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.
We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. –Wendell Berry
Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community. –Andrew Carnegie
The Dharma of Wealth
Let us be clear: the purpose of nonaccumulation is not to exculpate oneself from the crimes of a money-based civilization. That is merely ego. You don’t get virtue points for poverty; nonaccumulation is not a goal in and of itself. The goal is to enjoy true wealth, the wealth of connection and flow, rather than the counterfeit wealth of having. But what if you have wealth beyond what you can share in the ordinary flow of life?
To the conscientious person, such wealth might seem to be more a burden than a gift. We are bound, and we are pleased, to make right use of what we have been given. Wealth is no exception. Those who are blessed and cursed with a lot of it have no more reason to abdicate its duties than anyone has to spurn the gifts, responsibilities, and opportunities to serve that we are each born with.
Excess wealth, whether inherited from family or from an earlier time in one’s own life, carries with it a desire to use it well. It is a dharma, a call to service. To squander it on baubles, to give it away senselessly, or to devote oneself to its increase are all ways of refusing that call. The challenge of excess wealth is to give of it in a way that is beautiful. This may take years or decades and involve long-term planning and the creation of entire organizations, or it may happen through a single generous act. Either way, this is the kind of investment that is aligned with a future economy in which status comes from giving, not having, and security comes not from accumulation, but from being a nexus of flow. It is an entirely different mentality from the traditional paradigm of investment, which we equate with the increase of wealth.
Originally I thought that we ought to do away with the word and concept of investment altogether. Then I considered its etymology: it means to clothe, as in to take naked money and put it into new vestments, something material, something real in the physical or social realm. Money is naked human potential — creative energy that has not yet been “clothed” with material or social constructions.
Right investment is to array money in sacred vestments: to use it to create, protect, and sustain the things that are becoming sacred to us today. These are the same things that will form the backbone of tomorrow’s economy. Right investment is therefore practice for the coming world, both psychological practice and practical preparation. It accustoms one to the new mentality of wealth — finding channels for productive giving — and it creates and strengthens those channels, which might persist even when the present money system collapses. Money as we know it might disappear, but the relationships of gratitude and obligation will remain.
If you’ll indulge a bit of poetic speculation, all I have said in the previous paragraph is also true of that other “coming world” — the world beyond the grave. You needn’t believe in an afterlife to understand this. Imagine yourself on your deathbed, realizing that you will take nothing with you. Just as financial investments won’t survive economic collapse, so also does the end of life mean the end of all our accumulations. At that moment, what will give you joy? The memory of all you have given. Upon death, we take with us only what we have given. As in a gift culture, that is what our wealth will be. By giving, we lay up treasures in heaven. When we merge with the All, we receive that which we gave to all.
For people with little money, the most beautiful way to use it probably starts with feeding oneself and one’s children and meeting certain basic necessities of human life. Beyond oneself and one’s loved ones, though, the beautiful use of money requires something we might call “investing.” In a sacred economy, investment has a meaning nearly opposite of what it means today. Today, investing is what people do to preserve their wealth. In a sacred economy, it is what we do to share our wealth.
Like nonaccumulation, the concept is so simple that even a child can understand it. It says, “I have more money than I can use, so I will let someone else use it.” That is an investment or a loan. And a bank or other investment intermediary is someone who is adept at finding someone else to use it. Banking, in its sacred dimension, says, “I will help you find someone who can use your money beautifully.” I once shared this idea with an actual banker whom I met at a conference, and tears came to his eyes — tears of the recognition of the spiritual essence of his calling.
A thousand years from now, when money is so different from what we know today that we might not even recognize it as money, the basic idea of investment will remain. That is because, thanks to the fundamental abundance of the universe and the infinitude of human creativity, we will often have access to a flow of gifts far beyond our immediate needs. We will always have the wherewithal — increasing over time — to create marvels through collective human effort and in partnership with Lover Earth. At the most basic level, sacred investing is simply the intentional channeling of this superabundance toward a creative purpose. It begins with the meeting of needs and unfolds into the creation of beauty.
Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
Right investing manifests the spirit of the gift. Unfortunately, present-day investing bears the opposite spirit: either it is motivated by the extraction not the bestowal of wealth, or the return gift is specified in advance or coerced thereafter, or both. It says, “I will give you the use of this money, but only if you give me even more in return.” Whether it is an equity investment or a loan, I am profiting through my exclusive possession of a scarce resource, with the goal of controlling more and more of it. Another way to see it is that the impetus for the return gift is not gratitude. Despite what the chairman’s message in the annual report says, the board of directors does not determine its dividend payment in a spirit of gratitude to its millions of faceless investors.
Even before an economy realizing the core principles of the gift crystallizes, we can begin living it. Right investing — investing according to the spirit and logic of the Gift — is possible right now. The ideas I am about to offer will become much more obvious after the transition to a new economy, and the overarching stories of that economy — the connected self and Lover Earth — will support them. Today, to apply these ideas requires faith, vision, and courage. You will not receive the affirmation of any person or institution still immersed in the old story. From their perspective, what I am about to offer you is insane.
What I am going to describe is far more radical than “socially conscious investing” or “ethical investing.” While these ideas are steps in the right direction, they harbor an internal contradiction. By seeking a positive financial return, they perpetuate the conversion of the world into money.
Traditional investment, which is perfectly defensible in the context of Ascent, seeks to contribute to the growth of the money realm and gain a part of that contribution as a reward. The venture capitalist identifies high-growth opportunities and provides the money to bring them to fruition. In a steady-state or degrowth economy, this model is no longer appropriate, just as it feels no longer appropriate for more and more people in the investing class — hence the turn toward a different investment goal: the restoration, and not the more efficient exploitation, of the natural and social commons.
Let me restate: there is no money to be made for the investors in such restoration. Any “socially conscious investment” scheme that promises a normal rate of return harbors a lie, whether consciously or not. I will illustrate with two examples.
After a talk I gave, a very bright and compassionate woman active in socially conscious investing protested, “Surely not all profitable investments contribute to the liquidation of the commonwealth. What if I invest in a company that has a great new invention for, say, cheap, portable photovoltaic chargers? I help to capitalize that company; they sell lots of units; we all make money; and the planet benefits too.” Fine, but if the company sold the units at a lower price (e.g., just high enough a profit margin to finance R&D and capital reinvestment), then wouldn’t it do the planet even more good by making the device more accessible? The goal of paying interest or dividends to investors, to give them a positive rate of return, conflicts with the goal that makes the company socially or environmentally “conscious.”
Let me be clear — I am not suggesting that entrepreneurs put themselves out of business by selling at breakeven. I am talking about investing, not earning. It is one thing to receive rewards for doing good work in the world; it is quite another to add money to money by virtue of having money. In the above example, it would be fine to charge enough to keep the business viable, to pay employees well, and to finance expansion, research, and so forth. But beyond that, corporations must earn an additional amount that goes out to investors in the form of interest payments or dividends. Where does this additional amount come from? From the same place all money today comes from: interest-bearing debt and the conversion of the world into money. So if you really want to contribute to the good of the world, don’t ask for a return on your investment. Don’t try to give and take at the same time. If you want to take (and you might have good reasons for doing so), then take, but don’t pretend you are giving.
A second example will make this point clearer. Consider one of the most inspiring types of socially conscious investing: microloans to women in South Asia. These programs have apparently been a huge success, empowering women in India and Bangladesh with new livelihoods while bearing an extremely low rate of defaults. If there were ever an example of “doing well by doing good,” this is it. You lend $500 to an Indian woman to buy a milk cow. She sells the milk to her fellow villagers and earns enough income to feed her family and pay off the interest and principal on the loan. Sounds great, but consider for a moment: where does the repayment money come from? It comes from the villagers. And where do they get that money? They get it through selling some other good or service — in other words, through the conversion of some part of their social or natural commons into money as described in Chapter 4. The effect is the same as that of the infamous “hut tax” that the British (and other colonial powers) used to destroy the self-sufficient local economies of Africa during the colonial era. (1) It was simply a small annual tax, payable only in national currency, that forced the indigenous people to sell their labor and their local commodities for that currency. Local economies quickly unraveled and turned into a market for British goods and a source of labor and raw materials.
