But the interest?

From the Editor

Another right-wing e-mail accuses environmentalists of striving to destroy the economy. We value trees and slugs and bats more than a healthy manufacturing sector, he says; clean water more than a Dow above 10,000.

And he is right, of course.

Environmentalists take pains to talk of ethical business, of fair trade, of zero-waste corporations and green certification. Are the products extracted sustainably from the earth? Does the corporation pay a fair share of the profit to its workers? Good questions to ask, worthy issues to advance.

But the right-wingers are on to something. A dispassionate examination of the world reveals the sad truth: The crisis demands the economy, as it is now defined, be destroyed.

The economy has long since ceased to be synonymous with the general welfare. A fatal plague would boost the GDP, as cash flowed out for expensive medicines and caskets and flowers and grief counseling services. An arsonist burns down a nursing home and the one that replaces it is built far more shoddily: an unambiguous gain for the economy. “Leaner” corporations are a sign of robust economic health, and large payroll and pension funds taken as symptoms of sclerotic decay. The pundits criticize a large big-box chain for wasting shareholder dollars: You treat your workers too well! You must be stopped!

Most people’s lives decline as the economy prospers.

But there is something deeper here.

Most money now is debt, and interest must be paid. A loan is made and money created, the loan is paid and that money is destroyed. But the interest? The interest remains, and at its root is extracted from the ground. All wealth is grass, or rock, or oil. The new economy has freed us from the physical! Yet clean room workers must still eat rice, and another forest hectare cleared and river diverted to flood paddies. That venture capital comes from truck drivers’ labor, a secretary’s pension. No one breaks a sweat around the boardroom table. Our labor is extracted from us as beef is extracted from a range. Labor is a natural resource, the distillation of air and water and green plants into human skill and effort.

“Growth for the sake of growth: the ideology of the cancer cell,” said Edward Abbey famously. He spoke of Phoenix, but it is as true of NASDAQ. This finite world can long contain no exponentials. It is growth we need! And then the inevitable collapse, but the suits talk unironically of permanent increase.

To feed all people sufficiently, to make sure the curably ill are cured, to tend adequately to the incurably ill, to school and house all well, should be our economics. The world is likely too small to allow even this, but it would be a more humane pursuit. If each transaction siphons off the better part of value as interest or as profit, a hundred Earths will never be enough. A steel-worker’s lungs, an island forest, the eyesight of a Saipan seamstress, a clear stream running to the ocean, the lives of soldiers fighting over reservoirs of oil: some things are priceless, and therefore the economy finds them worthless.

Chris Clarke signature graphic

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