Constructing the Citizen-Activist
Our task is no longer one of creating countercultures, engaging in political protest, and pursuing economic alternatives. To create a just, sustainable, and compassionate post-corporate world we must face up to the need to create a new core culture, a new political center, and a new economic mainstream. Such a bold agenda requires many different kinds of expertise, working at many levels of society—personal, household, community, national, and global. It requires breaking the bonds of individual isolation that leave us feeling marginalized when in fact we may already be part of a new majority.
—David Korten, The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism
Those anthropologists who question the relevance of anthropology to contemporary issues have not learned the principal lessons of anthropology: cultures are rooted in the material conditions of human adaptation, shaped by the social relations people develop to manage those conditions, and driven as much by the ways that those material and social systems don't work as by the ways that they do.
—E. Paul Durrenberger and
What Are the Real Dangers?
The extent of active resistance to the expansion of capitalism is evidence of something wrong. The difficulty, of course, is isolating the problem and fixing it. Is the problem the exploitation of labor? Is it the economic and social marginalization and suppression of women and minorities? Is it the excessive power of corporations or the widespread distribution of deadly armaments? Or is it the assault on the environment or the decline of community and religious values? Anthropology suggests that even our perceptions of the risks and dangers we face can be culturally and socially determined. That is, the way in which our society or culture filters our experience and sense of the world may dictate what we most fear. Thus whether your greatest concern is environmental destruction or financial collapse, a nuclear holocaust or disease, the power of witches or God's damnation, crime
or societal disintegration, it
may be as much a function of your society, culture, and personal
experiences as it is of any 'real' or 'objective' dangers
Hunger, poverty, the spread of disease, environmental degradation, exploitation of women, children, and minorities, and global conflict and militarization are not imaginary dangers or problems. Their effects are felt daily by billions of people. Our analysis suggests that the root of these problems is the central and unarguable tenet of the culture of capitalism—the need and desire for perpetual economic growth. Each of the major elements of this culture—the consumer, the laborer, the capitalist and the nation-state—has a vested interest in the production and consumption of ever more goods and services. As we stated earlier, and as we examined in the first four chapters, this is not 'natural.' If acquiring material things were a dominant instinct or value, it should not be necessary for producers to spend some $450 billion a year to persuade people to buy stuff or devise advertising images that promote desires by appealing to people's longing for love, acceptance, and contact with nature (Korten 1999:213-214).
Objecting to perpetual economic growth, however, will not win many friends; capitalists require it for their profits, laborers for their wages, consumers for the 'stuff they are convinced they need, and nation-states for their power, revenue, and legitimacy. While people organize to resist capitalist expansion, argue for alternative forms of governance, or propose a different distribution of resources, rarely will they articulate any objection to growth itself. The need for economic progress is deeply entrenched in our culture.
Perpetual economic growth, however, occurs at great costs to our environment, to our ability to control our own lives, and to the patterns of social relationships that sustain us. Ensuring economic growth requires the creation and enforcement of rules and regulations that affect our lives in a myriad of complex ways. Consequently, before we address possible ways of addressing global problems, we must ask how economic growth has come to play the role it has in our society, examine how perpetual economic growth is accomplished, critically examine the direct impact it has on our lives, and then ask whether or not it is possible to reduce such growth without inviting economic, political, and social ruin.
The GNP and the Construction of the Doctrine of Perpetual Growth
Imagine the leader of a major industrial country giving her or his state of the country address. 'We have had,' he or she says, 'a wonderful year. Floods in the eastern part of the country destroyed thousands of homes, requiring millions of dollars to rebuild. Water pollution has necessitated everyone purchasing bottled water. Because of an increase in crime, the sale of security systems is skyrocketing, and the country experienced its highest divorce rate ever. As a result of increased social and economic anxiety, doctors have
prescribed a record amount of stress-relieving drugs. A flu epidemic filled hospitals and required millions of injections of flu vaccine and, because of increased global conflict, sales of our armaments are booming.'
What, you might ask, would a country's leader find to celebrate in that news? The answer is an increase in the country's Gross National Product (GNP). All of these activities require the expenditure of more and more money, and, in the culture of capitalism, that is the primary indicator of a nation's well-being.
Arguably the GNP (or, as it is now called, the Gross Domestic Product [GDP]1) is the single most important statistic in our culture. The GNP is simply the total of money spent or invested in goods and services by households, governments, and businesses. In other words whenever money is exchanged, it adds to the GNP. The GNP emerged from the long-standing efforts of national governments to measure the progress of their economies. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, governments were interested in taxable wealth, which at that point was largely agricultural. In the nineteenth century a nation's measurable wealth was taken to include its manufacturers and, finally, in the price of things. This was a significant jump. It meant that to have any worth, something had to have a price. Thus such things as family or community activities and the natural habitat, since they were outside the price system, had no value (see Cobb et al. 1995).
Then, in 1932,
As we have noted before, the development and enactment of government policy to increase global economic growth has been remarkably successful. World trade expanded from $124 billion in 1948 to $10,722 billion in 1997, a seventeenfold increase in the volume of economic transactions. Furthermore, national governments, as well as institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organization (WTO), to name a few, operate, at least tacitly, on the assumption all global problems— poverty, hunger, ethnic conflict, environmental devastation, etc.—can be solved through economic growth as measured by the GNP. With unlimited growth, they assume, the whole world can enjoy the life style of the elite 20 percent of the wealthiest countries on earth.