With her cow, the woman has far more milk than her family can consume. To whom will she give the surplus? Because she must pay back a monetary loan, like it or not she will give it to those willing and able to pay for it. If the cow had been free, and she’d had no compulsion to earn money, she might have distributed the milk through the channels of a traditional gift network. With a financial obligation hanging over her head, she cannot do this even if she wants to. Following this thread farther, who are those willing and able to pay for milk? They are those who themselves earn a cash income. People who need milk cannot get it if they are living mostly in a gift economy. The entry of a new “business” into the village nudges it away from traditional reciprocity networks and toward the world of money.
If it weren’t for the interest on the loan, the infusion of $500 into the community might not be a bad thing. It is often the case in modern impoverished communities that people have goods and services to exchange but lack the means to exchange them because of the breakdown of gift culture. The original owner of the cow might use the money to pay villagers for things he needs, and when that money eventually circulates back to the woman who bought the cow, many needs have been met, and nothing has been lost. Even if all the money goes back to the investor, at least no money has left the village.
If the loan bears interest, it is a different story entirely. Making an interest-bearing loan to this woman is tantamount to extracting money from her village. Imagine thinking, “Ah, in this village there is wealth that has not yet been converted into money. I am going to take some of it! I am going to make them my debt slaves.” Not a very charitable impulse.
One of the key attractions of local currencies is that they ensure that money stays in the community. An interest-bearing loan of internationally convertible currency does the opposite — it sucks money out of the community. The woman sells the milk to a local cheese maker, who sells cheese to a carpenter, who builds a cow shed for the woman, and so on. The money circulates and circulates, but it cannot stay in the community forever because the debt must be repaid. As for the interest, that can only be paid if local people sell something to the outside world. The pressure on the woman to pay interest is passed on to the community in the form of milk prices. This is the pressure that drives people in poor countries to work in factories and plantations. In a monetized economy, where the original gift networks have collapsed, you need money to live. You will sell whatever you can-your labor, your time, your environment-in order to get it.
Economists will tell you that as long as the local economy is growing faster than the interest rate on the milch cow loan (or actually, the totality of loans issued to the village), the village can pay off the principal and interest and still grow wealthier. In other words, if the whole village, like the woman with the cow, sells new goods and services at a higher rate than the interest rate, it will be able to make its payments and prosper. But now the same question repeats itself: where does the money come from? On a global level, interest-based investing compels competition and the endless depletion of the social, natural, cultural, and spiritual commons — the conversion of the gift economy into a money economy. (2)
How obvious it is that sacred investing has little to do with turning a profit. If you want to help the village, then give a woman a cow. Or if her dignity demands it, lend the money at zero interest (which is a gift of the use of money). If you care more about increasing your monetary wealth instead, then do that instead and forget the pretense. The saying is true: you cannot serve two masters. In both the examples I gave, at some point the conflicting agendas come to the surface, and one must choose: to serve God or Mammon. But this choice will no longer pertain in a sacred economy. The two will be united — part of a more general reunion of opposites that motivates the phrase the Age of Reunion to describe the coming time.
Socially conscious investments that promise a good rate of return are “robbing Peter to pay Paul”-with a commission on the transaction for oneself. I hope the foregoing explanation was unnecessary to most of my readers. After all, basic common sense tells us that there is a problem with the idea of good works motivated by profit. Profit might sometimes happen incidentally, but a gift that comes with a coerced demand for a greater gift in return is not a gift at all, but a ruse or a plunder.
Is that really who you are, to enforce a coldhearted separation in your life between business and other human relationships? When you invest money at interest, you are indirectly participating in telling some poor chap, “I don’t care what you have to do to get it — give me the money!” Your certificate of deposit is someone else’s foreclosure threat. You may not be acting like Ebenezer Scrooge, but you are paying someone else to.
If interest-generating investments are fundamentally unethical, contributing to the despoliation of the natural and social commons, then obviously we should not invest money at interest. The same goes for any investment that drives the expansion of the realm of goods and services. As socially conscious investors, you don’t want to contribute to the monetization of life and nature.
There is no escape from this principle. Occasionally I receive emails from people in the financial industry who read my work and describe their ideas on socially or environmentally conscious investment. I then propose my own idea: an investment fund that has, as an explicit goal, a zero return on investment. For some reason, none of the financial professionals to whom I suggested this has ever contacted me again! In a negative-interest money economy, though, a zero return on investment would be considered quite good.
