become the template for new realms of abundance. One of these will be energy, fulfilling the dreams of atomic-age visionaries who foresaw energy “too cheap to meter.”
Today we seem to face the opposite, as petroleum supplies dwindle along with the earth’s capacity to absorb fossil fuel emissions. In the short term, energy abundance might arise from recognized eco-friendly sources such as solar, wind, and conservation technologies, but I think that when humanity enters a true spirit of abundance, vast new energy sources will become available that are beyond the purview of conventional science today. These will be the product not of the onward march of technology but of a shift in perception. In fact, “free energy” technologies have been in existence for at least a century, going back to the work of Nikola Tesla. (1) Today there are at least five or ten different energy technologies that seem to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If you research the field, you will find a sordid history of confiscated research, destroyed careers, and even mysterious deaths of researchers. Whether or not there ever was, or still is, an active conspiracy to maintain energy scarcity, on some level humanity has not been ready for the gift of energy abundance, and probably won’t be ready for some decades to come, until we have entered deeply and thoroughly the spirit of the gift. When J. P. Morgan destroyed Tesla’s career, it may have been, like the record and film industry more recently, an attempt to maintain artificial scarcity and profit from it. But perhaps larger forces were at work; perhaps Morgan was even on some level cognizant that humanity was not ready for Tesla’s gift. In any event, our governing paradigms, rooted in separation and scarcity, are constitutionally unable to encompass free-energy technologies, which are dismissed as impossible, fraudulent, or fantastical.
If our outer experience in some ways mirrors our psychology, perhaps the advent of energy abundance for humanity awaits an inventor who lets go of all hope of patenting and profiting from his invention and instead releases it into the public domain. That would short-circuit the usual accusations of charlatanism and the seizure of patents by the Department of Defense. Can a person hope to corral and own what is fundamentally a free gift of the universe?
I do not believe that technology will save humanity. Reading my work, many people have asked me if I know about the Venus Project, a movement that draws from the same basic understanding of the problem with today’s money system. While I resonate with its spirit, I find that the Venus Project indulges in the same technological utopianism that has filled us with starry-eyed hope since the age of coal. But in fact, as I described in Chapter 2, abundance has always been available to us. It is our perceptions, and not our means, that engender scarcity.
Let me put it poetically. At the end of Chapter 11 I wrote,
A vein runs through spiritual tradition that says that we, too, give back to the sun; indeed that the sun only continues to shine through our gratitude. Ancient sun rituals weren’t only to thank the sun—they were to keep it shining. Solar energy is the light of earthly love reflected back at us. Here, too, the circle of the gift operates.
Could it be, then, that as we step into the abundance mentality and the generosity of the connected self, the self that connects I and thou through love, the sun will shine more brightly? That new “suns”—new sources of the infinite generosity of the universe—will become available to us, reflecting back our love? We are born into gratitude; it is our primal response to the gift of life itself. As we live from that gratitude, which means to live in the spirit of the gift, and as we open the channels of generosity wider, it is inevitable that the inward flow of gifts should grow as well.
After energy, who knows in what other realms we will express the fundamental abundance of the universe? Matter? Time? Consciousness? All I know is that we humans have only begun to discover our gifts and to turn them toward beautiful purposes. We are capable of miracles—which is good, considering that the state of the planet today requires them.
I cannot predict how the Age of Reunion will unfold in linear time. I do know, however, that by the end of our lifetimes, my generation will live in a world unimaginably more beautiful than the one we were born into. And it will be a world that is palpably improving year after year. We will reforest the Greek isles, denuded over two thousand years ago. We will restore the Sahara Desert to the rich grassland it once was. Prisons will no longer exist, and violence will be a rarity. Work will be about, “How may I best give of my gifts?” instead of, “How can I make a living?” Crossing a national border will be an experience of being welcomed, not examined. Mines and quarries will barely exist, as we reuse the vast accumulation of materials from the industrial age. We will live in dwellings that are extensions of ourselves, eat food grown by people who know us, and use articles that are the best that people in the full flow of their talents could make them. We will live in a richness of intimacy and community that hardly exists today, that we know, because of a longing in the heart, must exist. And most of the time, the loudest noises we hear will be the sounds of nature and the laughter of children.
Fantastical? The mind is afraid to hope for anything too good. If this description evokes anger, despair, or grief, then it has touched our common wound, the wound of separation. Yet the knowledge of what is possible lives on inside each of us, inextinguishable. Let us trust this knowing, hold each other in it, and organize our lives around it. Do we really have any choice, as the old world falls apart? Shall we settle for anything less than a sacred world?
1. Significantly, when J. P. Morgan cut off financing for Tesla’s wireless energy transmission project (which, according to Tesla, would have provided virtually unlimited energy), he did not question the science. He did not evince the slightest doubt that the invention would work. He rejected it because he saw that it would be impossible to make money from it, saying, “If I can’t meter it, I can’t sell it.” Tesla’s earlier inventions, such as AC power, fit into an economy of scarcity and a mentality of control, so they were enthusiastically adopted by the financial powers.