Sacred Economics: Chapter 20, Right Livelihood and Sacred Investing (Part 21)


 

The following is the twenty-first installment from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. You can read the Introduction here, and visit the Sacred Economics homepage here.
 

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

Surplus wealth is a
sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the
good of the community.
–Andrew Carnegie

 

The
Dharma of Wealth

Let us be clear: the purpose of nonaccumulation is not to
exculpate oneself from the crimes of a money-based civilization. That is merely
ego. You don't get virtue points for poverty; nonaccumulation is not a goal in
and of itself. The goal is to enjoy true wealth, the wealth of connection and
flow, rather than the counterfeit wealth of having. But what if you have wealth
beyond what you can share in the ordinary flow of life?

To the conscientious
person, such wealth might seem to be more a burden than a gift. We are bound,
and we are pleased, to make right use of what we have been given. Wealth is no
exception. Those who are blessed and cursed with a lot of it have no more
reason to abdicate its duties than anyone has to spurn the gifts,
responsibilities, and opportunities to serve that we are each born with.

Excess wealth, whether
inherited from family or from an earlier time in one's own life, carries with
it a desire to use it well. It is a dharma, a call to service. To squander it
on baubles, to give it away senselessly, or to devote oneself to its increase
are all ways of refusing that call. The challenge of excess wealth is to give
of it in a way that is beautiful. This may take years or decades and involve
long-term planning and the creation of entire organizations, or it may happen
through a single generous act. Either way, this is the kind of investment that
is aligned with a future economy in which status comes from giving, not having,
and security comes not from accumulation, but from being a nexus of flow. It is
an entirely different mentality from the traditional paradigm of investment,
which we equate with the increase of wealth.

Originally I thought
that we ought to do away with the word and concept of investment altogether. Then I considered its etymology: it means to
clothe, as in to take naked money and put it into new vestments, something
material, something real in the physical or social realm. Money is naked human
potential-creative energy that has not yet been "clothed" with material or
social constructions.

Right investment is to
array money in sacred vestments: to use it to create, protect, and sustain the
things that are becoming sacred to us today. These are the same things that
will form the backbone of tomorrow's economy. Right investment is therefore
practice for the coming world, both psychological practice and practical
preparation. It accustoms one to the new mentality of wealth — finding channels
for productive giving — and it creates and strengthens those channels, which
might persist even when the present money system collapses. Money as we know it
might disappear, but the relationships of gratitude and obligation will remain.

If you'll indulge a
bit of poetic speculation, all I have said in the previous paragraph is also
true of that other "coming world" — the world beyond the grave. You needn't
believe in an afterlife to understand this. Imagine yourself on your deathbed,
realizing that you will take nothing with you. 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.

For people with little
money, the most beautiful way to use it probably starts with feeding oneself
and one's children and meeting certain basic necessities of human life. Beyond
oneself and one's loved ones, though, the beautiful use of money requires
something we might call "investing." In a sacred economy, investment has a
meaning nearly opposite of what it means today. Today, investing is what people
do to preserve their wealth. In a sacred economy, it is what we do to share our
wealth.

Like nonaccumulation,
the concept is so simple that 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.

A thousand years from
now, when money is so different from what we know today that we might not even
recognize it as money, the basic idea of investment will remain. That is
because, thanks to the fundamental abundance of the universe and the infinitude
of human creativity, we will often have access to a flow of gifts far beyond
our immediate needs. We will always have the wherewithal — increasing over
time — to create marvels through collective human effort and in partnership with
Lover Earth. At the most basic level, sacred investing is simply the
intentional channeling of this superabundance toward a creative purpose. It
begins with the meeting of needs and unfolds into the creation of beauty.

 

Robbing
Peter to Pay Paul

Right investing manifests the spirit of the gift.
Unfortunately, present-day investing bears the opposite spirit: either it is
motivated by the extraction not the bestowal of wealth, or the return gift is
specified in advance or coerced thereafter, or both. It says, "I will give you
the use of this money, but only if you give me even more in return." Whether it
is an equity investment or a loan, I am profiting through my exclusive
possession of a scarce resource, with the goal of controlling more and more of
it. Another way to see it is that the impetus for the return gift is not
gratitude. Despite what the chairman's message in the annual report says, the
board of directors does not determine its dividend payment in a spirit of
gratitude to its millions of faceless investors.