I am not advocating an age of altruism in which we forgo personal benefit for the common good. I foresee, rather, a fusion of personal benefit and common good. For example, when I give money to people in my community, I create feelings of gratitude that might motivate a return gift to me or an onward gift to someone else. Either way, I have strengthened the community that sustains me. When we are embedded in gift community, we naturally direct our gratitude not only toward the proximate giver but toward the community as a whole, and we take care of its neediest members (gifts seek needs). Our desire to give may very well express itself as a gift to someone in the community who has given us nothing herself. Therefore, we can see any gift, even one without expectation of direct return, as a form of “investment.” We are still taking naked money and, if it is a good investment, clothing it in something fine. A poor investment clothes it in something ugly. It is just that simple.
The negative-interest currency of the future will align the spirit of the gift with economic self-interest, and zero-interest loans will no longer feel like a sacrifice. After all, holding on to the money brings a return of less than zero. In the time remaining to us before such a system takes over, it apparently goes against rational self-interest to lend money at no interest, or to give it away. That, however, is a very shortsighted self-interest because while the present money system may easily disintegrate in the next few years, the ties of gratitude that gifts create will persist through any social tumult. If you are someone who is concerned about Peak Oil or one of the other collapse scenarios, the best security you can have is to ensconce yourself in a gift network. Start being a giver now. Ten million dollars might be just so many slips of paper in a few years. This is another way that what you give in “this world” might be your treasure in the next.
If you want to create a world of abundance, a world of gratitude, a world of the gift, you can start by using today’s money, while it still exists, to create more gratitude in the world. If we have a large enough reservoir of gratitude, then our society can withstand practically anything. Again, we live in a world of fundamental abundance that we have, through our beliefs and habits, rendered artificially poor. So badly have we damaged planet and spirit that it will require a full outpouring of all our gifts to heal it. The outpouring of gifts comes from gratitude. Therefore, the best investment you can make with your money is to generate gratitude. It doesn’t matter if the gratitude recognizes you as the giver. Ultimately, the proper object of gratitude is the Giver of all our own gifts, of our world, of our lives.
To get ready for that economy, and to live today in its spirit, instead of investing money with the purpose of making more of it, we shift the focus of investment toward using accumulated money as the gift that it is: a gift from the old world to the new, a gift from the ancestors to the future. It is analogous to the gifts of life, of mother’s milk, of food and sensory stimulation and all the things that build us into adults, which we receive in order that we may enter adulthood and give onward of these gifts. The question, then, is how to use money in the consciousness of a gift. If you are not an investor, then the question becomes one of right livelihood.
Old Accumulations to New Purposes
The question “What are wealthy individuals to do with their pile of money?” suggests a broader one: What are we as a society to do with the accumulated wealth of thousands of years? What is this wealth, anyway, if not actually or no longer “deferred consumption”?
Let us also revisit the essence of money. What exactly is it that accumulates in these vast accumulations of money? Money consists of ritual talismans by which we coordinate human intention and activity. Those who possess an accumulation of money have, at their disposal, the means to focus and organize society’s labor. The increase of money can come only at the cost of the nonmonetized realm, but the expenditure of money can restore that realm as long as that expenditure is not an investment that seeks the further commodification of the social or natural commons. Money can be used to buy logging equipment to clear-cut a forest; equally it can be used to preserve and guard that forest. The first use is money creation; the second is money destruction (because it generates no further goods and services). Either way, accumulated money bestows the ability to coordinate human activity on a large scale.
The image of sitting atop the accumulated wealth of centuries of exploitation is of particular relevance to the baby boom generation, the last to have come of age during the zenith of our civilization. They have a foot in both worlds, the old and the new. They have access (many of them) to the pile of wealth from the old world, but they are young enough that their consciousness has shifted into alignment with the new. My generation, once called Generation X, is different. Many of us, even from educated backgrounds, never had a foot in the old world. By the time we came of age, it was so obviously bankrupt that we couldn’t bring ourselves to make our fortunes there. For someone entering adulthood in the 1960s or 1970s, it was still possible to believe in the project of ascent; it was still possible to fully participate in the Story of the People: conquering space, conquering the atom, mastering the universe, onward and upward. I imagine that if I’d been born in 1957 rather than 1967 (or if my father hadn’t given me Silent Spring, 1984, and A People’s History of the United States to read as a teenager) I would have followed the Program and would be a math professor at a university somewhere today. But it was not to be. By the time I came of age in the eighties, our story of the people was no longer compelling. I, and millions like me, basically dropped out. Of course I am vastly overgeneralizing, but I think there is truth in saying that whereas the children of the fifties and sixties became millionaire programmers for Microsoft, the children of the seventies and eighties are playing with Linux. This is not to impute any moral failing onto the Microsoft millionaires! In their day, it was still possible for a dynamic, visionary twenty-something to be excited about what was going on in the commercial software industry. The same goes for the central institutions of politics, academia, the arts, science, medicine, and so on. Of course, even then the inevitable denouement of the story of Ascent was apparent to those with eyes to see, as it had been apparent to mystics for thousands of years. For most, though, the crises were too far off, and the ideology of human dominion too deeply ingrained, to divert them from full participation in the project of ascent.