The problem is, as Eric A. Davidson (2000) has put it, 'you can't eat GNP.' That is, what counts for the calculation of GNP needn't represent a positive contribution to the life
1 In 1991 the GNP was turned into the GDP. With
GNP the earnings of a multinational firm were attributed to the country where the
firm was owned and where the profits would eventually return. With the Gross
Domestic Product, however, the profits are
attributed to the country where the factory or mine is located, even though the
profits won't stay there. Thus, GDP excludes overseas profits earned by
of the nation. The GNP includes money paid for marriage licenses, but it also includes lawyers' fees for divorce and the separate residences divorce produces. It includes spending on food but also on diet drugs and programs, as well as medical treatment for obesity. It includes the costs of producing weapons as well as the costs for cleaning up after the damage they produce. The conversion of forest into wood products is counted completely as economic growth without depreciating the environmental loss that it entails. Cleaning up the environmental damage we create, if it creates profits for someone, is counted as growth. Manufacturing that contributes to the degradation of water resources counts towards GNP, as does the sale of bottled water to a populace wary of its publicly funded water supplies. Standing forests have no value in the national accounts until they generate revenue. As Clifford Cobb, Ted Halstead, and Jonathan Rowe (1995) put it,
By the curious standard of the GDP, the nation's economic hero is a terminal cancer patient who is going through a costly divorce. The happiest event is an earthquake or a hurricane. The most desirable habitat is a multibillion-dollar Superfund site. All these add to the GDP, because they cause money to change hands. It is as if a business kept a balance sheet by merely adding up all 'transactions,' without distinguishing between income and expenses, or between assets and liabilities.
Economist Herman Daly (1996:41) tells the story related to him by a physician of doctors at a tuberculosis hospital who wanted to measure the progress of their patients. They placed microphones at beds to record the number of times people coughed, reasoning that the fewer times patients coughed, the more they were improving. The nurses, who were being evaluated by the success of the treatment, reacted by giving more cough-suppressing codeine to patients, and they coughed less. Unfortunately because they were coughing up less congestion, more were dying. After a time the cough index was abandoned.
The cough index failed because people began manipulating the index rather than the condition that the index was supposed to measure. As was the cough index, the GNP is not only a mismeasure, but, says Daly, a distorter of what it purports to measure. By assuming that economic growth as measured by GNP is a good thing, and by promoting policies for free trade, tax subsidies to corporations, and increased consumption to increase GNP, we 'are reducing the capacity of the earth to support life, thereby literally killing the world' (Daly 1996:145).
But how can economic growth be detrimental? It creates jobs, products, profits, and dividends. It is supposed to promote democracy, end poverty, and lead to greater social equality. However, what seems to be largely hidden is the fact that GNP growth does not come out of thin air.
It is made possible only because nonmonetary capital can be converted into monetary capital (see, e.g., Bourdieu 1986:243). In this conversion process lies the genius of capitalism. Through the operation of a myriad of rules, regulations, values, and laws, the culture of capitalism encourages the conversion of items and activities that have no intrinsic monetary worth into items and activities that can be bought and sold in the marketplace. Thus trees, lakes, and mountains can be assigned a monetary value; activities once associated with family life and given freely, such as childcare, food preparation, and education, can be converted into monetary activities; freedom itself can be exchanged for money (see Figure 13.1 on p. 368).
FIGURE 13.1 The Conversion of Natural, Political, and Social Capital into Money
In other words, the growth of economic capital (or power or wealth) can take place only by converting nonmonetary forms of capital—such as natural, political, and social capital—into money and economic growth. Nonmonetary forms of capital represent savings (albeit in a nonmonetary form) as much as a bank account represents monetary savings. Viewed in this way, economic growth involves spending our savings, and counting it as income, squandering capital, and calling it growth. The question we need to ask is what are the rules by which these conversions occur? How are we doling out natural, political, and social capital to bloat our economic accounts?
The Depletion of Natural Capital
Much like money in a bank, natural capital consists of those features of the natural world that human beings and all other living things draw on for their maintenance and survival.
In the culture of capitalism we
draw on the environment for our food, shelter, travel, communication, and
virtually every other activity. Clearly the growth of GNP is dependent on the
environment. Fresh water, for example, is part of our natural capital. Whenever
we use water, we are withdrawing some of that capital. Globally 10 percent of
those withdrawals go
to household usage, while some 90 percent is used by global industry, and 65
percent of that for global agriculture and
meat production. According to the United Nations, however, there are one
billion people who lack access to fresh drinking water. Furthermore, in the interests of economic growth, industry expects
to double its consumption of fresh water in the next twenty-five years, leaving
about two-thirds of the world's population with a severe water shortage. In the
now, to be little doubt that we are running out of clean water; finding places
to dispose of toxic waste is becoming more and more difficult, and resource
depletion is running well ahead of our ability to find substitutes for those
resources (see Samat 2000). Each year each person in the
Ecological Footprint analysis developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William E. Rees (1996)
provides a tool that estimates the resource consumption and waste assimilation requirements of a specific
human population in terms of a corresponding land area. For example, based on an estimate of the amount of usable land in the
world, each person would have
approximately 4.2 acres (1.8 hectares); but, the global average used is 5.4
acres (2.3 hectares). Furthermore,
citizens in some countries use far more than the average. For the
The question is, what are the rules by which natural capital is converted into economic capital and growth in the GNP? The answer lies in some interesting bookkeeping tricks regarding what we count and what we don't count in our accounting.
Every product or service that we consume, that is everything on which we spend money, has at least four sets of costs; however, for the most part, our system of national accounts considers only one of these: (1) there are the costs that manufacturers pay to get something produced and distributed, costs that are then reflected in the prices people pay. Costs not assumed directly by manufacturers or consumers—that is not included in the retail price—include (2) environmental costs associated with the production of products, (3) the environmental costs of the item's use, and (4) the environmental costs of the product's disposal.
