Cue lots of good tunes to dance along to, dirty cash has certainly given us some great cultural highlights. However, this post explores the overwhelming sense I’m feeling that, not only is the financial system utterly broken, but we desperately need to drag ourselves away from the notion that the economy is on the same level as society or the environment. As a sustainability consultant, I was taught to use the three P’s, People, Planet, Profit, as the underpinning of most of my work. I threw out that model in my own practice years ago, preferring the following simplified version to frame work.
This model, clearly lays out what feeds on what in reality. The environment supports society, all our fundamental resources are taken from this; food, water, materials. Our society then uses these resources to generate an economy; without society no functioning economy would exist. And yet, in the chaotic world we live in, the economy has been raised to a God-like status, omnipotent and amorphous. We are but cogs in the wheel of productivity, measured by Growth Domestic Product.
I am no expert in economics. I come, unashamedly, from a background rooted in nature, having built parks and playgrounds with impoverished communities, and then lobbying for policies that protected and enhanced green spaces and their communities. Over time, I was forced within that field to shape my language to that of economics, as we moved into valuing Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services and other numerical metrics applied to a glorious non-linear system.
It always stuck in my throat as I navigated these new terms, teaching them to others and widening their use. I wrote my master’s thesis on Cultural Ecosystem Services, those benefits that humans derive from nature but which are difficult to monetise. My conclusions were that, much like Schrödinger’s cat, as soon as we start to place a monetary value on these things, their value changes. Once at a conference, I was firmly put in my place by a presenter when I challenged this measure of value — “if you believe that, then try waving a poem in the face of a Finance Director”. In hindsight, I would have defended my position; aren’t we touched to our souls by poetry, art, music and prose, along with a breathtaking view or the dramatic details that nature provides. These things are without value, far from a spreadsheet, yet often far more meaningful and important.
A few weeks away from the start of COP27 and I read an utterly brilliant article by Naomi Klein. I study the awful and tragic links to fully understand the whole. It is no wonder that climate activists face such disparaging and often vitriolic abuse when undertaking non-violent protest. My small local group, made up of teachers, retired church-goers, mums, artists, just normal people, regularly receive a torrent of abuse to their posts on social media. They work, as volunteers, to build community action. Their current project is around creating a climate hub, a physical space where community groups can gather, teach, share and learn, for themselves and the public alike. It promises to tick lots of boxes for statutory organisations too, in terms of their climate and biodiversity ambitions and yet, they get kicked at every opportunity.
The forthcoming COP, sponsored partly by that well-known pinnacle of a sustainable business, Coca Cola (fully sarcastic, sorry!), has itself a horrendous carbon footprint. And for what? As a mechanism to deploy global transformation in an emergency, it is doomed to the usual failures of negotiation and political gamesmanship. Like the world around us, carbon emissions continue to grow and little action at the top of the policy-making sphere accounts for the urgency. Instead our biosphere nears the limits of its absorbancy capacity and feared feedback loops begin and intensify. The planet doesn’t care for these negotiations, it just dances its cosmic dance, its nature (us included) responding to the polllutants, chemicals and gases released, for better or worse.
The God-like economy is now failing, much like it did in the 2008 financial crisis. This time it feels more entrenched, a death-spiral of words; inflation, stagflation, cost-of-living crisis, recession, weakening growth, uncertainty. I read often that the markets look foward, clever things. As a non-economist these words are meaningless. I can comprehend supply-chain issues as an outcome of the Ukraine war, grain and energy now weaponised. The disasters of austerity as fiscal policy are now followed by disasters of the cost-of-living crisis. Now call me a crazy layman, but aren’t they one and the same to the person on the street? Wages have remained low for years, goods, services, food and energy costs increase, businesses fold and jobs are tenuous. Either way, whatever you call it, it feels the same at the bottom.
Many moons ago a book came out called The Spirit Level. It showed how inequality, the division gap between the rich and the poor, leads to detrimental results across health and social problems. The research held true across regions and countries; the more inequality you have in a society, the more social problems. Since its release in 2009, our world has become ever more unequal. Less than 3,000 individuals control 3.5% of the world’s wealth, more than half the global population share only 2%. Just read that sentence again for a second and take a moment to truly reflect on what that means. It’s obscene.
Now some folks will probably say that these billionaires have worked hard to get where they are. I’m sure they have, to a degree, but their wealth hasn’t been an individual endeavour, it comes on the backs of countless workers, toiling the daily grind to achieve this level of growth. Many of these workers have terrible conditions put on their labour, or work jobs of unimaginable levels of stress and harm. We all consume goods produced in factories that only occaisionally face reckonings for harm towards their employees. Soon, the dust settles and the profit-making begins again in earnest.