The social dynamics of which I speak are in part an America-centric phenomenon, but I think they generalize to a world that is on the cusp of a new age. Like the American baby boomers, the world sits on top of a huge pile of wealth, the end product of ten thousand years of culture and technology. We have a mighty industrial infrastructure; we have roads and airplanes; we have a vast apparatus already in existence that, for centuries, has been devoted toward the expansion of the human realm and the conquest of the natural. The time has come to turn the tools of separation, dominance, and control toward the purpose of reunion, the healing of the world. Just as the wealthy baby boomer or heir of fortunes past can turn her wealth toward a beautiful purpose, and not worry that the wealth is somehow tainted by its origins, so also do we have the opportunity and the responsibility to use the accumulated fruits of our domination of the earth in a beautiful way. This is true even of the most heinous, exploitative technologies — such as genetic engineering and nuclear fission — that have taken the program of control to its pinnacle of hubris. In the age of interest, that is the age of growth, the primary motivating force behind any new technology was to open up new realms for the conversion of natural or social wealth into money. Genetic engineering enabled the genome to become an exploitable natural resource, just as the steam engine enabled the mining of deep-seam coal and the iron plow the breaking of heavy sod. What will technology look like when devoted to the opposite purpose — the restoration of the planet’s health?
When humanity as a whole goes through the same shift of consciousness that so many individuals have gone through in the last few decades that expelled them from the Matrix, who knows to what purposes we will turn the technologies of profit? When humanity is no longer under compulsion to grow its realm, we will turn our collective ingenuity and the amassed knowledge, information, and technology of the ages toward purposes aligned with the consciousness of ecology, connectedness, and healing. This is not to say that technology won’t change. Technologies that are dominant today will retreat to marginal applications, while marginal technologies, including those dismissed or ridiculed today, will come to the fore.
Whether it is the application of accumulated technology or accumulated money, we want to be sure that we are not using it in the old mode: as a tool to achieve more separation from nature or more financial wealth. That is why I suggest the concept of using money to destroy money. By this I mean to use money to restore and protect the natural, social, cultural, and spiritual commons from which it was originally created. This has the effect of hastening the collapse and mitigating its severity. Usury-money is subject to a grow-or-die imperative. Any item of social or natural capital that we make off-limits to commoditization hastens the demise of usury-money; it “starves the beast.” The realm within which (monetized) goods and services can expand shrinks. Every forest we prevent from being turned into board feet, every piece of land we remove from development, every person we teach to heal herself and others, every indigenous culture we insulate from cultural imperialism is one less place for money to colonize. The efforts of liberals and reformers, though impotent to halt the onward progress of the Machine, have not been in vain. Pollution limits, for instance, have kept at least a portion of the skies from being converted into money. Labor standards have prevented at least a part of workers’ well-being from being converted into money. The antiwar movement makes the war business less profitable. Right-wing criticisms of pro-environment, pro-labor, antiwar policies are correct — they do hurt economic growth. If I go to an indigenous culture, convince its people that subsistence farming is degrading and primitive, and induce them instead to work in a factory and join the market economy, then GDP rises (and I’ve created an “investment opportunity”). If, on the other hand, I inspire people to abandon their high-paying jobs and “go back to the land,” then GDP falls. If I create a community where we no longer pay for child care but instead care for each others’ children cooperatively, then GDP falls. And if we succeed in protecting the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, that’s tens of billions of dollars that will never materialize. That is why I say we are using money to destroy money. Sometimes, the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house.
