by Niall Fahy
Program Manager: One Health Global Citizens

 scales

“Contemporaneous with the financial crisis we have an ecological crisis and a health crisis. They are intimately interlinked. We cannot convert much more of the earth into money, or much more of our health into money, before the basis of life itself is threatened.”

– Charles Eisenstein
Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition

 

Money, as they say, makes the world go around. Never has this been more apparent than during the recent global financial crisis, when the wheels of international commerce began to shriek and grind horrendously, giving many of us quite a scare indeed. It seems odd that society can find itself in such a morass due to something so abstract – wealth that exists for the most part as numbers in the circuits of a computer, having been invented out of thin air by financiers. We have come to the point where symbolic riches are more prized than tangible resources.

At the time of writing, the markets have calmed down and we appear to be returning to business as usual, ie: the impossible dream of infinite growth on a finite planet somehow seems feasible again. However, as more and more voices rise to question humanity’s ever-increasing levels of consumption, it’s becoming clear that the balance sheet is not reflecting many of the real costs incurred by our profit-above-all paradigm.

This is a story we are all familiar with, one that often engenders worry and apathy. Less familiar are the stories that show us how to create economic models which serve the needs of humans and Nature in a fulfilling, sustainable, and abundant way. What might our culture look like if social status was based on generosity rather than on greed? What if money was conceived as a tool that could unite rather than divide us?

 

A world that works for all – pathways and possibilities

Though it seems pretty normal nowadays to equate life’s overall goal with the acquisition of as much private material wealth as possible, this wasn’t always so. In the pages of his last book, Ill Fares the Land, esteemed historian Tony Judt railed against “the materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life”. This, he argued, is not inherent in human nature, but rather a relatively novel tendency which first attained cultural prevalence in the 1980’s.

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest; indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

– Tony Judt

The good news is that our collective purpose now appears to be evolving beyond Judt’s grim prognosis. Just as we have witnessed unprecedented financial upheaval worldwide, new structures and solutions are emerging from the cultural matrix. Whereas modern economic theory sees people as being driven solely by the quest for personal gain, the concept of social enterprise conceives of an individual as having multifaceted motivations. It provides a framework through which businesses can remain viable while meeting a variety of social needs – the bottom line being ‘profit-for-purpose’.

Another platform that holds great promise for the widespread adoption of more equitable economic models is the ‘peer to peer’ philosophy, also called ‘open source’. P2P is animated by “citizen-workers seeing themselves as autonomous producers of shared knowledge and value.“ The rise of this approach has facilitated the emergence of a wave of local currencies, skillshare and resource sharing networks, along with freely available information in the domain of the cultural creative commons. 1

 

Gross National Happiness

Economic ‘growth’ is widely viewed as a panacea for all social ills. Indeed it has become the sine qua non of government policy; if a nation’s Gross Domestic Product isn’t growing, it is said to be in crisis. However, rather than reflecting the wealth and well-being of a country’s citizens, GDP could be more accurately interpreted as a measure of consumption. And as long as we reside upon a planet with limited resources, growth must at some point be balanced against the rate at which the ecosystem upon which it draws can replenish itself.

The tiny Asian kingdom of Bhutan takes a novel approach. Their policy is to maximise Gross National Happiness rather than GDP.2 The Bhutanese take a holistic view of social health, and have developed a number of quantitative methods to measure the population’s general well being in a variety of contexts.

Since the onset of the 2008 financial meltdown, Bhutan has been receiving an increased level of interest from economists, development experts and politicians worldwide. Can you imagine the leaders of your country working under a framework which explicitly aimed to increase the psychological well-being, living standard, health, culture, education, community vitality, good governance, balanced time use and ecological integration of every citizen?

A social contract such as this is not just our collective moral obligation – it is simply enlightened self-interest.

 

Wealth and wellness – more equal societies do better

Perhaps the most damaging consequence of the notion of growth for growth’s sake is the issue of inequality; the abyss between rich and poor has widened drastically over the past few decades both internationally and within most countries. Right now the richest 300 people in the world are more wealthy than the poorest 3 billion combined, while every year rich countries take over 10 times more from poor countries than they give in aid. And we are learning that the harmful consequences of economic imbalance affect not only the poor, but all levels of society.

‘The Spirit Level’ is an influential book which was published in 2009 by two British epidemiologists. They argue that income inequality within a society erodes trust and increases competition, leading to higher rates of anxiety and illness across all levels of society. Having analysed a range of sociological data for 21 developed countries plus each of the American states, their evidence suggests that the more economically equal a country’s citizens are, the better are their overall outcomes for health in many of its aspects. Physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, violence, teenage pregnancy, and children’s well-being – all significantly lower. And not just for the poor;  this is true across every social class in that country.

 

inequality graph

Source: The Equality Trust 3

In light of the evidence that economic imbalance and inequality damages our sense of fraternity and thereby damages many aspects of social health, what can any one person do about it? Change starts with an individual taking responsibility for his or her choices, and the following are all worthy starting points:

  • Pledging a percentage of your income and your time to positive social causes.

  • Making an effort to consume ethically – support local, fair trade, sustainable social enterprises over multinational for-profit corporations.

  • Availing of opportunities for peer-to-peer community resource/skill sharing.

  • Choosing ethical investment and superannuation funds.4

  • Advocating for sustainable economic policy at a national level.

To learn more about how you can play a part in creating ‘Health For All’, become a One Health Organisation Global Citizen.

Endnotes

  1. ‘How the new peer-to-peer economy can lead to the renaissance of the commons’ by Michel Bauwens & Franco Iacomella: http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/peer-peer-economy-and-new-civilization-centered-around-sustenance-commons
  2. Gross National Happiness Centre: http://www.gnhbhutan.org/
  3. The Equality Trust – ‘Because more equal societies work better for everyone’: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/
  4. Eg: Australian Ethicalhttp://www.australianethical.com.au/