June 18, 2012

Never Before and Always

The current issue of Tricycle features an interview with author, entrepreneur, and activist Paul Hawken that explores the increase in civil-society activism that has occurred internationally in the past year. As a follow-up to the interview, Paul wrote this guest blog post, which looks at the deep and concrete implications of financial issues that often appear to non-specialists as impenetrably abstract. The interview, "Upsurge: How Paul Hawken Anticipated Occupy Wall Street and the Rise of Leaderless Movements," can be found here.  

In a recent interview a Swiss banker described how mules were bringing in vast amounts of currency hidden in cars into Switzerland from all over Europe. They employ dog sniffers try to ferret it out. The border guards are trying to stop the flow because it results in higher values for the Swiss Franc (more buyers than sellers), which makes Swiss exports uncompetitive. The guards stop cars coming out of Switzerland in order to identify the mules (they make many repeat trips) smuggling in hard currency. When the banker was asked why people were doing this, his answer was simple: People are very afraid.

One can look at the 2008 financial collapse in many ways. The view I take is that this was not a cyclical event such as a recession but a secular event in the economic sense, a trend that persists for many decades. When President Nixon declared in 1971 that the US dollar could no longer be converted to gold, what he was tacitly saying (whether he knew it or not) was that money was a political tool that could be created by government in ways that were not accountable to any standard or metric of value. People have ascribed nefarious motives to that act, but I do not. I see it in straightforward terms: this was the point when debt could be endlessly accelerated (the creation of money always begins with the creation of debt) in order to stimulate the US economy beyond its carrying capacity.  In other words, it became easier to make and consume more than we could afford. Unconsciously, it was a way to sidestep an economy that was sustainable, durable, and bounded by living systems. We spent more and more, and postponed the reckoning of financial debt, resource debt and social debt. Succeeding recessions and crises were treated by injections of money that patched the wounds, papered over feedback, and smoothed the road ahead. The road ahead led to 2008 and Swiss boarder guards sniffing cars from Italy loaded with Russian rubles in 2012.

We are experiencing a slow motion descent into financial chaos because of this excessive debt creation. This moment is akin to groundlessness in Buddhism, the realization that what we thought was true and real is not. What we counted on as solid was our measures of wealth (currency) and the amount of wealth (assets). Every person experiences groundlessness, starting with childhood awe and wonder to the moment we know we are about to die. Billions of people will watch the illusion of wealth slough off in sundry crises, perhaps culminating into one larger crises of collective realization. This has happened throughout history in countries and regions but this is the first time it will be a global event. The world is stitched inextricably into one financial ball and like the Titanic, there are insufficient bulkheads in the system to prevent flooding and capsize. Occupy wants to remedy it. Speculators want to take advantage of it. What is happening is inexorably sad because there is real loss, loss to livelihood, health, well being, and more.  It is also a blessing. It is the earth goddess Pachamama talking back to her children. Pema Chödrön speaks prophetically, with her soft clear advice about groundlessness, how our habits, hopes, and ersatz security are the first to go in such shifts of reality. The realization that can arise from economic chaos is how precious we are to each other, how interdependent we are and should be, how human goodness is our milk and bread, and how real wealth abounds if we offer it. Like jewels covered with mud.

—Paul Hawken

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