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Fri Apr 27, 2012, 08:42 AM

At U.N. happiness summit, a coal pile in the ballroom

Published Apr 15 2012 by Shareable, Archived Apr 26 2012

At U.N. happiness summit, a coal pile in the ballroom

by Charles Eisenstein


It is not enough to call for education, national pride, or religious teachings to stem the tide of globalization when the money system drives that tide. When rural youth leave the farm for the slums of Cairo or Bangkok, the glamorized images of Western consumption that draw them usually have an ally in economic conditions. Possibly, it is that local produce cannot compete with imports thanks to free trade policies and perverse subsidies for mechanized agriculture and transport. And what is behind the free trade policies, the subsidies? We would like to blame greed, but, at the bottom, I find something more banal – the pressure to pay the bondholders, or to get an extra half-percent return on investment, or to reduce a fiscal deficit. Debt pressure is endemic to the system, and it pushes the commoditization and marketization of everything and everyone. Ecological protection, cultural diversity, local agriculture, and fair trade are all under assault when nations are forced to liquidate natural resources, to convert agriculture to commodity production, to open markets and eliminate protections on labor in order to keep servicing their debts to the international banking system. The effects of debt pressure reach into personal life in wealthy countries, too. We would like to enjoy more leisure (listed in the report as important for happiness), but how can we when we have student loans to pay, credit cards, mortgage debt?

At the conference, Swami Atmapriyananda recited an old teaching story about a fisherman lounging at the wharf. A businessman comes up and asks why he isn't out there fishing. “I already caught enough today to feed my family.”
“But if you fish more, you could sell the fish and make money.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“With the money, you could buy more boats and hire other people to man them.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Well, then you could make even more money and retire.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Then you could spend your days lounging on the wharf and only fishing as much as you pleased.”
“But that's what I'm doing right now.”

During the Q&A at the end of the conference I offered a variation to this story. The businessman tells the fisherman he could make more money. “Why would I want to do that?” Because if you don't, you won't be able to make your debt payments and I will seize your boat!

In summary, debt drives growth, and growth drives debt. This system erodes many of the things that are essential to human happiness – such as community, leisure, and nature – but as long as there is room for new growth, the system can keep going. Today, though, we are running out of nature to convert into goods – the planet just cannot sustain much more exploitation. We are also running out of social relationships that aren't yet monetized. This crisis of growth has been delayed for many decades through colonialism and technology, extending the domain of money, but it is upon us now. The result is rising indebtedness and growing misery, as each extension of growth comes at higher and higher cost.

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