In school you learn maths and, unless you choose to do so, you don’t get taught even the basics of how an economy works. We don’t learn about money creation, how an economy differs from a household budget, how markets work and what the effects are of these things on each of our lives. We are left to learn or not learn, depending on your position and thirst for knowledge.
I started learning because I came from a family who talked politics at the dinner table. Both Mum and Dad, not university schooled, devoured the news and imparted their wisdom and love for learning to us kids. In time, I found books and organisations who filled in the gaps. Money now is created primarily through debt, in some form or another, just numbers in a computer. Debt is largely bestowed upon the poor and the strivers, but for those with control, debt bestows immense wealth and power. This holds true for individuals and countries alike.
As I learnt more about all this mad, money manipulation questions inevitably arise. When does the debt stop, how long into the future are we borrowing from and what, if anything, can be done to recreate an economic system that is fit for purpose? The global economy is driven largely by corperations, banks and financial systems, purely to deliver profit. It comes at great cost to both society and the environment, neither of which are respected much in the pursuit of ever greater growth.
The question of borrowing from the future is really relevant. The UK only stopped paying compensation to slave-owners in 2015, 182 years later. This means the descendants of slaves were paying off slave-owning families for nearly two centuries, a truly sickening revelation. In place today, are international treaties which allow private, profit-making companies to sue Governments for implementing laws that are detrimental to their business. France has just left the Energy Charter Treaty, which is compatible with the Paris Agreement, however the 20-year sunset clause still means the risk of being sued by fossil fuel companies.
I listened to this talk not long ago, the TLDR is that we only need to be spending ~2% of global GDP to meet climate targets. That’s not a horrific number by any stretch, so why isn’t our economy meeting these needs? The idea of perpetual growth on a finite planet is seemingly mad; we already overshoot the world’s carrying capacity earlier every year.
What can be done with this monsterous economic entity that rules our lives and world? It needs a new shape, a new purpose. There are many vested interests who will push back against change, as we already know some folks are doing very well, thank you. Across our planet, we can also recognise that different places will need different systems; the global economy certainly doesn’t fit everywhere comfortably.
At the same time we are seeing new economic models being developed, artists and communities generating local wealth, a rise in cryptocurrencies and decentralised, tokenised assets. Each of these might have some merit in bringing about the change to the economy that our society and planet needs.
Circular economic thinking aims to decouple economic prosperity from the use of raw resources. It puts an end to the throwaway culture we live in, waste is now the resource. Doughnut economics similarily, aims to keep the economy within the boundaries of a healthy society and environmental limits. These new, well constructed principles are a great start for businesses and places to begin their thinking. They need high levels of partnership, collaboration and alternative ways of working to succeed.
In other areas, artists and communities are blowing up debt and generating local wealth. These projects are exciting and dynamic, ensuring that investment in the local area is generated. They also provide opportunities for people to learn what an economy is and how money works.
Digital assets and cryptocurrencies may also be part of the future money system. Bitcoin was established in 2009 and since then the field has spawned over 21,000 cryptocurrencies. Now, many of these are trash and the emerging technology has a raft of challenges to overcome, from regulations to rug pulls, energy consumption to decentralisation. However, in terms of transforming an opaque and amorphous financial system, there is potentially a huge opportunity for individuals to become their own bank. I can make a near instant payment to someone in a far off place, peer to peer, without the need for a middle man. The transaction is recorded on a public ledger. The use cases for some cryptocurrencies are aiming to build real-world capital investment, in both society and the environment.
We are living on a cusp, in times of transition and change, at a faster pace than many of us can keep up with. We need the economy to transform too, far faster than it is at the moment. I feel that all children should be provided with a basic understanding of how an economy functions, certainly all politicians should be tested on their knowledge. Building this knowledge helps untangle the problems and allows us to consider new, improved options. I’m no economist, never wanted to be, but without knowing the fundamentals it is impossible to feel that we have any ability to change a confusing and otherworldly system. Our linear, Capitalist economic doctrine is failing and what replaces it, is down to us.
If you like this article, please give it a clap — you can clap up to 50 times! I write irregularly but around every couple of weeks or so, follow me to be notified when I do. I’m a artist, activist and sustainability consultant, building a new life in Portugal and growing trees. To see more of my writing and support my work, visit — https://www.patreon.com/Postcards_from_Portugal or buy me a coffee https://www.buymeacoffee.com/GClaws. See more of my sustainability efforts at https://futurecologic.co.uk/. Thanks for reading, hope you enjoy it and I welcome any comments or conversation starters below.