Computers provide a good example of the rules that allow us to externalize costs. Computer makers must put out money to purchase computer components or the raw materials to make them, purchase machines and pay the labor to design and make their products,
pay interests on loans and dividends on stocks, and pay shippers—truckers, railroads, shipping companies, etc.—to distribute their product. These costs are generally reflected in the price of the computers and all contribute to the GNP. However, there are a whole range of costs, many of them environmental, that are externalized; that is passed on to the
general public or to future generations. It begins
with the silicon chip, the basic component
in computers. There are 220 billion chips manufactured each year that contain
highly corrosive hydrochloric acid;
metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead; volatile solvents like methyl
chloroform, benzene, acetone, and trichloroethylene (TCE); and a number of
supertoxic gases. A single batch of chips requires on average 27 pounds of
chemicals, 9 pounds of hazardous waste, and 3,787 gallons of water
requiring extensive chemical treatment. Silicon Valley in
included in the price consumers pay are disposal costs. By the year 2004, experts estimate
that we will have over 315 million obsolete computers in the
Another set of rules that intensifies the conversion of natural capital into economic capital has to do with how we create money. Money, as we examined in Chapter 3, has changed over the past century. When money was tied to gold there were limits on the amount of money that could be issued. But with money tied to nothing of value, and banks and other lending institutions free to add money to the economy in the form of debt in an almost limitless fashion, all restrictions were off. Thus while money—a symbol of the value of resources—can grow infinitely (and must grow infinitely in a society of perpetual growth), the things that it represents are finite. In other words, our timber resources are finite, but there is no limit to the money that can buy timber. The consequences of this are not easy to grasp, but, simply put, it means that if there is no limit on the amount of money that can be created, there should be no limit on those things that money represents. As Herman Daly (1996:38) puts it,
Too many accumulations of money are seeking ways to grow exponentially in a world in which the physical scale of the economy is already so large relative to the ecosystem that there is not much room left for growth of any thing that has a physical dimension.
Conventional economics would solve or even ignore the problem by increasing the value of resources as they become scarcer, thereby enabling the continuous growth of money and GNP. But how high can one push the price of clean air, water, and other resources, and what price would be placed on them when they are gone?
The rule by which we create debt money encourages the conversion of natural capital in another way. In Chapter 3 we examined the problem of global debt and how countries borrowed heavily to promote economic growth. But to pay for that growth, and pay back the debts incurred to promote that growth, countries in the periphery must cut down their forests, accept toxic waste, and attract polluting industries. In effect they are converting their natural capital for money to repay debts and add to their GNP. In the process, however, they are mortgaging the future of their citizens and leaving a ruined living space.
The Depletion of Political Capital
In the 1991 Human Development Report, the United Nations issued its 'freedom index,' an attempt to measure the existence and effectiveness of democratic institutions among the countries of the world. Among the some thirty-nine items considered were freedom to travel, freedom of association, freedom of expression, various measures of freedom from arbitrary persecution, measures of political freedom, and measures of freedom of access to information. In that survey, countries were assigned a number from 1 to 40, 40 being the highest level of freedom (see Table 13.2).
The Human Freedom Index captures part of the essence of political capital. A society rich in political capital enables its members to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. Political capital is measured by the extent to which each person can signify by a vote or other means their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the state of things. It can be measured by the degree of access people have to those responsible for decision making.
TABLE 13.2 Human Freedom Index (Based on Conditions in 1985)
At one extreme are those societies in which individuals have virtually no say in their own fate, such as the state of slavery. The other extreme is the society that operates on consensus in which each and every person can affect collective decision making. Examples would be small-scale, gathering and hunting societies or a small group of friends deciding on which movie to see. Things that detract from political capital, but that may add to monetary capital, are authoritarian regimes, the application of deadly force, the undermining of democratic institutions, and economic debt.
The first question is how is do authoritarian regimes promote economic growth? There is no overall consensus. Studies done in the 1970s and 1980s indicated that authoritarian political regimes had higher rates of economic growth than did more democratic regimes. Other studies claim that the more democratic the regime, the higher the rate of economic growth (see e.g., Scully 1995). But the relationship was perhaps best expressed by a J. P. Morgan currency strategist on commenting on the establishment of a democratic government in Indonesia in 1998: 'Democracy,' he said, 'is a desirable form of government, but it's not necessarily the most efficient form of government' (Arnold 1999). What he meant, of course, is that authoritarian governments are better for business, and hence for economic growth, than democratic governments. That is, rules that encourage the centralization of power and the depletion of political capital also allow for greater accumulation of economic capital. Authoritarian governments are better able to suppress labor organizing, put down resistance to environmental destruction, confiscate property, offer generous tax benefits to investors, and cut back on social and education programs, all actions that encourage economic growth.
The rules now in existence in the global economy that permit the concentration of power in the hands of multinational corporations provide another example of how political capital can be converted into economic capital. As we noted earlier, of the world's one hundred largest economies, half are internal to corporations. The sales of Mitsubishi Trading Corporation are larger than the GDP of Indonesia, a country with the world's fourth largest population. The combined sales of the world's top two hundred corporations are equal to 28 percent of total world GDP (Anderson and Cavanagh 2000).
Nation-states, to further economic growth, have allowed and encouraged corporations to accumulate enormous economic and political power. CEOs can assign or withdraw resources at will; open and close plants, change product lines, or lay off workers with no recourse by persons or communities that are affected. The culture of capitalism, in the interests of increasing GNP, has transferred planning functions from governments accountable to their citizens, to corporations accountable only to their shareholders.
