Money & Life

How many times do we say: “Well, it would be better in the long term if we all did X  but it would not make money?” Or, “there isn’t enough money?” Or “it would not be competitive?”  Or even worse: “We all know that X is a destructive thing to do but we all have to make a living.” In a sense, we say that last line to ourselves every day  because that is how our economy works; it is built on “growth”, which, as the world stands, is a code word for exponential extraction and destruction of natural and social resources.

How did it come to be that we are controlled by money? How is it that our creation is controlling us?  It’s fashionable to worry about the advent of AI (artificial intelligence) – and with good reason.  We have already created a technology, a relatively simple technology, that is out of control – money and the system of valuation that underlies it.  It is for money that we are burning up the only world we have.  We are already fooled by and the slaves of our own creation, and our financial system is nothing as sophisticated as what it will be when augmented by AI, blockchain, cloud-computing and big data. 

Now would be a good time to get a handle on our creation.  Now would be a good time to think about where we are going. 

Money is our creation: each of us individually, and as a members of communities, societies, and this civilization.  We have the responsibility to shape the values that we live by and the purpose we live for, and to understand and control the functioning of our creations and technologies.  Money, a fundamental technology of civilization, is the expression of our will and the means of our working together.  What we buy and sell, the jobs we do and don’t do for money are an exact expression of our will and vision.

We can shape money to support sustainability and life, rather than exploitation and destruction. We can shape money to foster cooperation and nurturing, rather than competition and exclusion. This is in all of our power, everyday.  We can connect money to our best efforts to love each other and the world rather than fear it.  It’s a choice.  

To say that we can connect money to life may seem a naive point of view but it is, in fact, one of pragmatism.  If we don’t change the way we use money to organize our collective efforts, we are on the path to a most unpleasant world.  A world in which there is coral has ceased to exist and wide swathes of the planet are uninhabitable. A world none of us want.

Connecting money to life doesn’t mean our problems will go away.  We will still be as imperfect and corruptible as ever.  We will still fight amongst ourselves and do horrible things, intentionally and unintentionally. There will still be  unpleasant necessities like military budgets and intractable problems like homelessness, but if we change how we think about money we will align one of most potent inventions with our actual interests, which is a living world, a healthy world, a functioning world.

Money is our creation and we can re-think and re-engineer it. We can change its meaning and how it is used. Every time we handle or manage money we have the choice of using it for better or for worse, by voting with our dollars, as they say, at the individual level. 

But we can also change the meaning of money on a larger scale as well.  We all play a part in larger systems.  We can become creators and shapers of money and culture in our working  lives as well.  All of us have points of leverage and choices to make. The world that we live in has been shaped over centuries and millennia  and re-shaping it will not happen overnight, but everyday we can move a little bit further down another road, everyday can bend the arc of history a little bit further toward a living future. 

How do we shape money?  By remembering that it is something we make together, our tool rather than our master. By having a vision of a living world in which life is nurtured rather than exploited, in which we understand the material limits of a finite world and finite natural resources, in which we respect the natural world as the ground of our being and the source of life. 

By learning how our money works and engaging in and questioning the systems that money supports.  By questioning the concept of “growth” – what is growing and what is being exploited to create that growth? By building alternative systems and economies that are respectful of life, both human and non-human.   

Money is a symbolic means of exchange, and it is up to us what we exchange.  Do we exchange poison and fear, or vitality and love?   I know it’s not as simple as that, but it is, in the end, as simple as that.

In this week of giving thanks, let us give thanks to the living world and think about how we can use our money, our civilization and all of our technologies to respect and foster life on earth.

15 Replies to “Money & Life”

  1. Not to be uncharitable, (I share your sentiments along with some caveats) but the “we” and “us” invoked here are essentially fictions. Both pronouns assume a context of common identity and values, a coherence and similarity in morals, ethics, standards of behavior and worldview. But as you and I well know, the world is hardly monolithic with respect to those attributes.

    There are people now, so I am told, who buy little capsules full of 24-karat gold dust for thousands of dollars and ingest them for the express purpose of excreting them into toilet bowls (gold-plated, of course) so they can stand back and admire their status, success and triumph.

    If you and I and perhaps a handful of good-hearted, well-intentioned people were in a closed system not populated by psychopaths, sociopaths and the masses of inured people who’ve never given your questions any thought, then perhaps we could make some headway.