Even before an economy
realizing the core principles of the gift crystallizes, we can begin living it.
Right investing — investing according to the spirit and logic of the Gift — is
possible right now. The ideas I am about to offer will become much more obvious
after the transition to a new economy, and the overarching stories of that
economy — the connected self and Lover Earth — will support them. Today, to apply
these ideas requires faith, vision, and courage. You will not receive the
affirmation of any person or institution still immersed in the old story. From
their perspective, what I am about to offer you is insane.

What I am going to
describe is far more radical than "socially conscious investing" or "ethical
investing." While these ideas are steps in the right direction, they harbor an
internal contradiction. By seeking a positive financial return, they perpetuate
the conversion of the world into money.

Traditional
investment, which is perfectly defensible in the context of Ascent, seeks to
contribute to the growth of the money realm and gain a part of that
contribution as a reward. The venture capitalist identifies high-growth
opportunities and provides the money to bring them to fruition. In a
steady-state or degrowth economy, this model is no longer appropriate, just as
it feels no longer appropriate for more and more people in the investing
class — hence the turn toward a different investment goal: the restoration, and
not the more efficient exploitation, of the natural and social commons.

Let me restate: there
is no money to be made for the investors in such restoration. Any "socially
conscious investment" scheme that promises a normal rate of return harbors a
lie, whether consciously or not. I will illustrate with two examples.

After a talk I gave, a
very bright and compassionate woman active in socially conscious investing
protested, "Surely not all profitable investments contribute to the liquidation
of the commonwealth. What if I invest in a company that has a great new
invention for, say, cheap, portable photovoltaic chargers? I help to capitalize
that company; they sell lots of units; we all make money; and the planet
benefits too." Fine, but if the company sold the units at a lower price (e.g.,
just high enough a profit margin to finance R&D and capital reinvestment),
then wouldn't it do the planet even more good by making the device more
accessible? The goal of paying interest or dividends to investors, to give them
a positive rate of return, conflicts with the goal that makes the company
socially or environmentally "conscious."

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. In the above example, it would be
fine to charge enough to keep the business viable, to pay employees well, and
to finance expansion, research, and so forth. But beyond that, corporations
must earn an additional amount that goes out to investors in the form of
interest payments or dividends. Where does this additional amount come from?
From the same place all money today comes from: interest-bearing debt and the
conversion of the world into money. So if you really want to contribute to the good
of the world, don't ask for a return on your investment. Don't try to give and
take at the same time. If you want to take (and you might have good reasons for
doing so), then take, but don't pretend you are giving.

A second example will
make this point clearer. Consider one of the most inspiring types of socially
conscious investing: microloans to women in South Asia. These programs have
apparently been a huge success, empowering women in India and Bangladesh with
new livelihoods while bearing an extremely low rate of defaults. If there were
ever an example of "doing well by doing good," this is it. You lend $500 to an
Indian woman to buy a milk cow. She sells the milk to her fellow villagers and
earns enough income to feed her family and pay off the interest and principal
on the loan. Sounds great, but consider for a moment: where does the repayment
money come from? It comes from the villagers. And where do they get that money?
They get it through selling some other good or service — in other words, through
the conversion of some part of their social or natural commons into money as
described in Chapter 4. The effect is the same as that of the infamous "hut
tax" that the British (and other colonial powers) used to destroy the
self-sufficient local economies of Africa during the colonial era.1
It was simply a small annual tax, payable only in national currency, that
forced the indigenous people to sell their labor and their local commodities
for that currency. Local economies quickly unraveled and turned into a market
for British goods and a source of labor and raw materials.

With her cow, the
woman has far more milk than her family can consume. To whom will she give the
surplus? Because she must pay back a monetary loan, like it or not she will
give it to those willing and able to pay for it. 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 on the loan, the infusion of $500 into the community might not be a
bad thing. It is often the case in modern impoverished communities that people
have goods and services to exchange but lack the means to exchange them because
of the breakdown of gift culture. The original owner of the cow might use the
money to pay villagers for things he needs, and when that money eventually
circulates back to the woman who bought the cow, many needs have been met, and
nothing has been lost. Even if all the money goes back to the investor, at
least no money has left the village.