The consolidation of power and money in fewer and fewer corporations continues virtually unabated. Half of the top two hundred corporations represent just five economic sectors—trading, automobiles, banking, retailing, and electronics. In automobiles, the top five firms account for 60 percent of global sales; in electronics, the top five control over half of global sales. The top five firms in the areas of air travel, aerospace, steel, oil, computers, chemicals, and media control over 30 percent of all global sales (Anderson and Cavanagh 2000). The ten largest corporations in each sector controlled 86 percent of the telecommunications industry, 85 percent of the pesticides industry, 70 percent of the computer industry, 35 percent of pharmaceuticals, and 32 percent of commercial seed. In the interests of economic growth we are moving rapidly toward ever greater consolidation of
this unaccountable corporate power. Since 1992, the total value of corporate mergers has increased 50 percent a year in all but one, and most mergers are accompanied by massive layoffs.
can see the diminution of political capital and its conversion into economic capital in the nondemocratic
regimes of the WTO and IMF, and in trading agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the
Free Trade Area of the Americas
(FTAA). These agreements represent a transfer of power from largely
democratically elected governments accountable to their citizens, to nondemocratic institutions, controlled largely by
multinational corporations and accountable to no one, except perhaps
their stockholders. The panels empowered by these agreements can challenge environmental, health, labor, and social
laws and regulations established by legislative bodies. These panels can, in secret and with no possibility
for appeal, make decisions that may run counter to the wishes of the
citizens of member countries. Thus, even if
citizens in the
The expansion of armament production and distribution poses an additional danger to political capital. The production of armaments generates enormous wealth. As we saw in Chapter 4, in 1997 nation-states spent $842 billion on weapons. Much of this wealth comes at the expense of political freedoms crushed by these weapons. American 'security aid' has contributed at one time or another to the establishment and maintenance of dictatorial governments in Guatemala, Haiti, Chile, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iran, the Congo, Brazil, Argentina, and Nicaragua to name just a very few. Governments use these weapons primarily to maintain control over their citizens; they contribute to state terrorism and killing. In fact, the arms expenditures of developing countries reached a high in 1997 at $232 billion. And, as we saw in Chapters 4 and 9, even the more democratic among nation-states use force to suppress dissent and limit democratic prerogatives.
Debt, which contributes to the depletion of natural capital, also encourages the generation of rules that require indebted countries to sacrifice their autonomy and the political rights of their citizens to the nondemocratic regimes of the IMF and WTO. Thus against the will of citizens, indebted nation-states are forced to cut necessary social programs, devalue currency, or permit the takeover of services or property by corporations or foreign investors.
other areas in which our political capital is converted to economic growth, such as the increased
concentration of media sources in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The media is able to control what
sorts of information we get and to whom we listen. In the
The Depletion of Social Capital
Economic growth and development
also require the expenditure of social capital. The depletion of social capital has
received more recent attention through the work of sociologist Robert Putnam (2000). Putnam's work
documents what he considers the measurable decline in social capital in
social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense, social capital is closely related to what some have called 'civic virtue.'
Social capital allows people to acquire benefits through their membership in social networks, to resolve problems and make decisions collectively. Social capital bonds people together in groups enhancing trust and the conviction that others will 'do the right thing.' Social capital is evidenced in what anthropologists call generalized reciprocity, the giving of things to others with only the understanding that at some time in the future something will be received in exchange.
Social capital needn't be a positive thing. Strong social bonds among members of powerful groups may be used to deny resources to the poor or any nonmembers. Men's associations and clubs, while perhaps rich in social capital, may be used to deny access of economic resources to women. It is likely that the Klu Klux Klan was rich in social capital, but it was capital that was used to disenfranchise others. Thus social capital may have its 'dark' or 'perverse' side (see Putzel 1997; Rubio 1997).
Nevertheless, social capital can improve our lives by making people aware of how our fates are linked while building social networks that help people fulfill individual goals. In U.S. communities that are rich in social capital persons serve in local organizations, attend public meetings, vote, spend time working on community projects, visit friends frequently, entertain at home, and feel that 'most people can be trusted,' or agree with the statement that 'most people are honest.'
Alone Putnam (2000:287) measures the evolution of social capital in
Putnam attributes the decline of social capital to some four factors. About half of the decline, he says, is due to the slow, steady, replacement of a long 'civic generation' by a generation of their less involved children and grandchildren, and about one-quarter to the advent of electronic entertainment, particularly television. The rest of the decline he
attributes to time and money pressures on two career families and the increase of suburban sprawl that creates communities with no centers.
It is significant, of course, that most of the factors Putnam identifies as contributing to the decline of social capital, also contributes to economic growth. That is, we have converted social capital into economic capital by enacting rules and regulations that encourage suburban sprawl that, while reducing contact among people, creates new and larger homes, more expenditures on household items, more road and bridge construction, while creating a dependence on automobiles and all the expenses they involve. Two income families exchange time that might be spent in family activities for increased monetary exchanges and income, while television watching, which further reduces family interaction, nevertheless exposes people to thousands of hours of advertisements and media images that create new consumer needs, and offer happiness through goods. It is noteworthy perhaps that in an earlier study, Putnam (1996) named television as the main culprit in the decline of American social capital.
There are other ways, however, that we convert social capital into economic capital. To a great extent the economic growth in core countries of the past fifty years has been produced by transferring social capital-rich functions such as child care, food preparation, health care, entertainment, and maintenance of physical security from households or communities, where they did not count in GNP figures, to the market where they did count. Of course this is not an entirely new phenomenon. The process began with the first act of trade, but its acceleration over the past few centuries has completely transformed our social environments. When families gathered to collect food or slaughter game or livestock, multiple social interactions ensued. In the modern economy those interactions are replaced by a simple exchange of money at the grocery check-out counter.
We squander social capital in the name of economic growth, also, by the creation of and increase in social inequality. Social inequality creates unnecessary boundaries between people, increases mistrust and resentment, necessitates the creation of ideologies that attempt to justify social differences as natural differences, and, in the extreme of poverty, devastates individuals, families, and communities.