    I wish it were so simple as to suddenly “get a handle on our creation”, but I don’t think it is now possible to get any more of a handle on it than it is to suddenly have a collective epiphany regarding the damage and destruction that the internal combustion engine and all of its attendant enabling infrastructures have wrought upon the world.

    Prescriptive technologies (see Ursula Franklin) like money or the internal combustion engine have been generations if not centuries in the making and tinkering with their unintended consequences at this late hour is like trying to reverse a canoe already well over the waterfall.

    We, here, now are the tragic inheritors of these ’emergent’ systems, and the banquet of consequences of their accumulated follies fall upon us to endure.

    I’m no Bible -thumper, that’s for sure, and I avoid front-door, institutionalized religion – the ideological & doctrinal “4-legs good, 2-legs bad’ kind that George Orwell wrote about in Animal Farm. However, I’ll take wisdom from any messenger as long as it makes inherent sense. So, from the Bible…

    “And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you”

    That pretty much sums up what has been allowed to happen, and which we are encouraged to celebrate in our rush to self-annihilation.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Brian. Yes, I agree that this is straight out of the Bible. I was thinking of Jesus and the money-changers myself. People have been saying some variant of this forever and yet on we go, on our destructive way. (There’s that “we” again.) It does tend to drive one towards something like despair. But then what is despair but a kind of mood? Thank you for the reference to Ursula Franklin, another awesome Canadian it seems. I like the image of another Ursula (LeGuin) with her carrier bag theory of fiction. You go through life and perhaps you find something useful and put it in your bag and continue on.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      On that last statement – about Ursula Le Guin – I’m familiar with her name but have to confess in my limited partiality that I have yet to read anything authored by her. Life is so short! And time is of such essence!

      So, her ‘carrier bag’ theory of fiction sounds intriguing; is it a little like hunting and gathering, where one moves benignly through the landscape, ever-vigilant for that lustrous and enticing berry patch? Is that a useful analogy? I suppose I could look that up on Wikipedia or something, after all I am participating here in a planet-wrapping information technology that is said to “put the world at my fingertips”. But that would be the conventional, easy way out. I would rather hear your own subjective version of an explanation!

      But back to the essay…

      If you are anything like me, then I can only imagine that you wrote it in an effort to clarify your own bewilderment – an exercise in sense-making. I have to confess that when I look around at what we are making of the world and indeed of ourselves, I am often and at once baffled, befuddled, terrified and on some days, in a state of irredeemable despair.

      I could sum it up in three short words: Why, oh why? Why, oh why are we careening knowingly toward what all the evidence and all the alarm bells are telling us is self-annihilation? Surely, we are sentient? Surely we still have some kind of agency to steer ourselves away from the abyss? Surely we still possess the moral grounding to acknowledge our folly?

      I don’t think it is possible for a single human mind nor a collective of human minds to fully comprehend the hopelessly hyperentangled mess we have come to make of things through the arc of time. Most of us just tag along with this thing we call civilization, which, when you get down to it, is a kind of universal and mandatory conscription campaign or a sort of ambient internment camp. I know that sounds over-the-top, but answer me this: why can ‘we’ not seem stop ‘our’ lethal transgressions against the very life support systems that provide for our existence on this planet?

      Despite ‘our’ rational superiority and triumphalism, ‘we’ have nevertheless managed to extirpate most if not all alternative iterations of the human condition, along with their cosmologies and relationships to this – the only world available – by wiping out or forcing them to assimilate and comply with ‘our’ one true way. This we have done at our own peril, because by the time it becomes sufficiently clear to enough of us that our ‘one true way’ was erroneous all along we will have nothing to fall back on in terms of fundamental knowledge and instruction as to how to get along in this world while doing the least harm.

      As Helena Norberg-Hodge, of Ancient Futures fame, says “Our arms have grown so long, we cannot see what our hands are doing”.

      Money, the symbolic representation of value, might have seemed like a good idea at the time of its inception. So many of my chickens are ‘worth’ so many of your goats. So many of my conch shells are worth so much of your obsidian. Why don’t we just dispense with the subjective equivalency and invent an objective currency? But I’m convinced that in that initial practical innocence was sown the seed of our ultimate demise.

