Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mike Nickerson, Life, Money & Illusion: Living on Earth as If We Want to Stay, 2006.

Is the way we think about and use money the root of the problems we face as we try to live on our planet in a sustainable way? Nickerson’s (difficult to obtain) book makes a good case to answer that question with a resounding “Yes!”

He argues that conventional economic analysis makes fundamental assumptions that are wrong, and ignores the consequences. Nickerson puts it this way: economics is three-fifths of ecology. Economics concerns itself with “Materials / Processing / Distribution”; Ecology concerns itself with “Natural Resources / Materials / Processing / Distribution / Waste” (124). An economic outlook assumes that the other two aren't important, aren't relevant--an outlook which can lead to all sorts of problems. As just one example: when we think about, say, iPods, Apple tends to worry about obtaining the materials needed to make iPods, making them, and then selling them. Our economic systems don’t encourage Apple to worry about minimizing the use of non-renewable natural resources, or using less renewable resources than can be replenished within the product’s life cycle. Our systems also don’t encourage the concern with safely reclaiming those resources, while minimizing the amount of energy consumed in the entire process. In fact, our systems encourage the opposite: Apple’s shareholders would sell stocks if Apple’s profits don’t continue to grow the company. So, a new version of the iPod gets released each year, and are encouraged by advertising to get the latest—the nano, the video, etc. I’m picking on Apple, but Nickerson’s argument is that this problem is systemic. We measure the well-being of a country by its GDP, and that needs to grow each year. (He makes some interesting points about better measuring systems, too.) Our debt-based money systems and need for compound interest to work as it does (and oh, how timely this seems, given the current crisis with the subprime mortgage issue) encourages us to ignore the other two-fifths of ecology, to continue to use more and more natural resources and to ignore the reclamation of materials.

Nickerson’s book is eminently readable, but it’s complex. He teaches well, and explains the difficult economic concepts which he engages. It’s a book that, whether you know economics well or not (and it’s an area in which I’m weak), will take some time to read because it challenges learned and ingrained presuppositions about things we tend to take for granted—how money works, and so forth. I picked it up because my friend Yaacov recommended it to me, and it’s rewarded my time. It is a persuasive argument that illuminates problems and offers some suggestions about how we might move—and at that, largely within local communities—-toward transforming our world that we may live on it in a sustainable way. It’s a book that will be of interest to anyone concerned by environmental issues; it’s a book that should be read by nearly everyone.

It won’t be, of course, because it challenges accepted wisdom. Moreover, it uses rhetoric like “Global Monopoly Game” in ways that will put off a number of readers. It’s too sloppy with sources. It would be stronger if many of the facts Nickerson relies upon were cited; it would be stronger if the sources he does use weren’t as likely to be perceived, by those who will disagree with his conclusions, as biased themselves. These weaknesses, though, don’t make me hesitate in recommending this book to anyone and everyone.

I am going to end this blog entry by quoting a key set of eight ideas. More information is available at the Sustain Well Being site.

Well-being can be sustained when activities
1) use materials in continuous cycles.
2) use continuously renewable sources of energy.
3) come mainly from the qualities of being human.
(i.e. creativity, communication, movement, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development).

Long term well-being is diminished when activities
4) require continual inputs of non- renewable resources.
5) use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
6) cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
7) require resources in quantities that undermine other people’s well-being.
8) lead to the extinction of other life forms.

You’ve read this far. Take another moment to answer Nickerson’s four questions about these principles (349):
  • Is this what we mean by sustainability?
  • If it is not, upon what point(s) do we disagree?
  • For what reasons?
  • Is there anything missing?

I’d add two more questions:
  • what can we change about how we live as individuals to live within these principles?
  • how can we advocate for systemic changes that every human lives within these principles?

I also, before ending this now rather long blog entry, want to quote two sentences that better illuminate principle number three.
...our well-being thrives on the things that come from exercising our own living selves: our senses, our relationships, our creativity, our understanding, and our imagination. These things are the stuff from which ourselves are made.(45)

It’s hard to argue with Nickerson when he makes so much sense, as he does for most of the book. Whether you agree with his point of view and his arguments or not, engaging in this debate is worthwhile. Read his book.