Another way to look at it is that these efforts to protect a portion of the commonwealth raise the “bottom” to which we must fall before a transformation to a new world can crystallize. My use of the language of addiction recovery is deliberate. The dynamics of usury-money are addiction dynamics, requiring an ever-greater dose (of the commons) to maintain normality, converting more and more of the basis of well-being into money for a fix. If you have an addict friend, it won’t do any good to give her “help” of the usual kind, such as money, a car to replace the one she crashed, or a job to replace the one she lost. All of those resources will just go down the black hole of addiction. So too it is with our politicians’ efforts to prolong the age of growth.
Thanks to the efforts of generations of do-gooders, we will still have a portion of our divine bequest. There is still goodness in the soil; there are still healthy forests here and there; there are still fish in some parts of the ocean; there are still people and cultures that haven’t completely sold off their health and creativity. This remaining natural, social, and spiritual capital is what will carry us through the transition and form the basis to heal the world.
If you are an investor, it is time to shift your focus entirely to the creation of connections, the generation of gratitude, and the reclamation and protection of the commonwealth. The time for the mind-set of wealth preservation is over. Wealth preservation brings to mind a swarm of rats, each clambering over the others to reach the top mast of a sinking ship. Instead, they could cooperate to gather the pieces to build a raft that is seaworthy. We have a long voyage ahead of us.
The same principles that apply to right investing apply also to right livelihood; indeed, right livelihood and right investment are two sides of the same coin. If right investing uses money as gift to support the creation of a more beautiful world, then right livelihood accepts that gift as it does that work.
Traditional employment receives money for helping expand the monetized realm. We find that in order to earn money, we must participate in the conversion of the good, the true, and the beautiful into money. That is because of the money system — credit ultimately goes to those who can most effectively create new goods and services (or take it from those who create them). An interest-based money system exerts a systemic pressure to convert the commonwealth into money, and the highest remuneration goes to those who do that most effectively. You want to get rich? Invent a way to chop down trees more efficiently. Create an advertising campaign that persuades other nations to drink Coke instead of indigenous beverages. Seeing the workings of the global economy, many idealistic young people decide they want no part of it. I get letters from them all the time. “I want no part of this. I want to do what I love in a way that hurts no one. But there is no money in that. How do I survive?” How do you survive, not to mention access the large amounts of money to do great things, in a world that rewards the destruction of the very things you want to create?
Fortunately, there are people today who will give you money to do things that won’t create more of it. These are precisely the people (or organizations or governments) that follow the spirit of “right investing” described above. Of course, living off the charity of others is no solution if they have to work all the harder (at the business of destruction) in order to earn the money they give to you. However, as I have observed, humanity possesses vast stores of wealth in many forms, the accumulation of centuries of exploitation, that can now be turned to other purposes, for example to preserve and restore natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital. Doing this won’t create more money; therefore whoever is paying for it is ultimately giving a gift.
In other words, the key to “right livelihood” is to live off of gifts. These can come in subtle forms. For example, say you sell fair-trade products. When someone buys one, at several multiples the cost of a functionally equivalent sweatshop product, the cost difference is essentially a gift. (3) They didn’t have to pay that much. The same is true if your work is to install solar water heaters or build shelters for the homeless. Many traditional social service jobs, like social work, teaching, and so on, partake in the energy of the gift as long as they don’t contribute to the more efficient operation of the earth-devouring machine, for example by training children to be efficient producers and mindless consumers. The source of the money could be a buyer, a foundation, or even the government. What makes it a gift is the motive — that it does not aim to get the cheapest price or generate even more money in return. Traditional employment is the opposite: I pay you a wage and profit from your productivity (of salable goods and services), which exceeds your wage. Traditional employment assists in the conversion of the world into money.
In a subtle way, any endeavor that shrinks the money realm draws on gifts. If you offer reskilling courses, train holistic healers, or teach permaculture, you are ultimately shrinking the realm of goods and services. Tracing the money you receive from such endeavors back to its origin, somewhere down the line someone has made a “bad investment,” violating the principle that governs money creation today: “Money goes to those who will make even more of it.” It is no accident that there is usually little money to be made in reversing the conversion of life and the world into money.