      That is because the very idea of money – at its core and as a stand-in for value – allowed for distancing, abstraction, equivalency and the objectivizing of the divine gifts of the earth (what we now call ‘natural resources’ or even ‘commodities’). Slowly, inexorably it installed the idea into our silly little heads that things do not have intrinsic subjective ‘value’ except for our assignment of value.

      This is in part how we came to psychologically and materially abstract ourselves from nature. When things come from far away – beyond the vigilance of our ‘agency horizon’ – and one has no recourse to the constellation of causes and effects surrounding the magical appearance of the thing through mere purchasing power, then we have overstepped the limited human capacity to know and care. Our scale of human enterprise has become too large. This is how people can eat factory-farmed meat without a pang of conscience or use Smartphones and all the other baubles of high-tech that come from slave labor in China, where the incarcerated have to be restrained by ‘suicide nets’ installed on the tops of the production facilities.

      And as the notion of money took on ever more abstract incarnations, we came to live in a world of such extreme delusional fiction that we now have all manner of quaternary-level derivatives and financial ‘instruments’ (collateralized debt obligations???) that have nothing whatever to do with any substantiating or underlying biophysical referent…or so we think.

      So I would argue(because that is what we of rational western intellectual tradition do!) that…
      Let me start again.

      May I suggest?…might you consider?…that money as a technological development and as an instrument for human material betterment has within itself and by definition the inevitable tendency to diminish and destroy that which it comes into contact with irrespective of whether we love it or not for the sake of itself? In other words, simply by using it we cannot help but abstract ourselves from the world.

      This has been far more long-winded and meandering than I had intended it to be, and I even left out a number of other points…for the sake of brevity. Go figure!

      I’m not accomplished at the conventional etiquette of blog commenting, so you will have to forgive what is essentially a feckless rant.

      1. Thank you again, Brian, for thinking with and against the grain of my post. I can see that you have thought about these questions quite a bit.
        It is entirely possible, as you posit, that money inherently creates abstraction and distance from our biophysical ground, and therefore we must try to move ourselves away from money, finding some other means of coordinating our activities or relocalize so radically that such abstraction and coordination is not necessary.
        As you surmise my post is an exploration of the possibility that we just use it wrong. And that it might be recuperated and recycled. It may come to the same thing; money as we know it is so entwined with the global bulldozer that any re-wiring towards supporting a regenerative economy could bring the whole brittle, abstract system crashing down.

        Then again perhaps the (money) system is more flexible than we realize and it is just a matter of clarity and persistence? Or is it too late? Too late for what? Or for who? Keeping Lynn Margulis’ point of view is always salutary as she’s on the side of the microbes and has little sympathy for vertebrate pretensions and self-pity. 🙂

        As for LeGuin’s carrier bag theory, as you surmise it is a gatherer’s philosophy, valuing the heterogenous and horizontal, in which there is no one true way (pace Laozi) whether spoken of or not, but rather some possibilities which may or may not work out. You can find her quite funny (and wise) little essay at

  3. Michelle,
    Speaking of the Bible I like this phrase regarding money:

    1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

    It is the love of money that causes us sorrow. Some people become so attached to money that all they think about is getting more of it. The acquisition of money becomes the purpose in living, rather than actually living with purpose!
    Money is simply a tool that makes exchange easier. We need or want something we don’t have so we trade our labor for money and then buy what we need. In essence that is all money is. Love of money is something else. I believe the first form of record keeping for goods developed out of the agricultural revolution. Agriculture on a mass scale made possible the accumulation of excess…excess grain as well as large herds of animals. It required record keeping to keep track of who “owned” what share of the goods. A man could trade bulky goods by carring a letter of credit.
    So it seems to me that the love of money only became possible when humans learned to amass more food than they could eat and greed was lurking in the wings.
    It is the love of money (or excess) that brings us sorrow, because loving money (or excess) means not being happy with what you have. When a person fears they can never have enough, there is no room for contentment in their life.
    Thanksgiving is a good time to remind people to be thankful for what we have. Or as you put it to “give thanks to the living world and think about how we can use our money, our civilization and all of our technologies to respect and foster life on earth.” Indeed!

