Shed: Interview with Author & Transition Economist Charles Eisenstein by Willi Paul. Presented by Permaculture Exchange.
“ Economics is just another facet of the dualism of self and other, a distorting lens that warps our entire understanding of the universe. But now we are beginning to understand that nature is not like that, and that we are not separate from nature. Traditionally, we have seen organisms as using resources and excreting waste into the environment, which by some lucky chance has other organisms that have evolved to recycle the waste through the system. What does the individual rock-weathering bacterium care that its wastes eventually provide calcium carbonate for some sea creature? No positive reinforcement reaches it quickly enough to affect natural selection.
Is it by some lucky chance that so far no organism except for man has created waste that is unusable and deadly to the rest of life?” – CE
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What is sacred to you? To your parents?
To me, something is sacred if it is unique and if it is connected, if it is part of the matrix of all being. In principle, of course, everything is sacred, but it is hard to see that in a world where so many things have been rendered into commodities, which are standard not unique, and which have been alienated from their origins. We want to recover this lost sacredness. For me personally, some special things remind me of the sacr4edness of all things. Family is sacred to me.
I visit a little spot of land near my home that is sacred to me. Sometimes when I lead programs, we have the feeling of being in sacred space. When I look into someone’s eyes or listen deeply, I know them as a sacred being. When I mentally categorize someone, write him off, or judge him, then he no longer seems sacred to me. Members of categories aren’t sacred. Only unique individuals are, because then I can apprehend their infinity. The same with animals, plants, even rocks and clouds. You can try it: look at a rock with eyes of “it’s just a rock” and then shift perspective to see it as a unique individual.
What are the hurdles in your personal strategic plan as you promote your transition to localization?
I don’t have a personal strategic plan. I think we are about to enter a period of rapid change. There is a time to make plans, declarations, and commitments, and there is a time to hold onto your hat and prepare to respond to each unpredictable thing as it arises. I think we are moving into the latter.
Are Boy Scout, 4-H and Kiwanis values supporting the transition? What are your values?
These organizations embody many different values, some perhaps supportive and some not. I think that any vehicle for people to contribute to something larger than themselves that speaks to their heart helps the transition.
Are you attracting potent partners these days? Who are the strongest?
There are too many to name. An important feature of the transition we are facing is that no one can do it alone; nor is it the kind of thing where a guru or core group makes the transition first and then teaches everyone else. We are doing it together.
Say that you want to site and launch a small retail demurrage-based business in Oakland; please outline your concerns and vision.
You can’t apply demurrage by yourself; it has to be built in to the currency. On the personal level, the principle of demurrage or negative interest means not holding on to grudges and “you owe me” for too long. For example, if someone, say a relative, owes you money and doesn’t pay and doesn’t pay, eventually you want to give up and not hold it over their head anymore (of course you probably won’t lend to them again). Another personal application of the principle is to give a percentage of your assets away every year.
No growth? Steady-state growth? Sustainable growth? Help!
We are moving toward degrowth, which means a gradual shrinkage in the volume of goods and services exchanged for money, and a corresponding growth of the non-monetized realm, the gift realm. The problem is that our money system only works if the economy is growing. When it shrinks (a recession), then unemployment, indebtedness, and wealth concentration increase until we hit the crisis we face today. For centuries really, our society has had a choice given us by each labor-saving technology: should we work less, or consume more? We’ve consistently chosen to consume more, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
With a different kind of money system, we could instead work less — do less work for money and spend more time playing, dancing, making art, making music, making love — just as hunter-gatherers did. There are already many signs of degrowth. Despite the politicians’ best efforts to keep the economy growing, it is impossible to replicate the kind of growth we had in the 50s and 60s, when 6% wasn’t unusual.
That’s because we are running out of nature to convert into product and relationships to convert into paid services. The end-of-growth argument is a bit complicated, involving both ecological limits and the loss of community, but basically we are seeing a return of certain formerly monetized functions back to the realm of the gift. The Internet is in many respects a gift economy: most of the content I read was put on line for free. Bloggers and people with cell phone cameras have to some extent replaced paid journalists. Craigslist has replaced classified ads. We don’t use travel agents any more. These Internet businesses make money, but not nearly as much as the industries they replaced.
