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Sacred Economics

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

Some of my favourite excerpts…

Money utterly fails to connect gifts and needs. Why? For years, following conventional opinion, I thought the answer was “greed.” Why do sweatshop factories push wages down to the bare minimum? Greed. Why do people buy gas-guzzling SUVs? Greed. Why do pharmaceutical companies suppress research and sell drugs that they know are dangerous? Greed. Why do tropical fish suppliers dynamite coral reefs? Why do factories pump toxic waste into the rivers? Why do corporate raiders loot employee pension funds? Greed, greed, greed.

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Ultimately, greed is a red herring, itself a symptom and not a cause of a deeper problem. To blame greed and to fight it by intensifying the program of self-control is to intensify the war against the self, which is just another expression of the war against nature and the war against the other that lies at the base of the present crisis of civilization.

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who say we are going to have to make do with less. In fact, we are going to make do with more: more beauty, more community, more fulfillment, more art, more music, and material objects that are fewer in number but superior in utility and aesthetics. The cheap stuff that fills our lives today, however great its quantity, can only cheapen life.

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The more monetized society is, the more anxious and hurried its citizens. In parts of the world that are still somewhat outside the money economy, where subsistence farming still exists and where neighbors help each other, the pace of life is slower, less hurried. In rural Mexico, everything is done mañana. A Ladakhi peasant woman interviewed in Helena Norberg-Hodge’s film Ancient Futures sums it all up in describing her city-dwelling sister: “She has a rice cooker, a car, a telephone—all kinds of time-saving devices. Yet when I visit her, she is always so busy we barely have time to talk.”

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When money mediates all our relationships, we too lose our uniqueness to become a standard consumer of standard goods and services, and a standard functionary performing other services. No personal economic relationships are important because we can always “pay someone else to do it.” No wonder, strive as we might, we find it so hard to create community. No wonder we feel so insecure, so replaceable.

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In The Ascent of Humanity I wrote, “We don’t really need each other.” … What better description could there be of the loss of community in today’s world? We don’t really need each other. We don’t need to know the person who grows, ships, and processes our food, makes our clothing, builds our house, creates our music, makes or fixes our car; we don’t even need to know the person who takes care of our babies while we are at work. We are dependent on the role, but only incidentally on the person fulfilling that role. Whatever it is, we can just pay someone to do it (or pay someone else to do it) as long as we have money. And how do we get money? By performing some other specialized role that, more likely than not, amounts to someone paying us to do something for them … The necessities of life have been given over to specialists, leaving us with nothing meaningful to do (outside our own area of expertise) but to entertain ourselves. Meanwhile, whatever functions of daily living that remain to us are mostly solitary functions: driving places, buying things, paying bills, cooking convenience foods, doing housework. None of these demand the help of neighbors, relatives, or friends. We wish we were closer to our neighbors; we think of ourselves as friendly people who would gladly help them. But there is little to help them with. In our house-boxes, we are self-sufficient. Or rather, we are self-sufficient in relation to the people we know but dependent as never before on total strangers living thousands of miles away.

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When I ask people what is missing most from their lives, the most common answer is “community.” But how can we build community when its building blocks—the things we do for each other—have all been converted into money? Community is woven from gifts.

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To introduce consumerism to a previously isolated culture it is first necessary to destroy its sense of identity. Here’s how: Disrupt its networks of reciprocity by introducing consumer items from the outside. Erode its self-esteem with glamorous images of the West. Demean its mythologies through missionary work and scientific education. Dismantle its traditional ways of transmitting local knowledge by introducing schooling with outside curricula. Destroy its language by providing that schooling in English or another national or world language. Truncate its ties to the land by importing cheap food to make local agriculture uneconomic. Then you will have created a people hungry for the right sneaker.

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The time is here, though, for the reverse process to begin in earnest—to remove things from the realm of goods and services and return them to the realm of gifts, reciprocity, self-sufficiency, and community sharing. Note well: this is going to happen anyway in the wake of a currency collapse, as people lose their jobs or become too poor to buy things. People will help each other, and real communities will reemerge.

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own future, community is probably the best investment you can make. When the financial system unravels, most investments become mere pieces of paper or electronic data files. They derive value only from the web of social agreements that contains and interprets them. Even physical gold doesn’t provide much security when things get really bad. In times of extreme crisis, governments typically confiscate private gold holdings—Hitler, Lenin, and Roosevelt all did so.

