Conventional money knows no loyalty to a sense of place, a local community, a landscape, region, or even a nation, and so it flows toward a global economy in which traditional social bonds give way to a rootless quest for the highest monetary return at virtually any social-environmental cost. The real price we pay for money is the hold it has on our sense of what is possible—the prison it builds around our imaginations, which American journalist Sydney J. Harris captured in a few words: “Men make counterfeit money; [but] in many more cases, money makes counterfeit men.”
According to Bernard Lietaer, of the Center for Sustainable Resources at the University of California at Berkeley, “Money is like an iron ring we’ve put through our noses. We’ve forgotten that we designed it, and it’s now leading us around. I think it’s time to figure out where we want to go—in my opinion toward sustainability—and then design a money system to get us there.”
While textbooks on economics claim that people and corporations are competing for resources and markets, they are really competing for money by using markets to foster competition in the exploitation and commercialization of resources—both natural and human. “A more fascinating aspect of money,” notes author Caroline Myss, “is the fact that it can weave itself into the human psyche as a substitute for the life-force.” Through the way in which we spend money, according to Myss, we make our private beliefs into public declarations.
Today’s money is either a numbered piece of paper or an electronic computer trace—both of which are merely symbolic representations of energy—that allows a person to obtain either the necessities of life or fulfill a desire that constitutes the real wealth of life. But, in our confusion over the true nature of real wealth (if we have thought about it at all), we chase the Almighty Dollar and neglect those things that actually sustain a life of quality—both spiritual and material. Money has only extrinsic value, only the potential to be converted into something else that may have the intrinsic value of real wealth.
To illustrate, if you are marooned on a desert island without food or water, but with a trunk containing one million or even one trillion dollars, what value would it have? Oh, you could burn it to stay warm for a while, but you could not drink it to quench your thirst. You could eat some, perhaps, but it would not sustain you.
Now let’s suppose you’re a billionaire with inoperable, terminal cancer. Could all your money buy your way out of death? The cattle ranchers I use to work for as a young man were of the opinion that, “If you have your health, you have everything.” That notion goes a long way in defining true wealth.
Nevertheless, our fixation with the “money chase” makes it difficult to express the basic difference between money and wealth through the symbology of language. Real wealth means the biophysical integrity of the diverse ecosystems on which we rely for social-environmental sustainability is intact. It means human equality and dignity, meaningful work, having a good home and adequate food, a good education, and so on. In a healthy economy, money serves the people in helping to create and protect the real wealth, but is neither the dominant value nor the sole—or even the main—medium of exchange.
One of the most important indicators of economic health is social-environmental sustainability, which means not only quality interpersonal relationships but also quality, reciprocal relationships between people and their environment. A truly viable economy is based on love and reciprocity, where people do kind and useful things for one another with no expectation of financial gain. Such mutual caring is the soft social capital that both creates and maintains the fabric of trust, which in turn is the glue of functional families, communities, and societies.
Pathology and its subsequent dysfunction enters the economic system when money, derived as a convenient means of exchange, becomes the factor that defines the purpose of life for individuals and their communities. For example, the majority of Americans in a November 28 to December 1, 2011, pole said they would need an annual income of $150,000 to feel rich. And men had a higher median threshold, $150,000, than women—$100,000. Moreover, as people earn more, they want more. To wit, people earning $75,000 or more say they would need a median of $250,000 to feel rich.1 Such focus on dollar amounts by the majority of a community’s or nation’s citizens results in the social and biophysical capital on which the well-being of every human, community, and nation depends being sacrificed on the altar of competitive exploitation, whereby those who already have money prosper at a level of social influence above of those who do not.
The growing dominance of money as master is also revealed in the increasing commercialization of human relationships. Not long ago, even in such rich, industrialized countries as the United States, at least half of the adult population—predominantly women—worked without salary to create and maintain home and community, which are among the most fundamental values of a healthy, sustainable society and its social-environmental economy.
Today, financially supporting a household usually requires two adults holding two, and sometimes three or four, paying jobs between them, but at the expense of quality human relationships because, of necessity, they rarely see each other, and the care of children and the home is either neglected or hired out. In addition, the once-shared, mutual caring has morphed into “community service,” which is the work of hired public employees—to the extent the public is willing to pay for it.2
As the soft social capital of mutual caring dwindles and the resulting quality of family life withers, a community’s members typically become increasingly apathetic or competitive. As human relationships become more and more dysfunctional, a community’s infrastructure crumbles into ever-greater disarray at an ever-increasing social-environmental cost to all generations.
Today, more than ever, the wisdom of Henry Ford is sorely needed: “The highest use of capital is not to make more money, but to make money do more for the betterment of life.”
1. Susanna Kim. Poll: Americans Need $150K Income to Feel Rich (accessed December 9, 2011).
2. The foregoing discussion of the difference between money and wealth is based in part on: David C. Korten. 1997. Money versus Wealth. YES! A Journal of Positive Futures, Spring:14-18.
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.