Ultimately, I think we will enter into a degrowth phase of about 1-2% a year, so that our consumption of natural resources and aggregrate work hours will decline by half over the next two generations. Obviously, this isn’t starting quite yet — we will need a big breakdown first. But who do you know who makes a radically change without going through a big breakdown?
What can we learn from the Native American traditions and systems as we design the transition codex? Did they have a time bank back there?
We can learn, for one thing, the spirit of the gift, how to live in community with each other and nature. They didn’t need a time bank because everyone knew each other. The needs and the generosity of each person were witnessed. Today we don’t have that. Time banks offer an effective means to rebuild what has been lost.
What qualities in permaculture do you see as critical to building an alternative economy?
First, its emphasis on flexibility and doing what works. That’s a kind of humility that understands you cannot lay out a master plan in advance and then implement it; rather, plans coevolve with circumstances. Secondly, its profound understanding of ecology: the waste of any being must be food for another being. Thirdly, its recognition that ecological work cannot be done in isolation from social work: the ecology must include human beings, not be separate from them or even protected from them. The economy I describe in my book is an extension of ecology and no longer an exception to it.
What is the economic strategy behind the occupy movement?
I don’t think they had a strategy. However, people I’ve talked to from the encampments speak of the power of the gift economies that developed there, and how people spontaneously stepped up to do whatever was needed. This is a blatant contradiction of economists’ doctrine of the “disutility of work,” which basically expresses the idea that people are primarily motivated to seek their financial self-interest, and therefore must be induced through money to contribute to the welfare of others. I don’t think that is true; I think we naturally desire to give generously, but are held back by our economic system. We think, “Can I afford to?” The encampments gave many people their first taste of real community, because without gifts and the bonds that they create, there can be no community. Why? Because if you can pay for everything, then you don’t need anybody. That’s why it is so hard to create community in any affluent neighborhood. Underneath any social gathering is the realization, “I don’t need you.”
Are you pro or anti capitalism? Neither?
I want to see a change in the nature of capitalism. Things look very different when money is no longer created as interest-bearing debt.
Many folks decry the greenwashing in the sustainability sector! How do you dissect corporations, organizations and individuals for their corruptions?
I think attacking them can make them actually harden their position. I prefer the strategy of validating the changes they do make, and then saying, in effect, “But I know you want to do more than that.” As for corruption, the most powerful tool we have is to bear witness. People are much less able to do awful things when they know people are watching. Conscience is a group effort!
Do we need to be outside of the economy to create new systems?
I think that various experiments that are more or less isolated from the main economy are useful, both to figure out what works and to provide alternative models for when things fall apart. But I think action within the system is important too.
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Charles Eisenstein Bio (edited)
These last five years have been much like a birthing process. The old world has dissolved, and the contractions birthing me into the new have taken the form of a collapse of all that I once held onto. Crises in health, marriage, and money forced me to let go of a “life under control”. In my helplessness, I accepted help, discovering a generous universe that has always met my needs, somehow, in unexpected ways. I have never made much money, but I have become rich in connections to other people. Friends and strangers from all over the world write to tell me how my books have affected them; they sustain my faith and nourish my passion for my work. Today I am fully devoted to work I love. Before The Ascent of Humanity I wrote The Yoga of Eating, and my most recent book, really a booklet, Transformational Weight Loss, applies the deep ideas of Ascent to a very specific crying need. Since finishing Ascent, I have written numerous essays, many of which are published on Reality Sandwich, as well as a new book, Sacred Economics, a massive project that I only finished in Winter 2011. It is being published by North Atlantic Books (Evolver Editions) and will come out on July 12.This book explores the economics of separation and the transition to a new kind of money system, both on a societal and personal level. Since 2009 I have been on the faculty of the Health Arts and Sciences program at Goddard College.
I never thought I would feel so at home in an academic setting. Well, it really isn’t academic in the traditional sense. The educational model is very radical: self-directed learning in a holistic context. I mean, self-directed for real. My role for the student is to read, to listen, to respond, to hold container, offer resources, to mirror, to mentor. I also give seminars and workshops. I love to share the gifts I have been given with groups small and large, from tiny informal gatherings to major conferences. My work focuses on two areas: holistic health, and the transformation of human consciousness and civilization. These two areas are intimately related. Many of our health crises today are the somatization of maladies on the civilizational level. More recently, I have also been speaking a lot about money, economics, and transition.