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Material of Wealth
The Understory: Issue Twenty-Four
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I’ve been thinking a lot about our coordinates when it comes to size and scale as evidenced by Issue Twenty-Three. A technological civilization that can transport humans to any place on Earth in less than 24 hours relative to our land-based ancestors who for most of human history may have travelled a thousand kilometres in a lifetime. Or the seventh generation imaginings of the Iroquois contrasted with the most powerful institutions of our time who concede to value being created and measured quarterly. Perceptions of time, space, and culture shape our worldviews of the possible and influence our respective roles in bringing about that future. In light of our astounding ability to jump space & time, now seems like the ideal time to be asking the question: what is the future economy we hope to create?
In Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), E.F. Schumacher begins with the question “is there enough to go around?” Before answering Schumacher’s question, we must first identify the materials of enoughness and who might be able to advise us about it. We seem to have more than enough choice in our consumptive lives, but do we have enough wealth in what materializes well-being? When Schumacher proposed his question of enoughness nearly fifty years ago, there were roughly half as many people on the planet. Some (but still very few) were beginning to grasp that the earth likely could not sustain the current trajectory of economic and population growth as articled in The Limits to Growth (1972). And while we can point to many parts of the globe with significant populations that have risen out of poverty in that time, we also have increasing indicators of economic stagnation and even regression in many so-called developed nations alongside the collapse of biodiversity, global ice coverage, ocean life, and consistent access to freshwater. We have enough jam and airborne carbon dioxide, but not enough culture, language, nature, and belonging.
Issue Twenty-Four seeks to expand on “Issue Eleven: How Unequal Does It Feel?” into the broader context of economic and societal wealth. Our concepts of well-being are interwoven into the economic “wealth creation” systems that either endow or extract it. In order to foster new economies that place human and natural well-being at the centre, we can find rich terrain in the worldviews that brought forward our current moment—both in what we have adopted and what we have displaced. This issue will consider how we might emerge new sources of well-being by looking at wealth creation in different economies: stretching back tens of thousands of years to Indigenous economies through to the writings of E.F. Schumacher, Mariana Mazzucato, Daniel Kahneman, Carol Anne Hilton, and David Korten. From the other side of this essay, I hope to have arrived at a more complete picture of what makes for a well-being economy with some of the ingredients that will materialize it.
The Stories We Tell & Reject
Stop for a moment and consider when you hear the word wealth, what do you imagine?
What comes into your mind’s eye is largely based on the conditioning narratives of how wealth has been demonstrated throughout your life—both real and fictionalized. While I am ashamed and a bit disgusted to admit it, the images that come to my mind are large houses, private planes, yachts, and fancy cars. The frightening part is that I know I am not alone in this. For many of us, wealth is quantified as the accumulation of material things, and yet we acknowledge that little if any of it leads to well-being, nor that our accumulation leads to the dispossession of others (David Harvey). Material wealth is the aspirational end game of our current economic system, with well-being considered its externality.
Our ways of understanding well-being are psychologically much more nuanced than what we are often led to believe according to the research of Daniel Kahneman & Jason Riis. In "Living, and Thinking about It: Two Perspectives on Life” (2005), the authors differentiate our feelings of well-being between two selves: the remembering/evaluating self and the experiencing self. Well-being research typically aligns with the eudaemonic approach that emerged from the Aristotelian idea of the “good life” by asking the remembering self to retrieve, integrate, and evaluate memories. However, Kahneman & Riis want us to reconsider the value of the experiencing self and not just because decades of Kahneman’s research revealed the distorting effects of memories. Humans experience some 20,000 moments in a waking day and upwards of 500 million moments in a 70-year life. Should we just discount those real-time moments as unimportant measures of well-being and wealth creation?
Kahneman & Riis find that there is typically a radical discontinuity in the well-being accounting between the two-selves. The remembering self is prone to discount the majority of the moments in favour of a momentary high or low, particularly if it happens towards the end of an experience. They share the story of someone enjoying a long symphony. In the last moments of the symphony the compact disk skips (remember those?) and interrupts the experience. What Kahneman & Riis find is that while the listener’s experience was almost entirely good, the remembering self heavily weights the unpleasant experience of the ending rather than the much more prolonged happiness. The disk skipping did not undo all the pleasure of the time before it, but the remembering self discounts it. Thus, Kahneman & Riis propose that we take a hybrid approach to understanding well-being that looks at both the experiencing and remembering selves. Otherwise, we are only telling ourselves part of the story.