As GNP has
risen in the
situation is similar. While the
Perhaps one of the best examples of how economic growth and development destroys social capital can be seen in the movement of corporations from one country to another. In their search for greater profits, they leave behind broken communities and declining social capital, while creating virtual slums for low-paid workers, isolated and removed from the families in which they once lived. Yet companies will always move to areas in which decision makers are willing to sacrifice environmental, political, and social capital for an increase in GNP.
Capital and Public Policy
The process by which we diminish natural, political, and social capital is a relatively transparent one. When a policy decision is made by a government, a multilateral institution, or virtually any organization from a large corporation to a local school, that decision will almost always favor economic growth even if it requires the squandering of natural, political, or social capital. The decision of a government, with the support of an agency such as the World Bank, to build a huge dam may result in widespread environmental destruction, be dependent on and reinforce the power of an authoritarian government, and destroy the social capital of hundreds of communities built up over centuries. The decision will also produce wealth for a few while impoverishing many. Yet as we have seen time and again, the choice will be to build the dam.
The policy choice needn't involve huge construction projects to have an effect on the depletion of noneconomic capital. For example, our town has an oratorio society that each year presents a holiday concert at our college. In the past, after the concert, members and friends would prepare cakes and cookies for a reception for the audience. It was a nice conclusion to the event, promoted community interaction, and gave members of the oratorio group the satisfaction of creating a commensal meal. Even cleaning up afterwards created a sense of shared purpose and community. A few years ago, however, the college signed a contract with a major food corporation to provide campus food services. The contract contained a provision requiring that any food served on the campus be supplied by the company. In doing so, of course, the policy decision resulted in the depletion of the social capital that had been created by the communally oriented activities of those who, at their own expense, provided the refreshments and labor. Unfortunately, the oratorio society does not have the funds to pay for the food, and the after-concert gathering has been cancelled.
The policy decisions to build the dam or transfer food services to a large corporation were not necessarily 'bad' decisions. The dam created power for industry and homes, jobs for some, and irrigation facilities for food production. The policy decision to have a corporation provide the food was not a 'bad' one; the provision in the contract likely reduced food costs to students and provided a few student jobs for those paid to prepare and serve the food and clean up afterwards. It also contributed to the profits of a large corporation and added, imperceptibly in this case, to the GNP. But when almost all of the millions of policy decisions made by hundreds of thousands of decision makers all favor rules that promote the accumulation of monetary capital at the expense of nonmonetary capital, the result is a society rich in money but poor in almost everything else.
The intent of the previous analysis is not to dismiss the need for healthy economies. The issue has to do with the rules and regulations that nation-states and the culture of capitalism itself create to ensure economic growth, rules and regulations that take very little consideration of other areas of our lives. It is the economic reductionism of the sort we discussed in Chapter 6 that creates our obsession for greater and greater monetary wealth and has created consumption expectations well beyond what is reasonably required.
We need to be mindful also that any consideration of the conversion of one type of capital into another must recognize (1) the complexity of the interactions between our economic, natural, political, and social capital accounts and (2) the nature of the capital conversion rules that are in place. For example, measures to decrease environmental pollution that increase industrial costs may result in smaller manufacturers going out of business, resulting in greater centralization of corporate power and depletion of political capital. Increases in social capital, instead of sacrificing economic growth, may contribute to economic well-being. Thus anthropological studies of poverty reveal that impoverished conditions may lead to the formation of close, interlocking, cooperative groups that ensure economic and social support in times of need (see e.g., Stack 1973). Further, it is possible to convert economic capital into natural, political, and social capital. For example, gift-giving is the simplest way of converting economic capital into social capital. Clearly, then, the range of changes and the interrelationships among them must be carefully considered in any effort to rethink public policy.
Regardless, however, we need to realistically recognize that any effort to rebuild our stocks of natural, political, and social capital will require a significant cultural change and some sort of economic devolution, if only because economic growth can no longer be our sole priority. The question is whether or not there is the possibility for changing our misplaced sense of priorities that would sacrifice virtually everything else, including, as it does now in parts of the world, human lives for perpetual economic growth. For example, is it possible to add to our personas of consumers, laborers, and capitalists the persona of citizen-activist whose interests lie in building natural, political, and social capital even if it comes at the expense of economic growth and GNP? And, if we could, can we create policies and rules that would allow economic growth to be reversed, stopped, or even slowed without creating massive social and economic devastation ?
Constructing the Citizen-Activist
In November 1999 thousands of citizen-activists—labor leaders, environmentalists, indigenous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious groups—gathered in Seattle, Washington to protest against the WTO. The WTO is, in many ways, the perfect symbol of the growth-at-any-cost paradigm. It has proved more than willing to penalize countries for enacting environmental, social, health, and labor legislation that in any way restricts the right of corporations to make and sell anything they want, in any way they want. As we noted earlier, the WTO makes its decisions in virtual secrecy, with little or no accountability to the citizens of the countries that it comprises.
The protest did succeed in
disrupting the meetings, and protests against the World Bank and the IMF in
The protests may have also alerted
others, who share the same concerns, that they are not alone. Paul Ray and
Sherry Ruth Anderson (2000), claim that there are some 50 million people in the United States, 60 percent of
whom are women, whose reported values
are supportive of environmental reform, social justice, the building of helpful
relationships, psychological and spiritual development, and distrustful of the
power of corporations and media. Ray and Anderson distinguish between these
'Cultural Creatives,' as they call them, and the
'Moderns'—those who accept the commercialized, urban-industrial world, desire to make a lot of money, and so
on—and the 'Traditionals'—those who adhere to traditional values regarding religion, gender and family
relations, and are willing to accept authoritarian rule to maintain
social order. From their research, Ray and Anderson
conclude that Moderns represent 48 percent of the
While Cultural Creatives represent a significant portion of the population, say Ray and Anderson, they, however, are generally unaware of their numbers, assuming that there are far fewer who share their values than really do. Furthermore Cultural Creatives share many values in common with Traditionals. If they were able to consolidate their influence, they have the potential to redefine the political landscape and promote social change. Assuming, then, that it were possible to create a social or political movement to promote change, what sort of goals might such a movement articulate?