If you are partial to principles, you might say that right livelihood abides by two. It applies your time, energy, and other gifts toward something that enhances, preserves, or restores some aspect of the commonwealth, and the money (or other return gift) that comes in return does not require for its providence harm to nature and people. Or to put it simply, it benefits other beings and does not harm other beings. I, however, don’t live by principles; nor do I recommend it. Shall I attempt to calculate the relative costs and benefits of printing this book? It uses wood pulp from trees on the one hand; it might inspire people to create earth-sustaining systems on the other. People are adept at construing their choices in a way that aligns them with their principles; if the disconnect is too great, they alter their principles and pretend they held them all along.
Therefore, when it comes to right livelihood, I trust what feels good and right. What, you might ask, if it feels good and right to market toothpaste or work for a hedge fund or design nuclear weapons? I would say, then do it. First, because as your awareness of the world grows, such work may no longer feel good and right. Second, because you will condition yourself to trusting that feeling, it will continue to guide you when it comes time to quit that job and do something courageous. Third, because denying our inner yearnings for the sake of principle is part of the story of Ascent, of overcoming nature. The idea that our desires are evil, that we must conquer them for the sake of something higher, is its interior reflection. It is the same mind-set that refrains from generosity, because what if I cannot afford it? The self-trust I advocate is inseparable from the basic premise of this book, laid out in Chapter 1: we are born into gratitude, born into the need and the desire to give.
In other words, trust that it is not your true desire to comply with the conversion of the world into money. Trust that you want to do beautiful things with your life.
In right livelihood, then, I suggest that we orient ourselves toward our need and desire to give. I suggest that we look at the world with eyes of, “What opportunity is there to give?” and “How may I best give of my gifts?” Hold that intention in mind, and unexpected opportunities arise. Quickly, any situation in which you are not giving your life gifts toward something that is good to you becomes intolerable.
It is OK if “what feels good and right” is merely feeding your family. The key is the attitude of service. If you attempt to guilt yourself into right livelihood, you will likely end up with its counterfeit. Some entire nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are but enormous vanity projects, elaborate ways to allow people to approve of themselves. That’s all ego. The purpose of right livelihood is not so you get to have a positive self-image. People who do it for that reason are quite obvious from their defensiveness, sanctimony, and self-righteousness. The purpose of right livelihood is to give your energies toward something you love. The concept should feel liberating, not like a moral burden, not another thing you are supposed to do right in order to be good.
To enter more deeply into right livelihood, bow into service each day. Trust your desire to give, remember how good it feels, and be open to opportunities to do so, especially when they are just at the edge of your courage. And if they are beyond the edge of your courage, don’t torment yourself. The fears that block your givingness are not an enemy. They form a cocoon of safety. When we grow, the fears that were once protective become limiting; we become impatient with them and seek to break free. That impatience bears new courage. Today, this growth process is happening to humanity generally. The program of Ascent that once seemed good and right to us — pushing the frontiers of science, conquering the universe, triumphing over nature — seems right no longer, as the consequences of that ambition become painfully hard to ignore. Collectively we have entered a crisis moment, in which the old is intolerable and the new has not yet manifested (not as a common vision, though it has for many individuals).
So, when it comes to right livelihood or right investment, let us be gentle. For ourselves and others, let us trust the natural desire to give, and let us trust the natural growth process that propels us toward it. Instead of attempting to guilt ourselves and others into it (and generating resistance to our sanctimony), we can offer opportunities and encouragement to give, and we can be generous with our appreciation and celebration of the gifts of others. We can see others not as selfish, greedy, ignorant, or lazy people who just “don’t get it,” but rather as divine beings who desire to give to the world; we can see that and speak to that and know it so strongly that our knowing serves as an invitation to ourselves and others to step into that truth.
1. See, e.g., Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa, London. Abacus. pp. 497-98.
2. A slight caveat: in theory, if the interest rate is no higher than the default risk premium, then there will be no necessity for economic growth and the monetization of the commons. The relevant components of the real interest rate, however, are the liquidity premium and the market rate for money, determined by supply, demand, and government monetary policy. These represent profit from the mere ownership of money, which is indefensible based on the arguments of Chapters 4 and 5.
3. I am aware that “fair trade” has become in many instances a brand that covers up the usual exploitation of labor and commoditization of culture, but the principle still applies.