Question

Payback Time

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I believe the first thing we must do to understand a macro-economic thesis consonant with our sustained presence on this planet is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we know all about economics or what it requires for transacting a healthy relationship with ourselves and with the earth.

We have come to regard Smith and Marx as the alpha and omega of all political-economic thought. It is not. To say so is equivalent to saying that hunter-gatherer economics or Plato’s economics or some other historical epoch of economic thought was the apex of all economic theory. It was not, nor is the perpetual ‘Either/Or’ war that those brands of economic idea dragged along with them. 

Moreover, even the de facto regard for the earth as “resource” may be outdated and inadequate for understanding what kind of economic history going forward might be expansive enough to include the earth as an agent of its own interests, as much as a resource or product for our market economies. Sure, hot economics and its regard of earth resource as an infinite source of supply is badly flawed. But that discussion, once had, can only be preamble to what kind of economics will replace it in a sane and flourishing world. 

Change, by very little, the Marxian elliptic “Who owns the means of production?” for example, to “Who owns the means of survival?” and see what you get. For one thing, we’d certainly get a legitimate expansion of economic theory obligated to account for the earth in its calculus of supply and demand, or cost-benefit. A calculus of survival that could not be ignored. 

Suddenly, the earth is transformed from a passive object for exploitation to an active agent in negotiating its own economic transactions. Consider, for example, that what the earth provides, in addition to resources, is a whole lot of proprietary concepts which we’ve certainly exploited, but never paid a dime for. The last piece of velcro you unhinged came from nature’s original blueprints for transporting seeds—the hook & loop design. Or any of the thousands of products and processes that employ fibonacci numbers that were first provided us by nature—as the chambers of nautilus shells for example. 

We have moral and survival terms for why we ought to preserve and conserve this planet. However those regulators don’t seem to have worked very well. What if, instead, the earth itself were rationalized and written into our economics. What if we were required to pay the earth fair return for the goods and services we extract from it? Perhaps even regard some of those offerings as proprietary holdings which we had to pay for before we could own or license them? In strictly economic terms, we would need to compensate the planet for using those resources or appropriating those ideas, just as we do with any other transaction that requires mutually beneficial terms in its contract.

Nature, as we know, has no particular preference for “live planets”. There are plenty of perfectly good dead ones scattered around the universe, doing what they do in accordance with what nature permits. As far as we can tell, life-supporting planets are scarce . Even there, nature shows no particular preference for keeping them alive. Galaxies collide, asteroids visit, occupants are free to trash or otherwise terminate themselves and their planets. 

So, whatever there is that attaches some special value to living planets and the life they sustain is going to have to arise out of a regard for those living systems by those sustained by them. It seems quite reasonable, that if economics is the driver of that regard, so too, the impulse to keep the system healthy is going to have to be written into the economic system itself.

To pay back the earth for its supply of resources, we need to offer what earth requires in exchange. We hide those ‘sales slips and purchase orders’, in present economic terms, by treating the earth as a voiceless object of the transaction. We hide the true costs by subsidizing our rapacious appetites; we hide them by ignoring the scars and wounds we leave behind and walking away after we get what we wanted; we hide them by passing them on to future generations.

However, in an earth-active economy we wouldn’t be permitted to do that. Earth would need to be paid for its goods and deliveries. It would need to be paid in repair, in mitigation, in conservation and other ways. What would that look like in an earth-as-a-corporation world?

Well, for one thing, it might mean that the ‘amount due’ might have to be tacked right on to the cost of the goods we make, at point of sale and paid for at the register. It might mean every can of tuna, every product sold, would have earth mitigation, repair and other costs tacked right on to the unit price. You couldn’t buy something unless the bills to the earth were paid out of revenues from each transaction. 

None of this is illustrative of what an earth-economy would look like if sanely and sensitively done (using human representatives to do it). It merely suggests that it would be quite different than anything we’ve done before. To even imagine it, we will have to disabuse ourselves of a good many things we may now feel are indispensable and axiomatic in today’s economic practices.

Given those practices—our little ‘cap&trade’s’, ‘our fracking is better than your coal’, ‘off-shore, outsourcing, get-around’ economics—it’s unlikely such radical ideas as requiring the earth sit at our negotiating tables is not going to happen anytime soon. Something for future generations to contemplate. But its clear, that without adapting some of those ideas about ‘earth as negotiator’ to the current conversation on global economics, there may not be a future generation to make the needed adjustment. 

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“THE WAR ON THE IMAGINATION IS THE ONLY WAR THAT MATTERS — Diane Di Prima

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