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the gratitude, connections, and support of the people around you. If you have wealth now, I recommend, as your investment advisor, that you use it to enrich the people around you in lasting ways.

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In the meantime, before the collapse of the current system, anything we do to protect some natural or social resource from conversion into money will both hasten the collapse and mitigate its severity. Any forest you save from development, any road you stop, any cooperative playgroup you establish; anyone you teach to heal themselves, or to build their own house, cook their own food, or make their own clothes; any wealth you create or add to the public domain; anything you render off-limits to the world-devouring Machine will help shorten the Machine’s life span. And when the money system collapses, if you already do not depend on money for some portion of life’s necessities and pleasures, then the collapse of money will pose much less of a harsh transition for you.

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Usury-money is the money of growth, and it was perfect for humanity’s growth stage on earth and for the story of Ascent, of dominance and mastery. The next stage is one of cocreative partnership with earth. The Story of the People for this new stage is coming together right now. Its weavers are the visionaries of fields like permaculture, holistic medicine, renewable energy, my core mediation, local currencies, restorative justice, attachment parenting, and a million more. To undo the damage that the Age of Usury has wrought on nature, culture, health, and spirit will require all the gifts that make us human, and indeed is so impossibly demanding that it will take those gifts to a new level of development.

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A golden opportunity to transition to negative-interest money may be nigh in the form of the “debt bomb” that nearly brought down the global economy in 2008. Consisting of high levels of sovereign debt, mortgage debt, credit card debt, student loans, and other debts that can never be repaid, the debt bomb was never defused but just delayed. New loans were issued to enable borrowers to repay old ones, but of course unless the borrowers increase their income, which will only happen with economic growth, this only pushes the problem into the future and makes it worse. At some point, default is inevitable. Is there a way out? There is. The answer lies in a modern-day version of the Solonic economic reform 2,600 years ago: debt forgiveness and reform of the conventions of money and property. At some point, it will be necessary to face reality: the debts will never be repaid. Either they can be kept in place anyway, and debtor individuals and nations kept in perpetual servitude, or they can be released and the slate wiped clean.

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With the introduction of free-money, money has been reduced to the rank of umbrellas; friends and matter of course with loans of money. No one keeps, or can keep, reserves of money, since money is under compulsion to circulate. But just because no one can form reserves of money, no reserves are needed. For the circulation of money is regular and uninterrupted. —Silvio Gesell

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What is happening is that the business model that has worked for all human history (find something people do for themselves or each other in a gift economy, take it away from them, and then sell it back) is being reversed. The internet is allowing people once again to do things for themselves and each other without paying for it. Eric Reasons comments, Maybe the reason we’re having such a hard time finding out ways to monetize various internet services like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, is that they can’t be monetized … or at least not at replacement rates to the industries and services that they’re supplanting. This is exactly what the print media is finding out the hard way as it tries to shift to an online model.6

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We’re told to believe in our future in a knowledge-based economy, but nobody has really figured out how to make real money of it. Of those who are making money off of it (Craigslist, Google), they are making pennies per dollar in the old markets that they’ve upset or practically eliminated with their innovation. This isn’t because we haven’t found the right monetization scheme yet. It is because innovation is leading to efficiency and not growth, and that is exerting deflationary pressure on bloated industries. Moreover, it is largely being done by us, the end user, in our free time, because we want to create and share, not just consume. While a redirection allow people to do important work that does not generate an economic return.

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The question, then, is how to create conditions that allow people to do important work that does not generate an economic return.

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Sacred Economics envisions a world where people do things for love, not money. What would you be doing in such an economy? Would you be reclaiming a toxic waste dump? Being a “big sister” to troubled adolescents? Creating sanctuaries for victims of human trafficking? Reintroducing threatened species into the wild? Installing gardens in inner-city neighborhoods? Putting on public performances? Helping decommissioned veterans adjust to civilian life? What would you do, freed from slavery to money? What does your own life, your true life, look like? Underneath the substitute lives we are paid to live, there is a real life, your life. To be fully alive is to accept the guidance of the question, “What am I here for?” Most jobs today deny that feeling, since we are evidently not here to work on an assembly line or to push product or to do anything complicit in human impoverishment or ecological destruction. No one really wants to do such work, and someday, no one shall.

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willingly receive a gift is itself a form of generosity. It says, “I am willing to owe you one.” Or, in a more sophisticated gift culture, it says, “I am willing to be in the debt of the community.”