If the loan bears
interest, it is a different story entirely. Making an interest-bearing loan to
this woman is tantamount to extracting money from her village. Imagine
thinking, "Ah, in this village there is wealth that has not yet been converted
into money. I am going to take some of it! I am going to make them my debt
slaves." Not a very charitable impulse.

One of the key
attractions of local currencies is that they ensure that money stays in the
community. An interest-bearing loan of internationally convertible currency
does the opposite — it sucks money out of the community. The woman sells the milk
to a local cheese maker, who sells cheese to a carpenter, who builds a cow shed
for the woman, and so on. The money circulates and circulates, but it cannot
stay in the community forever because the debt must be repaid. As for the
interest, that can only be paid if local people sell something to the outside
world. The pressure on the woman to pay interest is passed on to the community
in the form of milk prices. This is the pressure that drives people in poor
countries to work in factories and plantations. In a monetized economy, where
the original gift networks have collapsed, you need money to live. You will
sell whatever you can-your labor, your time, your environment-in order to get
it.

Economists will tell
you that as long as the local economy is growing faster than the interest rate
on the milch cow loan (or actually, the totality of loans issued to the
village), the village can pay off the principal and interest and still grow
wealthier. In other words, if the whole village, like the woman with the cow,
sells new goods and services at a higher rate than the interest rate, it will
be able to make its payments and prosper. But now the same question repeats
itself: where does the money come from? On a global level, interest-based
investing compels competition and the endless depletion of the social, natural,
cultural, and spiritual commons — the conversion of the gift economy into a money
economy.2

How obvious it is that
sacred investing has little to do with turning a profit. If you want to help
the village, then give a woman a cow. Or if her dignity demands it, lend the
money at zero interest (which is a gift of the use of money). If you care more
about increasing your monetary wealth instead, then do that instead and forget
the pretense. The saying is true: you cannot serve two masters. In both the
examples I gave, at some point the conflicting agendas come to the surface, and
one must choose: to serve God or Mammon. But this choice will no longer pertain
in a sacred economy. The two will be united — part of a more general reunion of
opposites that motivates the phrase the Age of Reunion to describe the coming
time.

Socially conscious
investments that promise a good rate of return are "robbing Peter to pay Paul"-with
a commission on the transaction for oneself. I hope the foregoing explanation
was unnecessary to most of my readers. After all, basic common sense tells us
that there is a problem with the idea of good works motivated by profit. Profit
might sometimes happen incidentally, but a gift that comes with a coerced
demand for a greater gift in return is not a gift at all, but a ruse or a
plunder.

Is that really who you
are, to enforce a coldhearted separation in your life between business and
other human relationships? When you invest money at interest, you are
indirectly participating in telling some poor chap, "I don't care what you have
to do to get it — give me the money!" Your certificate of deposit is someone
else's foreclosure threat. You may not be acting like Ebenezer Scrooge, but you
are paying someone else to.

If interest-generating
investments are fundamentally unethical, contributing to the despoliation of
the natural and social commons, then obviously we should not invest money at
interest. The same goes for any investment that drives the expansion of the
realm of goods and services. As socially conscious investors, you don't want to
contribute to the monetization of life and nature.

There is no escape
from this principle. Occasionally I receive emails from people in the financial
industry who read my work and describe their ideas on socially or
environmentally conscious investment. I then propose my own idea: an investment
fund that has, as an explicit goal, a zero return on investment. For some
reason, none of the financial professionals to whom I suggested this has ever
contacted me again! In a negative-interest money economy, though, a zero return
on investment would be considered quite good.

