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Redefining wealth

In 1984 Fritjof Capra had the bright idea of founding the Elmwood Institute, an ecological think thank. In 1992 I undertook to morph our newsletter into a quarterly journal. In the inaugural issue, on “redefining wealth,” the editor’s letter used the metaphor of the cornucopia to discuss emerging challenges. What is so startling, 20 years later, is that while some of the challenges are now more familiar, they remain far from being met. Perhaps part of resilience is having different goals. Here is a point of view about wealth:

Let lovers of Gaia recall, as the ancient Greeks did, how the goddess of this name gave birth to Zeus. Hid from his murderous father, the baby was nursed with milk from a goat. One of the goat’s horns, broken off, became the first cornucopia, yielding whatever nourishment its possessor desired, including ambrosia (the food of the gods).

American art has generally depicted the cornucopia as spilling forth abundant fruits and vegetables and amber waves of grain—a satisfying glyph for those whom historian David Potter called the “people of plenty.” In a similar spirit, political candidates have long promised us an ever-rising “standard of living.” In 1952, for example, Eisenhower pledged not only an end to the Korean war, but “progress and prosperity.”

In the past 20 years, our affluent identity has been threatened by oil shocks, income stagnation, and the relative economic rise of Japan and Europe. Some observers would say that our national response so far has been (a) to go on boasting we’re the greatest, (b) to celebrate small government while borrowing massively and hoisting a bigger military stick, and (c) to shift 60% of the new wealth to 1% of the population—presumably as an encouraging symbol of anyone’s chance to get rich.

In a few years the U.S. has gone from fearing the Soviet military to feeling perturbed that certain other countries, after being defeated in a world war, may soon surpass it in per capita consumption. It’s no longer enough to keep growing relative to past performance; now Americans worry about other people getting richer than we are.

Asked to name a system suffused with propaganda and committed to taking over the world, most Americans would think of pre-Gorbachev communism. But in another sense this description applies to advanced industrial society. The propaganda tells us to consume what the system profits by producing, and to pay for it by working at the kinds of jobs the system makes available, as if to say “You can get anything you want at marketplace restaurant.”

Nevertheless, several developments now encourage us to question the value of consumerism. People are again wondering: despite the success of our economic cornucopia, is it failing to yield some of the most essential goods, services, and social arrangements? What about a sense of community—at which boutique is that being sold? What about “quality time”? At which discount warehouse can you get a good deal on friendships? What about “safe streets”?

Defining wealth as the ability to buy things, we have largely lost the sense of “weal,” which means well-being (as in the word “commonweal”). To most people, wealth now refers less to shared well-being than to “gross national product” or “personal net worth.”

Questions are being raised not only about whether we’re getting what we need, but also whether we can go on producing in the ways we do. Are there environmental limits to our present type of economic growth? If a certain pattern of economic activity has the “side effect” of fouling earth, air, and water, or altering global climate in ominous ways, how do we assess the wealth thus created? With regard to greenhouse gases, are we involved in a replay of the tobacco fiasco, where companies argued for decades that “no conclusive evidence” proved a link between smoking and disease?

How much risk are we willing to take to keep using fossil fuels in a profligate way? When President Carter wore a sweater and urged energy efficiency, he was accused by Reagan of wanting us to shiver in the cold and the dark. Is it wealth to be able to waste energy? Is it wealth to get certain things now only at the cost of harming future generations?

Sometimes I ask people what would happen if the U.S., in some unhappy circumstance, had to cut consumption. In this thought experiment, I find that most people are somewhat disturbed by imagining a 10% cut, disoriented by 25%, and utterly horrified by 50%. Wouldn’t society collapse? In generational terms, however, it was not so long ago that we were actually living at each of these lower levels of consumption. And for most of the world, having half as much per capita as Americans do now, would feel like paradise.

What are the values that animate our lives, apart from being rich? What do we stand for besides standing at the cornucopia’s outlet? There are many possible answers. Which ones would you give?

While an enterprising people are developing a rich continent, and again when they gain a source of cheap petroleum from overseas, the economy can seem to be a cornucopia, magically producing more and more goods while we happily ignore “side effects.” Now, like a tar baby, these side effects are adhering to us, no matter how hard we try to shake them off. We are stuck with looking at the system as a whole.

Not bad, but the last sentence was utterly wrong: we ought to be looking at the system as a whole, but often still do not. For an example, see

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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