Sometimes you ask a question and the answer doesn’t come for many years. That’s the way it worked for me when I first tried to make sense of economics.
The time was the mid-1970s, I was an undergraduate student, and I was keenly interested in economics because it seemed key to so many social justice issues.
But I couldn’t get past the feeling that the cleverly constructed economic models I studied were floating in air, lacking a solid foundation in the physical world.
A slim paperback called Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions put the problem into simple language, leaving me pondering a riddle, through several decades in which I seldom thought about economics as a formal discipline.
John (Fire) Lame Deer (original name Tȟáȟča Hušté) was a Lakota holy man, and I read his book during a summer when I was working on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands and spending many weekends in the Black Hills. Lame Deer was born in this area in 1903, only thirteen years after the US Army had massacred hundreds of Lakota at Wounded Knee, marking an end of the military phase of the long campaign to seize the US heartland for white settlers. (I am a fourth-generation descendant of immigrants who received title to some of that land.)
Lame Deer had seen the highways built through his people’s sacred territories, he had seen lands turned into bombing ranges for US military tests, he had travelled to big cities on the US east coast, he lived long enough for radios, TVs, and the threat of nuclear war to become part of everyday life.
He was not impressed.
“The green frog skin – that’s what I call a dollar bill,” he said. “In our attitude toward it lies the biggest difference between Indians and whites.” He added that “For the white man each blade of grass or spring of water has a price tag on it.” In fact, in the green frog-skin world everything has a price tag – but this world will not last.
Visions were of vital to importance to Lame Deer, and he compared visions to art and to imagination:
“The world in which you paint a picture in your mind, a picture which shows things different from what your eyes see, that is the real world from which I get my visions. I tell you this is the real world, not the Green Frog Skin World. That’s only a bad dream, a streamlined, smog-filled nightmare.”
I felt that Lame Deer was right, that the green frog-skin world cannot last. How can a civilization last, when its governing force is something so fleeting and artificial as money? And yet … this bad-dream-world has power – power to rip open the earth, build huge cities out of concrete and steel, power to cut down whole forests in weeks or months, power to fly squadrons of planes to the far side of the world and drop deluges of bombs?
How can a society, which stupidly believes its price tags are the essential measure of value, still have the power to dance in both awesome and awesomely destructive ways?
In one form or another that question flickered through my mind for decades after I had abandoned the struggle to make sense of economics. Gradually, though, some pieces of a puzzle fell into place. My winding path led me, some 40 years later, back to a focus on economics – this time with the help of bio-physical economics and degrowth theory. With these ideas I was able to understand the nature of power in the green frog-skin world, and to understand further why the frog-skin world can not and will not last.
In recent months I have re-read some of the books that made a great impression on me over the decades, and which, eventually, made my second study of economics so much more fulfilling than the first. This post is the first in a short series looking back at these books. The series will trace just one of the many routes to economic understanding, illustrating, I hope, how economics is connected to every aspect of daily life.
Nearly fifty years ago, Lame Deer could see clearly that the human race was in trouble. His life had begun shortly after the era of the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dancers, from many indigenous groups across the prairies, danced in the hope of a sudden transformation:
“The earth would roll up like a carpet with all the white man’s ugly things – the stinking new animals, sheep and pigs, the fences, the telegraph poles, the mines and factories. Underneath would be the wonderful old-new world as it had been before the white fat-takers came.”
This rolling-up of the world didn’t happen in the 1890s, and the memory of the Ghost Dance was nearly snuffed out by the massacre at Wounded Knee. In Lame Deer’s vision, though, it was still vital to hang on to the hope kindled by this dance:
“I am trying to bring the ghost dance back, but interpret it in a new way. I think it has been misunderstood, but after eighty years I believe that more and more people are sensing what we meant when we prayed for a new earth and that now not only Indians but everybody has become an ‘endangered species.’ So let the Indians help you bring on a new earth without pollution or war. Let’s roll up the world. It needs it.”
In 2020 it’s just as true and even more urgent: we need a new earth without pollution or war. The green frog-skin world, ruled by the price tag on each blade of grass and each spring of water, threatens the survival of thousands of species, us included. We need to bring a new dream into being, beyond the bad dream of the green frog-skin world.
Photo at top of page – Sunset in the Badlands, June 2014 (full-screen version here)