I am not advocating an
age of altruism in which we forgo personal benefit for the common good. I
foresee, rather, a fusion of personal benefit and common good. For example,
when I give money to people in my community, I create feelings of gratitude
that might motivate a return gift to me or an onward gift to someone else.
Either way, I have strengthened the community that sustains me. When we are
embedded in gift community, we naturally direct our gratitude not only toward
the proximate giver but toward the community as a whole, and we take care of
its neediest members (gifts seek needs). Our desire to give may very well
express itself as a gift to someone in the community who has given us nothing
herself. Therefore, we can see any gift, even one without expectation of direct
return, as a form of "investment." We are still taking naked money and, if it
is a good investment, clothing it in something fine. A poor investment clothes
it in something ugly. It is just that simple.

The negative-interest
currency of the future will align the spirit of the gift with economic
self-interest, and zero-interest loans will no longer feel like a sacrifice.
After all, holding on to the money brings a return of less than zero. In
the time remaining to us before such a system takes over, it apparently goes
against rational self-interest to lend money at no interest, or to give it
away. That, however, is a very shortsighted self-interest because while the
present money system may easily disintegrate in the next few years, the ties of
gratitude that gifts create will persist through any social tumult. If you are
someone who is concerned about Peak Oil or one of the other collapse scenarios,
the best security you can have is to ensconce yourself in a gift network. Start
being a giver now. Ten million dollars might be just so many slips of paper in
a few years. This is another way that what you give in "this world" might be
your treasure in the next.

If you want to create
a world of abundance, a world of gratitude, a world of the gift, you can start
by using today's money, while it still exists, to create more gratitude in the
world. If we have a large enough reservoir of gratitude, then our society can
withstand practically anything. Again, we live in a world of fundamental
abundance that we have, through our beliefs and habits, rendered artificially
poor. 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. It doesn't matter if the gratitude recognizes you as the
giver. Ultimately, the proper object of gratitude is the Giver of all our own
gifts, of our world, of our lives.

To get ready for that
economy, and to live today in its spirit, instead of investing money with the
purpose of making more of it, we shift the focus of investment toward using
accumulated money as the gift that it is: a gift from the old world to the new,
a gift from the ancestors to the future. It is analogous to the gifts of life,
of mother's milk, of food and sensory stimulation and all the things that build
us into adults, which we receive in order that we may enter adulthood and give
onward of these gifts. The question, then, is how to use money in the
consciousness of a gift. If you are not an investor, then the question becomes
one of right livelihood.

 

Old
Accumulations to New Purposes

The question "What are wealthy individuals to do with their
pile of money?" suggests a broader one: What are we as a society to do with the
accumulated wealth of thousands of years? What is this wealth, anyway, if not
actually or no longer "deferred consumption"?

Let us also revisit
the essence of money. What exactly is it that accumulates in these vast
accumulations of money? Money consists of ritual talismans by which we
coordinate human intention and activity. Those who possess an accumulation of
money have, at their disposal, the means to focus and organize society's labor.
The increase of money can come only at the cost of the nonmonetized realm, but
the expenditure of money can restore that realm as long as that expenditure is
not an investment that seeks the further commodification of the social or
natural commons. Money can be used to buy logging equipment to clear-cut a
forest; equally it can be used to preserve and guard that forest. The first use
is money creation; the second is money destruction (because it generates no
further goods and services). Either way, accumulated money bestows the ability
to coordinate human activity on a large scale.

The image of sitting
atop the accumulated wealth of centuries of exploitation is of particular
relevance to the baby boom generation, the last to have come of age during the
zenith of our civilization. They have a foot in both worlds, the old and the
new. They have access (many of them) to the pile of wealth from the old world,
but they are young enough that their consciousness has shifted into alignment
with the new. My generation, once called Generation X, is different. Many of
us, even from educated backgrounds, never had a foot in the old world. By the
time we came of age, it was so obviously bankrupt that we couldn't bring
ourselves to make our fortunes there. For someone entering adulthood in the
1960s or 1970s, it was still possible to believe in the project of ascent; it
was still possible to fully participate in the Story of the People: conquering
space, conquering the atom, mastering the universe, onward and upward. I
imagine that if I'd been born in 1957 rather than 1967 (or if my father hadn't
given me Silent Spring, 1984, and A People's History
of the United States
to read as a teenager) I would have followed the
Program and would be a math professor at a university somewhere today. But it
was not to be. By the time I came of age in the eighties, our story of the
people was no longer compelling. I, and millions like me, basically dropped
out. Of course I am vastly overgeneralizing, but I think there is truth in
saying that whereas the children of the fifties and sixties became millionaire
programmers for Microsoft, the children of the seventies and eighties are
playing with Linux. This is not to impute any moral failing onto the Microsoft
millionaires! In their day, it was still possible for a dynamic, visionary
twenty-something to be excited about what was going on in the commercial
software industry. The same goes for the central institutions of politics,
academia, the arts, science, medicine, and so on. Of course, even then the
inevitable denouement of the story of Ascent was apparent to those with eyes to
see, as it had been apparent to mystics for thousands of years. For most,
though, the crises were too far off, and the ideology of human dominion too
deeply ingrained, to divert them from full participation in the project of ascent.

