09 March 2014

Living Off the Interest?

Much talk of interest and investing and capital and capitalism and the economy in my life lately. Not only has my local little transition group given up the ghost (well, it's morphed into something less oriented to transformative change, even before we got around to relocalizing our economy), but I just had a meeting with my "green" financial advisor the other day, and I'm editing a series of (quite damning) reports on "socially responsible investing" by my favourite investigative writer. 

I'm pleased to announce that I'm now pretty proud of my investment portfolio (miniscule as it is by some standards) — or at least I was until I started reading the latest installment in Cory Morningstar's series (you can read Part I here; scroll down a smidge). Suddenly I realized that, well, many things:

  • That by the sheer fact that I have money (from years of teaching and living fairly frugally) to invest, I am part of the world's 1%. I must remember to remember how blessed and lucky I am. I must remember the power and influence that money gives me, and put it to good use.
  • That any sort of investing where I lose track of my money (ie, I'm not investing in my neighbours or my community ... yet), I am part of the economic system that is annihilating life on Earth, without conscience.
  • That even an investment in solar, wind or geothermal energy might still be responsible for environmental degradation and displacing people and other species.

And that's just off the top of my head. Capitalism, by its very essence, along with the rules (crutches) we've developed to prop it up, is inherently dangerous. We allow business, as Bill McDonough explains, to get away with murder because we appreciate how speedy and innovative it is compared to government. We give it a free ride when it comes to the damage it creates, allowing corporations to keep all the benefits (aside from a few pesky taxes) while externalizing social and environmental costs. Through our taxes and other government income, we subsidize (to the tune of almost $2 trillion per year, according to the IMF) the most devastating and destructive companies on the planet (fossil fuel corporations). 

But here's what I really wanted to share with you today. It's an odd little message that I scrawled to myself while I was on vacation:
Build your sustainable economy from hair and nails and bellybutton lint. Once you start harvesting fingers and toes — or worse! — you know you're going to run out eventually. And not raw hair and nails, either. Value-added hair and nails!
I don't remember why that came to me. But it struck me one day that our capitalist economy is (and I'm sure I'm not the first to notice) rather cannibalistic. I got this picture in my mind's eye that it's like each of us is chopping off our fingers and toes (our "capital," a word that kind of eerily comes from the Latin caput, meaning head) to keep things chugging along, and you know how long that can last! 

So no, we need to be living off the interest, the bits that grow back, like hair, nails and, yes, bellybutton lint. My fear is that if we don't get this straight, we'll get to the end of our fingers and toes and start going for the organs.

And not only that, but we're losing some wonderful friends from our little community at the end of this month, and it's making me sad. They're leaving because they can't make a living here. They've struggled for years and they're tired and ready for some financial ease. Why don't we ever insist that industries can't ship our hair and nails and bellybutton lint away "raw" — they ought to be ensuring local jobs through value-added hair and nail products.

Okay, the metaphor has gone on long enough. At the very least, please could we start talking about these issues? Instead of pretending there's nothing wrong? Please?

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?