Breaking the Cycle of Debt — Toward a Sustainable Financial System
A few months ago, I wrote an article calling for an end to the world’s debt — summarizing the history of debt from anthropological studies of early civilizations and economic activities in hunter-gatherer societies. You can read it here.
We are living through an unprecedented period of human history. Our population has exploded. We are now nearing or surpassing planetary limits that call into question the future of the global economy. And one problematic idea sits in the middle of it all. That idea is that MONEY = DEBT and its close relative of CUMULATIVE INTEREST. In order to break the 10,000 year cycle of empire and perpetual growth, we have to employ a different model for economic activity. Luckily, we have one — the ecosystem.
There is immense wealth in the world. It exists in the abundance of physical and biological inputs that have evolved and innovated across the 3.8 billion year history of life on Earth. Net Primary Production (the aggregate of biological output from all energy sources on the planet) has grown in time, along with a trajectory of increasing biodiversity punctuated by short periods of mass extinction. This growth has been possible because there was more solar energy coming into the atmosphere than there were living creatures consuming it. As the complexity and richness of Earth’s ecosystems grew in time, there were more calories of energy put to use by the increasing volume of biota in the world. This is a form of growth that operates within natural limits.
Our current economic paradigm does not.
We need to understand how this living system works if we want to build a global economy that doesn’t inevitably lead to collapse (as all empires have done throughout history). Rather than creating “money from nothing” (e.g. money as debt created through issuance of loans), we can create it from something — specifically the energetic work embodied in human systems. In other words, we also need to treat economies like thermodynamic systems and measure the amount of “potential energy” available in the economy and reframe our metrics for value to reflect this true source of wealth.
Only then will we know how to measure (a) who has wealth to invest and (b) what it means to accurately and legitimately measure the creation of value through the flow of wealth. This is a long way of getting to the answer — which is that people can start businesses and engage in economic activity because they have a combination of commons-based assets that our current system undervalues. These include information commons in the form of knowledge and expertise; social commons in relationships and reputation in good standing; physical commons in raw materials and energy throughputs that can be activated; and so on. When someone wants to create a new business, they merely need to measure the wealth-in-potential available in real ecosystems and then “activate” it through collaborative practices with those who steward the ecosystems.
This is a radically different way to think about economics than the implicit assumptions of scarcity (imposed by force) throughout the entire imperial age. It is also how all economic activity has actually been done throughout human history. Its true nature has just been masked by faulty understandings of wealth that persist during periods of growth — then reveal their misguided assumptions during bust cycles and deterioration of cohesion that leads to societal collapse.
So our civilizations have always operated as ecosystems, just not resilient ones!
Growing a global economy based on ecological principles is not really that different in practice from how we’ve always done it. We engage those resources that have flow around us (through our social networks) and build the acumen to create something new. As anecdotal examples, every company I have created was a “zero capital” startup. I had vision, skills, and knowledge to serve the needs of prospective clients — then brought together other collaborators with complementary skills that embody the “asset” ecosystem from which the company came forth into being. We tapped our networks to spread the word and recruit clients, all the while acknowledging the many forms of wealth we could draw upon to achieve our goals.
This is really only different from “business as usual” at the semantic level (which is REALLY important!) in that it frames wealth as already existing and embedded in our social ecosystems. We merely activate the wealth that already exists and create value by moving it around.
Economic productivity arises when people operate as “network activators:, either the entrepreneurs themselves do this or someone in their network providing a support or mentor role will need to. It should come as no surprise that those innovation ecosystems with high generativity (e.g. Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the Boston Corridor, Puget Sound, etc.) always have network activators in droves.
So the basic sequence for starting a business in the ecological perspective is this:
- Have an idea to start an enterprise;
- Identify assets in one’s ecosystem that can manifest this idea in nascent form;
- Begin cultivating dialogue across existing relationships, then grow into new ones that are “loose connections” in one’s network;
- Hone and refine the idea to match market structures and needs;
- Iterate, prototype, and evolve until the kernel of the business is alive!
There may be infusions of money at different stages in the process. They will merely be recognized as available forms of wealth already existing in the ecosystem.
Note how in this model no one is making money off of interest and everyone shares in the risk to the extent that they invest time and resources in the endeavor. As a result, there is no added pressure to service debt (a non-productive flow of money AWAY from productive economic activity) and no one is trapped by a growing debt burden. Thus they are able to focus on innovating to serve market needs and generate productive value for their customers — profoundly unlike how our financial system is set up today!
So we can break the cycle of debt and move toward a sustainable financial system by recognizing the fundamental truth that all economies are embedded in real-world ecosystems whether we realize it or not. This enables us to reframe wealth as well-being that already exists as potential energy in the world. And it further enables us to remove the incredible waste that is interest-based-on-debt (where someone has hoarded wealth to impose an artificial form of scarcity in order to wield power over those who become enslaved to debt servitude). Thus we can put all our creative energy into doing things that create value for others — a capitalist solution that evolves beyond the myopic and dysfunctional version we are stuck with today.
I hope this helps clarify how easy it is to transform our financial system. We don’t need debt for it to work. In truth, we never have.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.