The social dynamics of
which I speak are in part an America-centric phenomenon, but I think they
generalize to a world that is on the cusp of a new age. Like the American baby
boomers, the world sits on top of a huge pile of wealth, the end product of ten
thousand years of culture and technology. We have a mighty industrial
infrastructure; we have roads and airplanes; we have a vast apparatus already
in existence that, for centuries, has been devoted toward the expansion of the
human realm and the conquest of the natural. The time has come to turn the
tools of separation, dominance, and control toward the purpose of reunion, the
healing of the world. Just as the wealthy baby boomer or heir of fortunes past
can turn her wealth toward a beautiful purpose, and not worry that the wealth
is somehow tainted by its origins, so also do we have the opportunity and the
responsibility to use the accumulated fruits of our domination of the earth in
a beautiful way. This is true even of the most heinous, exploitative
technologies — such as genetic engineering and nuclear fission — that have taken
the program of control to its pinnacle of hubris. In the age of interest, that
is the age of growth, the primary motivating force behind any new technology
was to open up new realms for the conversion of natural or social wealth into
money. Genetic engineering enabled the genome to become an exploitable natural
resource, just as the steam engine enabled the mining of deep-seam coal and the
iron plow the breaking of heavy sod. What will technology look like when
devoted to the opposite purpose — the restoration of the planet's health?

When humanity as a
whole goes through the same shift of consciousness that so many individuals
have gone through in the last few decades that expelled them from the Matrix,
who knows to what purposes we will turn the technologies of profit? When
humanity is no longer under compulsion to grow its realm, we will turn our
collective ingenuity and the amassed knowledge, information, and technology of
the ages toward purposes aligned with the consciousness of ecology,
connectedness, and healing. This is not to say that technology won't change.
Technologies that are dominant today will retreat to marginal applications,
while marginal technologies, including those dismissed or ridiculed today, will
come to the fore.

Whether it is the
application of accumulated technology or accumulated money, we want to be sure
that we are not using it in the old mode: as a tool to achieve more separation
from nature or more financial wealth. That is why I suggest the concept of using money to destroy money. By this I
mean to use money to restore and protect the natural, social, cultural, and
spiritual commons from which it was originally created. This has the effect of
hastening the collapse and mitigating its severity. Usury-money is subject to a
grow-or-die imperative. Any item of social or natural capital that we make
off-limits to commoditization hastens the demise of usury-money; it "starves
the beast." The realm within which (monetized) goods and services can expand
shrinks. Every forest we prevent from being turned into board feet, every piece
of land we remove from development, every person we teach to heal herself and
others, every indigenous culture we insulate from cultural imperialism is one
less place for money to colonize. The efforts of liberals and reformers, though
impotent to halt the onward progress of the Machine, have not been in vain.
Pollution limits, for instance, have kept at least a portion of the skies from
being converted into money. Labor standards have prevented at least a part of
workers' well-being from being converted into money. The antiwar movement makes
the war business less profitable. 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. Sometimes, the master's tools can dismantle the master's
house.

Another way to look at
it is that these efforts to protect a portion of the commonwealth raise the
"bottom" to which we must fall before a transformation to a new world can
crystallize. My use of the language of addiction recovery is deliberate. The
dynamics of usury-money are addiction dynamics, requiring an ever-greater dose
(of the commons) to maintain normality, converting more and more of the basis
of well-being into money for a fix. If you have an addict friend, it won't do
any good to give her "help" of the usual kind, such as money, a car to replace
the one she crashed, or a job to replace the one she lost. All of those
resources will just go down the black hole of addiction. So too it is with our
politicians' efforts to prolong the age of growth.