Indices and Goals for Weil-Being
We do not lack indices with which to measure our quality of life in other than economic terms. The Human Development Index (HDI), published annually by the United Nations (UN), for example, ranks nations according to their citizens' quality of life rather than solely economic criteria. It considers factors such as life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, gender equality, food, and income security, as well as GNP (see Table 13.3) Clearly economic factors are important, but they are not the sole indicators of the quality of life.
Redefining Progress, a nonprofit public policy institute proposes that we assess the state of a society through the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). The GPI takes household consumption as a base figure, and then adjusts it by adding factors such as the value of housework and parenting, value of volunteer work, and so on, while subtracting for such things as cost of environmental pollution, crime, noise, family breakdown, loss of leisure
*United Nations 2000 (see also https://www.undp.org/hdro/statistics.html).
TABLE 13.3 Most Livable Countries, 1998, Based on the Human Development Index*
time, all factors that would contribute to GNP. Subtracting items that diminish our quality of life, rather than adding them, as does the GNP, we find that as GNP has risen over the past few decades, the GPI has declined (see Figure 13.2).
In addition to the existence of alternative ways of measuring quality of life, and evidence of citizen support for social change, there are program proposals by governments and international institutions and agencies. For example, the IMF, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/Development Assistance Committee (OECD/ DAC), World Bank, and UN issue a set of international development goals (see Table 13.4).
The UN, under a program called the 'Global Compact,' has brought together some forty-four multinational corporations and banks—including Daimler Chrysler, Unilever, Deutsche Bank, BPAmoco, Novartis, Ericsson, and Nike—a couple of labor confederations, and NGOs—including the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund—to embrace policies supportive of human rights, labor, and the environment (see Table 13.5).
The goals established by various agencies to solve some of the problems that we have examined are certainly admirable. Yet given the fact that past efforts to remedy global problems have done little, it is difficult to be optimistic that the very agencies responsible for the global domination of the economic-growth paradigm could be capable of significant change. For example, in 1992 150 nations negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty designed to reduce the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The latest projections are that global temperatures will rise 4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, bringing the average temperature of the
FIGURE 13.2 Gross Production versus Genuine Progress, 1950-1998
Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1999, Redefining Progress (https://www.rprogress.org/ progsum/nip/gpi/gpi_main.html).
TABLE 13.4 International Development Goals
For economic well-being
Reduce by half the proportion of people in extreme poverty 2015
For social development
Achieve universal primary education 2015
Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education 2005
Reduce by two-thirds the mortality rates for infants and children under 5
and by three-fourths the mortality rates for mothers 2015
Provide access to reproductive health services for all individuals of appropriate age 2015
For environmental sustainability and regeneration
Implement national strategies for sustainable development 2005
Reverse current trends of loss of environmental resources globally and nationally 2015
From International Monetary Fund et al. 2000. A Better World for All: Progress Towards the International Development Goals. https://www.paris21 .org/betterworld/home.htm.
earth to a level
unseen since the era of the dinosaurs. In November 2000, nations met to try to
reach agreement on each nation's responsibility to reduce carbon emissions. However
the meetings collapsed as industrial nations, particularly the
TABLE 13.5 A Compact for a New Century
Principle 1 Support and respect the protection of international human rights within their sphere of influence
Principle 2 Make sure their own corporations are not complicit in human rights abuses
Principle 3 Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
Principle 4 The elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labor
Principle 5 The effective abolition of child labor
Principle 6 The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation
Principle 7 Support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges
Principle 8 Undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility
Principle 9 Encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly
From United Nations, 1999. The Global Compact. https://unglobalcompact.org/gc/unweb.nsf/content/thenine.htm.
spent millions of dollars to convince legislators and the public that global warming is 'theory' and not 'fact' or that global warming is a 'good thing.'2
The Means and Prospects for Change: Attaining Zero Economic Growth
If the obsession with economic growth and the GNP is the ultimate deciding factor in public policy decisions, whether at the international, national, institutional, local, or household level, then, if the previous analysis is accurate, we can expect little to change. We will simply continue to create and enforce rules and regulations that deplete natural, political, and social capital. The effects of this depletion will not be felt by all people at the same time. Indeed, many are already suffering, while others are hardly aware of the problems. But, sooner or later, all will confront the consequences of these cumulative decisions. Clearly any meaningful action will require a challenge to public policy analysts in the social sciences, humanities, and sciences to devise a coherent plan to reallocate different types of capital with the least possible economic, social, and political disruption. The question is, what sorts of measures do we need to consider to effect this type of change? The following represent some actions that could be considered and that have been proposed by others. Each would have to be examined by public policy makers in terms of how it relates to other proposals. Nevertheless, they reveal that we are not without concrete measures to remedy the problems that we, collectively, have created.
Rebuilding and Maintaining Natural Capital
Any action to rebuild natural capital must, at a minimum, not demand more from the ecosystem than the ecosystem can sustain. This, according to Herman Daly (1990), can only be accomplished when three conditions are met:
Rates of use of renewable resources must not exceed
the rates at which the ecosys
tem is able to regenerate them.
2. Rates of
consumption or irretrievable disposal of nonrenewable resources must not
exceed the rate at which renewable substitutes are developed and phased into use.
3. Rates of pollution
emission into the environment must not exceed the rates of the
ecosystem's natural assimilative capacity.
There are many actions that can promote environmental sustainability and that have been advocated by environmentalists. Here are just a few of the major ones.