      1. Michelle,
        I watched the video “Sacred Ecnomics”. I don’t want to take the online course but I appreciate what Charles Eisenstein is trying to communicate. For some people it is difficult to imagine how a gift economy could function. But there is a very simple gift economy that most gardeners operate. When we plant seeds and care for the plants, some times we end up with a harvest too large for our own use. We gladly give away the bounty of our garden and are grateful when neighbors want the excess! When we plant perennial flowers we must thin the clumps every few years and we are grateful when friends are happy to receive them. When our children out grow their clothes we are grateful to have family and friends with young children who need and want our hand-me-downs. When we need help, we are grateful when our friends and family are there for us. When we drive down the road on a cold blustery day, some times we see someone struggling to walk with their packages and we feel grateful for the gift of being able to give them a ride. When we shop in the grocery store and someone can’t reach the item on the upper shelf, it makes us feel good to offer them a hand.
        There are so many opportunities in life to give freely of our knowledge helping someone solve a problem with which they might be struggling. Even the gift of a smile for the person you meet coming towards you can lift both our spirits.
        It is true that giving and receiving freely brings out the very best in us. It is what makes us better human beings.

  4. I’m sure it’s been pointed out above that money and our civilized (for want of a better word) world are so intertwined that it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. For the likes of us, readers of this blog, the flow of beans and shells makes possible our lives of surplus. For many others, perhaps most people in the world, every $ is a ticket to survival. Either way, status or survival, you don’t get to play the game without tokens. Maybe a few freaks and outcasts and tiny pockets of forest dwellers get by without, but for the rest of us there’s no life as we know it without money. Even at the cost of stunting our own lives and crashing the planetary life support system.

    I applaud your call to get a grip on this human creation, Michelle. It’s an abstract token of transferable value that destroys what we value. When I walked past a guy begging in an underpass in Bristol today, I muttered “sorry mate” without breaking my stride and hoped the coins in my pocket wouldn’t clink. If I could live today again, I’d fix that.

  5. During our Thanksgiving lunch conversation the topic of the increasing number of homeless people on the island came up, and someone that I love but often have differing opinions from said derogatorily of newly arrived homeless folks: “They really know how to work the system.” And I said, and have been thinking about ever since: “What do we do ourselves but work the system.”

    1. That’s an interesting anecdote, Michelle. It is pregnant with philosophical questions, first being what, exactly, is love, and what are its limits? I’ve been witness to such callous remarks myself, issued from people I thought I knew (though would not go so far as to say that I necessarily “loved”), and was decidedly taken aback.

      For example, an acquaintance of mine, who happens to belong to a religious denomination that I will refrain from naming (but that is predicated on the sick idea of inevitable apocalypse and “rapture” for the “true believers”), stopped by one day last spring en route to some destination, and we made a bit of chit-chat and small talk.

      Somehow the conversation veered into the issue of Haitian migrants coming across the border into Canada. My friend leaned over the hood of my truck, somewhat conspiratorially, and asked me what I thought of the “hordes” invading our borders without state consent. “Whaddya think of them Haitians? You know they’re illegal, eh?”

      I cringed and my heart sank, and this is difficult to put into words, but I’ll try. The first thought that came to mind – given the context of the intercourse – was “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And George Orwell’s famous statement “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human” also flitted through my thoughts as I was trying desperately to think of a response that would not be too insulting or offensive.

      Perhaps if I was quicker on my feet I might have retorted that we (the descendants of European invaders) are all “illegal migrants”, depending on one’s perspective. (Ask who remains of the original inhabitants of this land!) But I don’t think that would have penetrated the hermetically-sealed architecture or worldview of my friend’s mind. Some people have been persuaded and indeed duped into the idea that the human condition is one of tooth and claw wrathfulness, and that none of us are our brother’s keepers.

      How does one deal with such intolerance and hate? On the basis of reason and evidence? On the basis of compassion and mercy? Does one “turn the other cheek” in order to avoid unnecessary conflict, or does one stand up for higher ideals of moral principle?

      What frightens me most is the question of how many people hold unvoiced and latent views of intolerance and hatred under the surface of what we consider to be an otherwise “harmonious” or at least still functioning civil society. And what circumstances might serve to unleash these views and legitimize them into actionable behaviors?

      And further, where does the thin red line of decision lie for the individual faced with these views? If your friend, whom you’ve claimed you love despite frequent differences of opinion and “derogatory” views toward the increasing number of homeless were to go one step further and endorse the rounding up of the homeless for vague and nefarious purposes, what then? Do you still “tolerate” that as someone’s inviolable “opinion”?

      It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? Your response above may have been the best compromise between alienating your friend and inducing a much-needed moral epiphany.