In The Value of Everything (2018), Mariana Mazzucato invites us to decolonize our own worldviews by retracing the historic steps to our economic imaginations of value creation and productivity. To see ideas and to cultivate possibilities that will lead to planetary regeneration instead of collapse. To tell the stories that form the character, culture, and behaviour of who we want to be in the future we hope to create. Plato advocates in The Republic that “our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest...The greater part of the stories today we have to reject.” We may individually not have agency over the world’s grand narratives, but we can choose to question and build practices around our own narratives. Mazzucato calls for us to shift our discussions and stories:
“To create a fairer economy, one where prosperity is more broadly shared and is therefore more sustainable, we need to invigorate a serious discussion about the nature and origin of value. We must reconsider the stories we are telling about who the value creators are, and what that says to us about how we define activities as economically productive and unproductive. We cannot limit progressive politics to taxing wealth, but require a new understanding of and debate about wealth creation so that it is more fiercely and openly contested.”
What is required is a fundamental shift in our understanding of value and how it is created in our society. To do so, I’d like to begin with a different story of wealth.
In her book Indigenomics: Taking a Seat at the Economic Table (2021), Carol Anne Hilton explains that from an Indigenous worldview, wealth is inherently about relationships—connections to other species, places, and ancestors. Relational wealth is situated within its social and spiritual context where it emerges from the abundance of giving. In an interview Hamilton cites with Clint Davis, he describes the Indigenous worldview of wealth rooted in cultural longevity:
"Wealth is the way that my family places remarkable value on our connection to the land and what we do on the land. This includes our access to the land to be able to participate in certain activities: cultural, ceremonial, or spiritual. Being able to do that is wealth. Wealth from an Indigenous perspective has to accomodate the ability to do these activities over time and in the future. Wealth can be described in terms of the strength of our people and community: what we have experienced for hundreds and hundreds of years and how the strength of the community leads to greater wealth over time."
Indigenous economies centre on giving, and they materialize in ceremony. As Dara Kelly shares in “Feed the people and you will never go hungry: Illuminating Coast Salish economy of affection (2017),” economies were “embedded” in the ceremonies of the Coast Salish people and thus the heart of formal economic exchange. This is why Kelly attributes the introduction of the Potlatch Ban as the moment of economic unfreedom, or what Hilton describes as the “disruption of the concept of wealth” in Indigenous communities by the colonists.
When the colonists arrived on North American shores, they carried with them the economic narrative and motivation of wealth through material accumulation. Even the missionaries were complicit in this conquest of accumulation. The immaterial life was one largely reserved for the afterlife. It was this “descending dominating economy” that Hilton describes accompanying the worldview of missionaries such as Father Brabant who perceived Indigenous Peoples as unproductive:
“He was unable to see that access to resources was based on relationships and that the economic functions of distribution, wealth generation, and productivity were further expressed and confirmed through the ceremonies of the potlatch system of recognition, relationship, and circulation of wealth.”
Hilton challenges us to reconsider circulation as a productive act, where value is created in exchange. Hilton, Kelly, Kimmerer, Mitchell, Yunkaporta, Goodchild, and many others gift the very knowledge and stories that reconnect the social, spiritual, and economic. They write of an economic system that recognizes the circulation of wealth is what actually makes one wealthy, while simultaneously advancing everyone’s well-being. As Hilton appropriately calls for, the reciprocal response that is needed in this moment is the restoration of Indigenomics at the economic table. It is from that very table that the historic disruption can begin to be reconciled.
Measuring Wealth & Value
Even within our material economies we seem to have lost the economic thread for what creates real versus measured value by disassociating value from productivity. While classical economic thought (François Quesnay, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx) differed in their conceptions of who and what were productive market activities (they shared agreement about relationship with the land), Mazzucato argues that their differences were more minor than the current “marginalist” thinking about value creation. Competition and supply & demand of scarce resources are the monikers of “marginalist revolutionaries” who shape the neoliberal economic systems we live in today. Mazzucato says what replaced theories around productivity “was the notion that it is only whatever fetches a price in the market (legally) that be termed productive activity.” Price has become the proxy for value. Many of the activities that were once deemed as productive are no longer considered as such if their price declines or has no market price ascribed such as within giving circles. Is a natural asset less valuable if its price declines? Are the only things that are valuable those that have a determinable price?
