In 1984 Fritjof Capra had the bright idea of founding the Elmwood Institute, an ecological think thank. In 1992 I undertook to morph our newsletter into a quarterly journal. In the inaugural issue, on “redefining wealth,” the editor’s letter used the metaphor of the cornucopia to discuss emerging challenges. What is so startling, 20 years later, is that while some of the challenges are now more familiar, they remain far from being met. Perhaps part of resilience is having different goals. Here is a point of view about wealth:
Let lovers of Gaia recall, as the ancient Greeks did, how the goddess of this name gave birth to Zeus. Hid from his murderous father, the baby was nursed with milk from a goat. One of the goat’s horns, broken off, became the first cornucopia, yielding whatever nourishment its possessor desired, including ambrosia (the food of the gods).
American art has generally depicted the cornucopia as spilling forth abundant fruits and vegetables and amber waves of grain—a satisfying glyph for those whom historian David Potter called the “people of plenty.” In a similar spirit, political candidates have long promised us an ever-rising “standard of living.” In 1952, for example, Eisenhower pledged not only an end to the Korean war, but “progress and prosperity.”
In the past 20 years, our affluent identity has been threatened by oil shocks, income stagnation, and the relative economic rise of Japan and Europe. Some observers would say that our national response so far has been (a) to go on boasting we’re the greatest, (b) to celebrate small government while borrowing massively and hoisting a bigger military stick, and (c) to shift 60% of the new wealth to 1% of the population—presumably as an encouraging symbol of anyone’s chance to get rich.