Thanks to the efforts
of generations of do-gooders, we will still have a portion of our divine
bequest. There is still goodness in the soil; there are still healthy forests
here and there; there are still fish in some parts of the ocean; there are
still people and cultures that haven't completely sold off their health and
creativity. This remaining natural, social, and spiritual capital is what will
carry us through the transition and form the basis to heal the world.

If you are an
investor, it is time to shift your focus entirely to the creation of
connections, the generation of gratitude, and the reclamation and protection of
the commonwealth. The time for the mind-set of wealth preservation is over.
Wealth preservation brings to mind a swarm of rats, each clambering over the
others to reach the top mast of a sinking ship. Instead, they could cooperate
to gather the pieces to build a raft that is seaworthy. We have a long voyage
ahead of us.

 

Right
Livelihood

The same principles that apply to right investing apply also
to right livelihood; indeed, right livelihood and right investment are two
sides of the same coin. If right investing uses money as gift to support the
creation of a more beautiful world, then right livelihood accepts that gift as
it does that work.

Traditional employment
receives money for helping expand the monetized realm. We find that in order to
earn money, we must participate in the conversion of the good, the true, and
the beautiful into money. That is because of the money system — credit ultimately
goes to those who can most effectively create new goods and services (or take
it from those who create them). An interest-based money system exerts a
systemic pressure to convert the commonwealth into money, and the highest
remuneration goes to those who do that most effectively. You want to get rich?
Invent a way to chop down trees more efficiently. Create an advertising
campaign that persuades other nations to drink Coke instead of indigenous beverages.
Seeing the workings of the global economy, many idealistic young people decide
they want no part of it. I get letters from them all the time. "I want no part
of this. I want to do what I love in a way that hurts no one. But there is no
money in that. How do I survive?" How do you survive, not to mention access the
large amounts of money to do great things, in a world that rewards the
destruction of the very things you want to create?

Fortunately, there are
people today who will give you money to do things that won't create more of it.
These are precisely the people (or organizations or governments) that follow
the spirit of "right investing" described above. Of course, living off the
charity of others is no solution if they have to work all the harder (at the
business of destruction) in order to earn the money they give to you. However,
as I have observed, humanity possesses vast stores of wealth in many forms, the
accumulation of centuries of exploitation, that can now be turned to other
purposes, for example to preserve and restore natural, social, cultural, and
spiritual capital. Doing this won't create more money; therefore whoever is
paying for it is ultimately giving a gift.

In other words, the
key to "right livelihood" is to live off of gifts. These can come in subtle
forms. For example, say you sell fair-trade products. When someone buys one, at
several multiples the cost of a functionally equivalent sweatshop product, the
cost difference is essentially a gift.3 They didn't have to
pay that much. The same is true if your work is to install solar water heaters
or build shelters for the homeless. Many traditional social service jobs, like
social work, teaching, and so on, partake in the energy of the gift as long as
they don't contribute to the more efficient operation of the earth-devouring
machine, for example by training children to be efficient producers and
mindless consumers. The source of the money could be a buyer, a foundation, or
even the government. What makes it a gift is the motive — that it does not aim to
get the cheapest price or generate even more money in return. Traditional
employment is the opposite: I pay you a wage and profit from your productivity
(of salable goods and services), which exceeds your wage. Traditional
employment assists in the conversion of the world into money.

In a subtle way, any
endeavor that shrinks the money realm draws on gifts. If you offer reskilling
courses, train holistic healers, or teach permaculture, you are ultimately
shrinking the realm of goods and services. Tracing the money you receive from
such endeavors back to its origin, somewhere down the line someone has made a
"bad investment," violating the principle that governs money creation today:
"Money goes to those who will make even more of it." It is no accident that
there is usually little money to be made in reversing the conversion of life
and the world into money.

