1 Apr 2018

‘Your bank account was your history of generosity’

From Sunday Morning, 10:05 am on 1 April 2018

Author and activist Charles Eisenstein says we live in a time of anxiety and separation. He’s proposing a new economic system to encourage a sense of community.

Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein Photo: Supplied

Eisenstein’s books, including The Ascent of Humanity, Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, explore themes of consciousness, economics, ecology, civilisation and human cultural evolution.

He graduated with a degree in maths and philosophy from Yale and continued reading and writing as he tried out many different jobs. He went through bankruptcy and divorce, and had to self-publish The Ascent of Humanity when no-one would take it on.

“Usually it takes some kind of breakdown to shake a person loose from the hallucination of mass culture and that breakdown could be a crisis in health or money, work, relationships especially,” Eisenstein says.

As a young person he had a feeling there was something deeply wrong in the world that was presented to him as normal.

Eisenstein says our attraction to entertainment such as video games and celebrity news are more a symptom than a cause of our disconnection and separation.  “Why should it be uncomfortable just sitting there doing nothing?” he says.

That the modern human seems to feel they should always be doing something may be because economic insecurity is built into our system, he says. Even the extremely wealthy try to accumulate more in case of a stock market crash.

“This is an anxiety and an insecurity that does not exist in traditional people’s cultures. They have community. In community, you know that if misfortune befalls you, other people around you will take care of you.

“In modern society we live in a world of strangers … even the people who take care of our children are very often paid professionals, not part of a web of community, so this gives us a feeling of void inside, and aloneness that then drives all kinds of consumption - of products, of food, of drugs.”

The basic feeling of wellbeing and security in the world has been taken from us. “That’s a primal form of wealth that we have lost, and we’re not recovering, no matter how much GDP rises.”

In Sacred Economics he refers to the gift economy where people would get together to help each other in need.

“Your bank account wasn’t how much resource you could control for yourself, it was basically your history of generosity.

“Today, obviously, we have a different system where it seems the one who gives the most is the one left with nothing and the one who is the most stingy and controls and hoards the most, is the one with the most power.”

His answer to encouraging abundance comes down to “nuts and bolts economics”.

He suggests a monetary system that doesn’t depend on growth, and where hoarded money essentially loses value over time, giving an incentive to continually circulate money.

“Because no one wants to hoard money, you no longer need to hoard money.”

Eisenstein says economic growth means either more nature being turned into products or more relationships being turned into services.

“Neighbours helping each other rebuild after a fire, got turned into insurance … people getting together and playing sports and singing songs, that got turned into the entertainment industry.”

We risk becoming “so rich in quantifiable goods and services but so poor in genuine relationships that we are living in a hell dressed up as a paradise," he says.

Eisenstein has made Sacred Economics available online for people to pay what they want for it.

He says that’s a demonstration of one of the themes of the book; a critique of intellectual property, and an understanding that ideas are not something generated in isolation from conversations, social relationships and the history of thought.

“To cordon off some of this productivity and say that ‘this is mine’, that just doesn’t feel good. Most people end up buying it … but every time somebody from like Bangladesh writes me and says ‘thank you for putting it online otherwise I never would have read it’ I know that I made the right decision.”