While I am cautious about turning The Understory into a repository of economic theory, I do think this notion of value is an important one in considering both how we quantify and aspire toward the world we are hoping to create. In the end, what we place value upon is what we will direct our systems and attention toward. As David Korten writes in Agenda for a New Economy (2009), GDP measures this flow of resources through the economy: inputs, processing, consumption, and disposal. By measuring economic performance by the speed and volume by which resources move through the economy “to become toxic waste, the wealthier we are.” Or at least we suppose that we are.
Of course, we’ve known for quite some time that GDP has placed us on a collision course with the natural limits of the planet while simultaneously compounding social inequality. Our gut response to GDP has been validated by such studies as “Beyond GDP: Measuring and achieving global genuine progress” (2013), which found that while global Gross Domestic Product increased more than three-fold since 1950, economic welfare decreased since 1978.
In 1968 Robert Kennedy famously gave a speech at the University of Kansas denouncing GDP’s failure to distinguish between well-being enhancing and reducing activities:
“Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product...counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities...It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Less than three months later Kennedy was assassinated. Jimmy Carter embraced a relational wealth ethos nearly a decade later. As Bill McKibben writes in the 2010 Foreward to Small is Beautiful, Carter was a fan of Schumacher and even went so far as to give a speech saying “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” At the time, Carter seemingly had much of the general public on his side. Sociologist Amitai Etzioni found that only 30 percent of Americans were “pro-growth,” leaving the other 70 percent as either “anti-growth” or “highly uncertain.” Etzioni is said to have warned Carter that this level of ambivalence was “too stressful for societies to endure.” It turned out Etzioni was right. Many attribute Carter’s position as an austerity “idealogue” to be a primary reason for Reagan unseating him in the 1980 presidential campaign. The American people grew weary of material austerity while the sense of belonging and relational well-being was radically declining as Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone (2000).
We are in a new political era that recognizes we are not just in a planetary crisis, but more broadly a crisis of humanity. An era in which Mazzucato is altering conceptions of the role and importance of governments in the halls of power. When Kate Raworth’s Doughnut provides new measures for human and planetary well-being that are currently reshaping plans for cities around the world such as Melbourne and Amsterdam. When new indices centred on human and planetary flourishing such as Gross National Happiness (GNH) & Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) finally take flight. When we recognize Indigenous wealth systems as rights holders at the economic table.
Bold thinking often emerges out of crisis. On the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, Manfred Max-Neef delivered “The World on a Collision Course and the Need for a New Economy” to the Colloquium at Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences proposing new evaluative criteria for our economies. His five postulates serve as both an audit for our current economic system and an aspirational framework for desired well-being:
Postulate 1. “The economy is to serve the people, and not the people to serve the economy.”
Postulate 2. “Development is about people and not about objects”.
Postulate 3. “Growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.”
Postulate 4. “No economy is possible in the absence of eco-system services.”
Postulate 5. “The economy is a sub-system of a larger and finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.”
Max-Neef also added one accompanying value principle that should persevere across any economic system: “No economic interest, under any circumstance, can be above the reverence for life.”
A new economy demands a different kind of thinking about economics. As Mazzucato invokes, “To offer real change we must go beyond fixing isolated problems, and develop a framework that allows us to shape a new type of economy: one that will work for the common good.” We have the frameworks. Now we need the political will to bring them to life.
Our wealth is the outcome of decisions in the private and public spheres. Just as our current economy of material accumulation through dispossession was constructed, so too may a different well-being economy emerge for present and future generations. That healing process can only begin if we question the very assumptions around what makes economies productive, equitable, and sustainable. In order to arrive at greater societal well-being, we must redefine notions of wealth itself.
We have historic and contemporary guides to direct the path away from material wealth and towards relational wealth to each other and the planet. It requires the requantification of economic assumptions such as value, price, and productivity into well-being measures that place human and planetary flourishing at their centre rather than the periphery. Our accounting should delineate between resource regenerating and depleting activities. Our measures should chart the culture tide of compassion. In this very search for how to regenerate what we have destroyed, we are beginning to rediscover the relational wealth that we once knew. To renew economic freedom. We are returning to the realization that human interconnection with other species and the planet is the material foundation of our well-being.
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
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Why I Write The Understory
We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The scale of the issue demands not only continuous focus but also the courage to take bold action. I've found that the persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
The Understory is my way of organizing the natural and human-made curiosities that capture my attention. Within the words, research, and actions of others lies the inspiration for personal and organizational journeys. I hope that my work here will help to inform not just my persistent consciousness, but yours as well.