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culture and how much relearning there is to do. Much of what goes by the name of modesty or humility is actually a refusal of ties, a distancing from others, a refusal to receive. We are as afraid to receive as we are to give; indeed, we are incapable of doing one without the other.

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We can, to use Gesell’s phrase, reduce money to the rank of umbrellas, freely lending it or giving it to friends who are in need. There is, of course, no guarantee that I will always receive the money or other gifts I need when I need them. I expect sometimes to have no money at all, but for this to be a matter of little anxiety. On the other hand, I might starve and regret not having accumulated and protected a nest egg. But I doubt it, and for me the freedom from worry and anxiety—the open, flowing, light experience of letting it go—far outweighs the risk. If you want guarantees, then go ahead and accumulate, until you discover that the promised security is a mirage, that life’s vicissitudes have a way of invading the fortress of wealth.

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We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. —Wendell Berry

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Money as we know it might disappear, but the relationships of gratitude and obligation will remain.

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Just as financial investments won’t survive economic collapse, so also does the end of life mean the end of all our accumulations. At that moment, what will give you joy? The memory of all you have given. Upon death, we take with us only what we have given. As in a gift culture, that is what our wealth will be. By giving, we lay up treasures in heaven. When we merge with the All, we receive that which we gave to all.

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even a child can understand it. It says, “I have more money than I can use, so I will let someone else use it.” That is an investment or a loan. And a bank or other investment intermediary is someone who is adept at finding someone else to use it. Banking, in its sacred dimension, says, “I will help you find someone who can use your money beautifully.” I once shared this idea with an actual banker whom I met at a conference, and tears came to his eyes—tears of the recognition of the spiritual essence of his calling.

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Let me be clear—I am not suggesting that entrepreneurs put themselves out of business by selling at breakeven. I am talking about investing, not earning. It is one thing to receive rewards for doing good work in the world; it is quite another to add money to money by virtue of having money.

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If the cow had been free, and she’d had no compulsion to earn money, she might have distributed the milk through the channels of a traditional gift network. With a financial obligation hanging over her head, she cannot do this even if she wants to. Following this thread farther, who are those willing and able to pay for milk? They are those who themselves earn a cash income. People who need milk cannot get it if they are living mostly in a gift economy. The entry of a new “business” into the village nudges it away from traditional reciprocity networks and toward the world of money. If it weren’t for the interest

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As socially conscious investors, you don’t want to contribute to the monetization of life and nature.

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So badly have we damaged planet and spirit that it will require a full outpouring of all our gifts to heal it. The outpouring of gifts comes from gratitude. Therefore, the best investment you can make with your money is to generate gratitude.

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Right-wing criticisms of pro-environment, pro-labor, antiwar policies are correct—they do hurt economic growth. If I go to an indigenous culture, convince its people that subsistence farming is degrading and primitive, and induce them instead to work in a factory and join the market economy, then GDP rises (and I’ve created an “investment opportunity”). If, on the other hand, I inspire people to abandon their high-paying jobs and “go back to the land,” then GDP falls. If I create a community where we no longer pay for child care but instead care for each others’ children cooperatively, then GDP falls. And if we succeed in protecting the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, that’s tens of billions of dollars that will never materialize. That is why I say we are using money to destroy money.

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In right livelihood, then, I suggest that we orient ourselves toward our need and desire to give. I suggest that we look at the world with eyes of, “What opportunity is there to give?” and “How may I best give of my gifts?” Hold that intention in mind, and unexpected opportunities arise.

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“Some things are too good to sell. We can only give them away.”

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The attitude of the giver, in contrast, says, “I will give you this gift—and I trust you to give me what you think is appropriate.

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not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs. There is no community possible among a group of people who do not need each other. Therefore, any life that seeks to be independent of other people for the meeting of one’s needs is a life without community. The gifts that weave community cannot be mere superficialities; they must meet real needs. Only then do they inspire gratitude and create the obligations that bind people together. The difficulty in creating community today is that when people meet all their needs with money, there is nothing left to give.

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To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our experience of life, that we no more know what it is we are missing than a fish knows it is wet.

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“Too bad we have to leave our gigantic suburban homes behind because they use too much energy,” we will no longer want those homes because we will recognize and respond to our need for personal, connected, sacred dwellings in tight communities. The same goes for the rest of the modern consumer lifestyle. We will put it aside because we can no longer stand the emptiness, the ugliness. We are starving for spiritual nourishment. We are starving for a life that is personal, connected, and meaningful.

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It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings. —Wendell Berry

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