■ Stop counting the consumption of natural capital as income. Consumption, if it is to be called income, must leave intact the resources to produce the same amount next year. We must stop treating natural capital as a free good. For example, the sale and export of lumber must be treated as a sale of a capital asset that not only generates income but also reduces future income and productivity.
2You can find out all about the supposed benefits of global warming at the web site of the Greening Earth Society at https://www.greeningearthsociety.org/ or the web site of the Global Climate Coalition at https://www. globalclimate.org/index.htm.
Tax labor and income less and tax resource throughput
more. Our current system of
energy taxation encourages energy usage by requiring governments to subsidize
throughput—energy, water, fertilizer, and even deforestation. Rather than allowing
producers and consumers to externalize costs, we must build those costs into our
Maximize the productivity of natural capital in the
short run, and invest in increas
ing its supply in the long run. For example, we must price a nonrenewable resource
(e.g., oil) the same or higher than a renewable substitute (e.g., wind). To do other
wise encourages the further depletion of nonrenewable resources and discourages
investment and development of renewable resources.
Devise a 'garbage index' (see Korten
1998:47) to reduce to zero the amount of
waste we pour into the environment that is not recyclable.
Place a holding fee on money to provide incentives to
hold real (e.g., trees) rather
than virtual (e.g., money) assets. In our present way of doing things, trees (or any
other noninterest bearing commodity) generate no income, and may even require
the payment of taxes. It makes sense, then, as a member of the Malaysian govern
ment suggested, to cut down and sell all the forests reasoning that the money earned
would gain interest, while the standing forest generated no income.
To maintain national or local control over resources,
move away from the ideology
of global economic integration by free trade, free capital mobility, and export-led
growth. Create rules to encourage a more nationalistic orientation to develop do
mestic production for internal markets as the first option, developing international
trade only when it is clearly much more efficient in preserving natural capital.
As Herman Daly (1996:93) points out, by erasing national boundaries we weaken the communities that alone are capable of devising policies for the common good. If nations, or localities for that matter, have no control over local resources, they are in a poor position to defend them.
Restoring Political Capital
How is it possible for people to restore control over
their lives? Obviously for some it is an
easier task than for others. Given the military power of peripheral countries,
it is, as we have seen, difficult for
people to reassert their control. However, one might take heart at how a relatively small group of
indigenous peoples in
For some, however, the real danger to democracy is not from nation-states, but from the increasing power of corporations. For David Korten (1998, 1999), it is corporations that deplete natural capital by strip-mining forests and marketing toxic chemicals; they deplete social capital by maintaining substandard working conditions, by breaking up unions, bidding down wages, and uprooting plants leaving devastated communities in their wake; and they deplete political capital by subverting governments to subsidize their costs and weaken environmental, health, and labor standards.
Korten (1999) proposes the following concrete measures to limit corporate power and influence:
End the legal fiction of corporate personhood. This
1886 Supreme Court ruling (by
essentially one judge) that granted corporations the same rights as persons, changed
corporations from political participation. It is clearly not fair to allow cor
porations with billions of dollars in financial resources to lobby elected legislators
in ways not open to individual citizens.
serious political campaign reform to reduce the influence of money on
Eliminate corporate welfare by eliminating direct
subsidies and recovering other
externalized costs through fees and taxes.
Implement mechanisms to regulate international
corporations and finance. The Tobin
Tax (named for Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin), if implemented, would
place sales taxes on cross-border currency trades (which amount to about $ 1.8 trillion
a day). The benefits include discouraging short-term currency trading that can leave
nations devastated by the rapid withdrawal of money, while raising about $100 to
$300 billion a year to fund urgent international priorities such as debt relief.
Use fiscal and regulatory policy to make financial
speculation unprofitable and to
give an economic advantage to human-scale, stakeholder-owned enterprise.
Encourage responsible spending and investing that
enables consumers and inves
tors to assert some degree of power over what is produced and the conditions under
which it is produced. Work to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of
corporate and government practices that promote oppression (e.g., sweatshop
labor) and encourage them to redirect spending and investing accordingly.
Korten agrees also with Herman Daly that we should disband institutions such as the WTO and IMF. The culture of both is imbued with the policy assumption that all problems can be solved through economic growth. Instead, says Korten, we must devise policies that return economic power to local communities. For example:
Tax short-term capital gains substantially higher than
earned income. This will dis
courage financial speculators from disrupting local and national economies by the
sudden withdrawal of funds.
Encourage the use of local currencies. This encourages
local businesses and en
courages local investments.
Make the creation of national currencies a public
function, rather than allowing
banks and other financial institutions to increase the money supply through debt.
■ Restore the concept of community banking.
In general, says Korten (1998:20), we must work to return the power that we have yielded to institutions of global finance to local institutions and communities.
Rebuilding Social Capital
Finally we need to establish policy initiatives that would rebuild social capital. Economist Herman Daly (1996:203) recommends that we begin by reducing the gap between the
rich and the poor through a
maximum and a minimum income. This maximum and minimum, he says, should be
limited by a factor of ten. In the
It may be time, says Daly (1996:206-207) to reconsider the Biblical limits on capital accumulation in which the limit was what one could accumulate in 50 years, at which point resources were redistributed. We must put aside, says David Korten (1998:30), the illusion that economic growth will end poverty.
As we must do to rebuild natural and political capital, to rebuild social capital we must rebuild local communities. We can begin, suggests Korten (1998:57-58), by trying to determine how rich our own communities are in social capital. Ask yourselves the following questions about your community:
Do people prefer to shop in small local shops run by
merchants they know by name
or in mega-shopping malls and large retail chain outlets? Do they favor the farmer's
market or the supermarket?
farms small, individually owned, and family operated? Or are they controlled
by huge corporate enterprises and worked mainly by itinerant landless laborers?