      1. Brian,
        It’s an everyday moral quandary for sure. I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t feel at all comfortable with confrontation, although it works for some people. A friend of mine really impressed me over the summer with her verbal aikido skills. We were talking with another person who was telling a story about how he bribes his neighbor with liquor to kill coyotes (that might kill his new born calves) from an airplane. I found it horrifying but didn’t know what to say. She said: “Well, that doesn’t seem fair!” I was full of admiration at her – it was so quick and light, like a rapier thrust, and yet it evoked a nearly universal value – fairness, and even manliness. I don’t know for sure if it made a difference but I would bet that little remark set him back on his haunches. I’m hoping to have her skills someday.

  6. Michelle,
    I want to tell two stories that I feel relate to your post. The first is my experience volunteering for the community Thanksgiving. I can honestly say after three years doing this that it is the people who volunteer for the event who express the most thankfulness. I have a team of 8 people who give up thanksgiving to work hard preparing food for the 600 or so who attend. When I thank them for their help they tell me that it is their pleasure and that they look forward to helping every year.

    Sad to say but I have seen many attendees that either show no appreciation or a terrible lack of appreciation I find hard to fathom. There was a woman who kept complaining because she wanted a cherry pie not a pumpkin pie to take home after the event when we gave out all the left overs. And there was a woman who took six whole pies leaving many others standing in line for leftovers with no pie. Her greed and thoughtlessness was shameful.
    I find it strange that an event that makes so many volunteers thankful for the opportunity to help others has a fair number of people taking advantage of free food that don’t care a bit about sharing with others. I saw some of the same greed when I volunteered at the food pantry.

    The second story is about our neighbor. He is unhappy with the “visual pollution” of our solar panels. Even though the array is mostly blocked by evergreen trees between our property line, he has made several comments about having to hire a landscape architect to fix the “ugly view” from his three story, 6200 sq foot home that he and his wife occupy. I apologized that the view bothered him but said that we were more concerned with carbon pollution than “visual pollution” (his words not mine). His email reply was that he and his wife moved to the country to enjoy the views of nature and the minimal amount of carbon that solar energy reduced wasn’t worth having to look at the ugly back of a solar array.

    I let him have the last word because it wasn’t worth trying to change his ignorance about carbon pollution. But I did some calculations and his home is probably generating somewhere around 65 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year compared to the American average of 18 to 20 tons. Our home isn’t generating any. Not a minimal difference in carbon at all!

    I think this is what happens when people feel entitled. They may feel entitled to free pie. They may feel entitled to their views. In both cases, neither person seems to care about others. Our neighbor had enough money to build a 6,200 sqft home in the country and he obviously doesn’t care about or even understand green house gases and climate change. He isn’t about to agree with his neighbors about solar energy. To him our array is ugly…visual pollution.

    So, perhaps being selfish and uncaring isn’t always about money. Here is an example of people without money complaining because they want cherry pie not pumpkin, or taking six pies and leaving others in line with none. Here is a person with money, generating four times the carbon pollution complaining that our solar array is too ugly for him to look at because he moved to the country for the views. He will destroy the “country” he values with his carbon pollution but save his views for a time while he lives in luxury.

    I’m not sure money is the root of evil or just plain selfish entitlement! When we behave as if our life matters the most; when we do not look to see how our actions affect the world we live in, then we are takers. When we chose to give to others; when we act in ways that make the world a better place…we are givers. I know we can’t always be givers because sometimes we need to take what we need from the world. But perhaps our work in life is finding the balance.

    1. Jody?
      Can’t help but jump in here!
      GEEEZZZ! 6200 sq. ft.? I live in a 400 sq. ft. “home”, and that is the *outside* dimension! And yes – it is humble. But it’s also *enough*. Not that I joined some righteous “voluntary simplicity” movement or subscribe to the “tiny house” fad, but it never occurred to me that one (actually two, and a dog and two cats!) actually needs anything more than that.

      I think the people who possess the values (or lack thereof) and morals that you anecdotally relate are conditioned and socially engineered to be the way the are. I don’t think they are born that way. Which means that even though there may very well be more of them than us, there is still some kind of hope. People *learn* these things. They can and likely will unlearn them, either through their own volition or through circumstance that cannot be negotiated with.

      1. You are probably right…people aren’t born selfish they learn to be that way. And as the saying goes “live and learn”. Perhaps one day they will learn a different point of view.

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