If you are partial to
principles, you might say that right livelihood abides by two. It applies your
time, energy, and other gifts toward something that enhances, preserves, or
restores some aspect of the commonwealth, and the money (or other return gift)
that comes in return does not require for its providence harm to nature and
people. Or to put it simply, it benefits other beings and does not harm other
beings. I, however, don't live by principles; nor do I recommend it. Shall I
attempt to calculate the relative costs and benefits of printing this book? It
uses wood pulp from trees on the one hand; it might inspire people to create earth-sustaining
systems on the other. People are adept at construing their choices in a way
that aligns them with their principles; if the disconnect is too great, they
alter their principles and pretend they held them all along.

Therefore, when it
comes to right livelihood, I trust what feels good and right. What, you might
ask, if it feels good and right to market toothpaste or work for a hedge fund
or design nuclear weapons? I would say, then do it. First, because as your
awareness of the world grows, such work may no longer feel good and right.
Second, because you will condition yourself to trusting that feeling, it will
continue to guide you when it comes time to quit that job and do something
courageous. Third, because denying our inner yearnings for the sake of
principle is part of the story of Ascent, of overcoming nature. The idea that
our desires are evil, that we must conquer them for the sake of something
higher, is its interior reflection. It is the same mind-set that refrains from
generosity, because what if I cannot afford it? The self-trust I advocate is
inseparable from the basic premise of this book, laid out in Chapter 1: we are
born into gratitude, born into the need and the desire to give.

In other words, trust
that it is not your true desire to comply with the conversion of the world into
money. Trust that you want to do beautiful things with your life.

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. Quickly, any situation in which you are not
giving your life gifts toward something that is good to you becomes
intolerable.

It is OK if "what
feels good and right" is merely feeding your family. The key is the attitude of
service. If you attempt to guilt yourself into right livelihood, you will
likely end up with its counterfeit. Some entire nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) are but enormous vanity projects, elaborate ways to allow people to
approve of themselves. That's all ego. The purpose of right livelihood is not
so you get to have a positive self-image. People who do it for that reason are
quite obvious from their defensiveness, sanctimony, and self-righteousness. The
purpose of right livelihood is to give your energies toward something you love.
The concept should feel liberating, not like a moral burden, not another thing
you are supposed to do right in order to be good.

To enter more deeply
into right livelihood, bow into service each day. Trust your desire to give,
remember how good it feels, and be open to opportunities to do so, especially
when they are just at the edge of your courage. And if they are beyond the edge
of your courage, don't torment yourself. The fears that block your givingness
are not an enemy. They form a cocoon of safety. When we grow, the fears that
were once protective become limiting; we become impatient with them and seek to
break free. That impatience bears new courage. Today, this growth process is
happening to humanity generally. The program of Ascent that once seemed good
and right to us — pushing the frontiers of science, conquering the universe,
triumphing over nature — seems right no longer, as the consequences of that
ambition become painfully hard to ignore. Collectively we have entered a crisis
moment, in which the old is intolerable and the new has not yet manifested (not
as a common vision, though it has for many individuals).

So, when it comes to
right livelihood or right investment, let us be gentle. For ourselves and
others, let us trust the natural desire to give, and let us trust the natural
growth process that propels us toward it. Instead of attempting to guilt
ourselves and others into it (and generating resistance to our sanctimony), we
can offer opportunities and encouragement to give, and we can be generous with
our appreciation and celebration of the gifts of others. We can see others not
as selfish, greedy, ignorant, or lazy people who just "don't get it," but
rather as divine beings who desire to give to the world; we can see that and
speak to that and know it so strongly that our knowing serves as an invitation
to ourselves and others to step into that truth.

 

 

1. See, e.g., Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa,
497-98.

2. A slight caveat: in theory, if the interest rate is no
higher than the default risk premium, then there will be no necessity for
economic growth and the monetization of the commons. The relevant components of
the real interest rate, however, are the liquidity premium and the market rate
for money, determined by supply, demand, and government monetary policy. These
represent profit from the mere ownership of money, which is indefensible based
on the arguments of Chapters 4 and 5.

3. I am aware that "fair trade" has become in many instances
a brand that covers up the usual exploitation of labor and commoditization of
culture, but the principle still applies.