"The real names of global warming are waste and greed'" is a line from the first sentence of the second paragraph of Wendell Berry's essay, Faustian Economics, originally published in Harper's, but reproduced in edited by Mary Oliver. Berry, arguably one of the best American essayists of ou r time, weaves his precise and insightful prose touching many dimensions of the current human dilemma but has our economic system in his sight. In it Berry discusses what he names the 'national insanity' of 'assumed limitlessness'...
This "credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possessions but also for limitless knowledge, limitless science, limitless technology, and limitless progress.... The normalization of the doctrine of limitlessness has produced a sort of moral minimalism: the desire to be efficient at any cost, to be unencumbered by complexity. The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability and self subordination - this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children."
Berry dissects this psychosis, "our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, and ecosystem, even that of a working farm or forest, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible."
While Berry's critical eye lays bare some truths we might like to look away from he doesn't leave the reader drained of hope or direction. He offers a number of insights that hint on possibilities including..
"To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work."
Charles Eisenstein, whom I have cited frequently might be Berry's heir apparent for conceiving and scribing insights on our condition. In the January/February 2013 issue of Resurgence, he offers his own twist on the imperative to change the economic system. In Value Beyond Measure, Eisenstein critiques the well-intentioned efforts to quantify and thus include, the economic benefits of ecosystem services into our economic model.
"How then to deal with these problems? Clearly we cannot persist in upholding a system in which profit and ecology are opposed."
He worries that "We can only measure what we can see, so anything outside of our cultural blinders will escape our accounting. Moreover, we unwittingly import our invisible biases into our choice of what to measure and how to measure it. And these biases will tend to perpetuate the social systems that privilege and validate the people creating the metrics, and rebound to the financial interests of the institutions and systems that embed them." He goes on to assert that 'there is another , deeper problem. Underlying ecosystem services valuation is the belief that everything has its price; that there is a finite measure of the value of all things. There is no room for the infinite, the sacred, that which is beyond price. "
He shares an example of how that plays out - "This is no mere philosophical quibble; it has profound practical consequences. If we value a certain forest at say $1 billion, then if we can make $1.1 billion chopping it down the implication is that we should do it....and if the value of all ecosystem services is $100 trillion , then if we can earn $200 trillion by liquidating Earth, we should do it.
Does that sound preposterous? It would be, except that is what we are doing already (though not purposely) abetted by the ideology of value.
Eisenstein goes on in this essay to offer a realm of healthier and more sustainable alternatives. At the foundation he suggests "Money after all, is an expression of what society values. As what we value shifts towards ecological healing, we need to change the economic system to reflect that."
Subscribing to the journal Resurgence and reading its thoughtful authors on a regular basis might nudge us towards that healing. It's better than reading these poor abstractions of these insightful thinkers.