Are there local noncommercial print, radio, and television
media where members of
the community can express a diversity of ethnic, social, political, and cultural views
where they will be heard by most of the community? Or is the majority of commu
nity news and needs filtered through commercially controlled media?
Do people devote their free time to Little League
baseball, community gardens,
local theater, community choirs, community centers, and school boards—or to
watching commercial TV?
there credit cooperatives and local banks committed to supporting local enter
prise or only branches of large urban banks engaged in channeling local deposits
into their global financial operations?
Do residents consider the area their permanent home or
are working and profes
sional people largely itinerant?
Do most households feel secure in their basic
sustenance or do they depend for their
survival on poorly paid temporary work?
■ Are productive assets owned locally or by distant corporations?
Are forests harvested selectively and sustainably by
local firms to provide material
for local industry? Or are local forests stripped bare every 40 to 60 years by global
corporations and the raw timber exported to distant lands?
The answers to these questions predict the sense of dignity, freedom, responsibility, prosperity, and security of individual people and the extent to which relationships are characterized by trust, caring, and cooperation.
The role of women, says Korten (1998:62-63), is critical in the rebuilding of social capital. Hence there must be policies that create incentives to provide multiple economic, political, and social options for women. Among these are:
an economic policy that allows a household to subsist on one income. This
need not return women to their traditional roles; rather it provides families a choice
regarding the division of labor for traditional family tasks.
Reverse the structural adjustment policies of the
World Bank and IMF to give prior
ity to the needs of local enterprise and the creation of good wages over the repay
ment of foreign loans.
■ Extend to household workers and volunteers the same benefits as paid workers.
■ Issue measures of the amount of social capital and contributions of unpaid labor.
■ Assure women equal rights and access to land and shelter.
■ Encourage political participation by women.
■ Sustain a community media system.
These then are concrete policy suggestions through which we can begin to alleviate some of the problems we have explored. Certainly we have the means through which we can improve peoples' quality of life, return political control to local areas, and sustain the environment. There seems to be a significant number of people, perhaps even a considerable majority, that would welcome the implementation of some, if not all, of these measures. The question is, what would provide the impetus to action? We are, after all, talking about a significant cultural change, not entirely unlike those promoted for the periphery by core governments and institutions, such as the World Bank. Most of the measures proposed above have been around for some time, but clearly national priorities have not veered from the promotion of economic growth regardless of the consequences. What, then, would make people, particularly those in power in either the core or periphery, significantly change their priorities?
Solving the problems reviewed in this book will require change in both patterns of everyday individual choices and in the way we view the world.
Every day we make choices that reduce, maintain, or add to our natural, political, or social capital. When we choose to purchase an item at a large-scale chain store, we may save money, but we may also take away business from local enterprises whose success supports our neighbors. By purchasing the item, we may tacitly support the exploitation of cheap labor and add to the economic power of multinational corporations whose power can then be used to sway or control the policy decisions and legislation of local and national governments. By choosing to purchase an item or not purchase an item, we add, perhaps imperceptibly to pollution and waste. Individual decisions themselves, of course, may have little impact. But when millions, following some cultural imperative, make the same choice, the results can be either destructive or constructive.
Meaningful change, therefore, will only occur when cumulative decisions and the rules that dictate those decisions change. However, it is hard to conceive of individuals altering these choices when their view of the world and of others is essentially materialistic. Over the past three centuries we have evolved a cosmology that assumes that the creation of the universe was essentially accidental and that the evolution of life consisted of mil-
lions of random occurrences. Those of us (including the author) who reject any sort of divine or spiritual intervention in the creation of life have a difficult time attributing any special significance to living things or to other members of our species for that matter. But this view creates a dilemma, because this view of the world is not one that would inspire anyone to want to save it.
In January of 1990 at a meeting in Moscow of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, a group of well-known scientists organized by Carl Sagan presented 'An Open Letter to the Religious Community' to encourage a common cause to save the earth. Its text states that:
As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem, it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus, there is a vital role for both religion and science.3
The letter led
to a meeting in May of 1992 in
Apparently some religious leaders had the same thought, and wondered how a change towards sustainability could take place without a conviction that the universe carries meaning or that it is the 'unfolding of a promise.' As theologian John F. Haught (quoted in Daly 1996:19) put it,
A commonly held sense that the cosmos is a significant process, that it unfolds something analogous to what we humans call 'purpose,' is, I think an essential prerequisite of sustained global and intergenerational commitment to the earth's well being.
Stephen Jay Gould (1991:14) expressed this dilemma well when he said that,
We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.
3The letter is available on the web at https://www.nrpe.org/nrpefiles/openletter.html.
But where does this 'love' come from? Where is this spirituality supposed to originate? There is a disconnection in the idea that scientists can use love as a tool for saving what for them is an accidental and pointless universe. In the words of Daly (1996:21):
There is something fundamentally silly about biologists teaching on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday that everything, including our sense of value and reason, is a mechanical product only of genetic chance and environmental necessity, with no purpose whatsoever, and then on Tuesday and Thursday trying to convince the public that they should love some accidental piece of this meaningless puzzle enough to fight and sacrifice to save it.
Environmentalists who utilize indigenous spirituality and a supposedly mystic tie to nature are guilty also of trying to appropriate religious values to lend legitimacy to sustainability. Like the scientists, they are trying to inculcate some sort of religious legiti-mization into an essentially materialist agenda.
seems also to be a realization that without some moral, religious, or spiritual
imperative, the kinds of changes that are required to solve the questions we
have addressed in this book, cannot be addressed with any sort of urgency, if
at all. In the history of social movements in
[a] change of heart, a renewal of the mind, and a healthy dose of repentance. These are all religious terms, and that is no coincidence, because a change in the fundamental principles we live by is a change so deep that it is essentially religious whether we call it that or not.
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