Much has been said about the current global economic crisis, and undoubtedly much more will be said as world market instability persists for a time. Amid the din of dire predictions and questions about how we got here, there are a few rare voices hailing this moment as an opportunity to examine closely our complicity with the systems that are currently faltering: Have we been personally driven by greed, or did we simply turn a blind eye to its pervasive activity? Certainly, the economy does not exist as separate from us because we collectively create the economy and it inevitably reflects our collective consciousness.
Times like these reveal to us our personal/global connection in all of its dirt and glory and provide an excellent occasion to take responsibility for our collective state of affairs. And when we do take the time to truly reflect upon the realities of the current situation, we realize we have the capacity to help create a greater financial future in which wealth is no longer measured exclusively by material possession, but by creativity, contribution and how well we use our access to knowledge and native ingenuity to take care of each other and the earth.
Consumption, in and of itself, is not wrong. In fact, it’s essential. Every living creature is a consumer, whether of air, water, or other organisms. But when consumption is the main driving force of a society without paying attention to its consequences, an increasing imbalance is created. Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben provides a brief history of the cultural shift towards unlimited growth that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Yet as he points out, all of our material goods are not making us any happier – quite the contrary. Sustainable living activist Dave Wann touts the value of “enough,” that perfect place between too much and too little. Wann sees our neighborhoods and our gardens as the real sources of wealth and suggests that job sharing will become a common practice in the years ahead.
On the personal front, financial consultant Ron Gallen explains the basis of what he calls “money disorders,” or attempts to fill an internal need with an external source. In that sense, the credit card economy could be viewed as one large, collective money disorder run amok.
Understanding our true motivations in overspending, overworking, obsessing about money or consistently earning less than our skills and training have prepared us for is the first step in freeing ourselves.
It’s not about how much or how little your have. Global activist and fundraiser Lynne Twist directed the Hunger Project for twenty years, a role that exposed her to both the wealthiest and most impoverished people in the world. Regardless of their income level, she found that they shared a common attitude of scarcity, the fear that there was not and would not be enough. In many cases, there was no evidence to support this belief, yet it persisted, leading Twist to reexamine the entire issue. Her conclusion is embodied in the title Scarcity: The Great Lie, a chapter excerpted from her book The Soul of Money.
Twist points to a future society based on “you-and-me” rather than “you-orme,” a concept echoed by futurist and bestselling author Riane Eisler. Eisler presents a new model of economics, based on partnership rather than domination and hierarchy. Caregiving, volunteer work and the environment all occupy places of honor in this system, which emphasizes funding for what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” – education, childcare, taking care of the elderly, and more.
Education necessarily plays a huge role in creating this future; a direct line can be drawn between child development, whether early or late, and the ability to actively contribute as an adult. Even the poorest of children, once their basic needs are met, can experience huge benefits from an enriched learning environment in ways that continue to reveal themselves for years after the fact. Any truly wise and prosperous society therefore invests in its children. Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman would like to take the issue out of the realm of politically charged concepts like social justice and address it in purely economic terms. After extensive research and study, Heckman has found that investing in early childhood development programs pays off not just for the child but for society as a whole, even twenty or thirty years later. For older kids, mentoring programs can also have a substantial impact on areas like motivation, self-discipline and dependability.
Studying how different kinds of people make decisions is the focus of Dr. Gregory Berns’ research. The Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics at the Emory University School of Medicine, Berns examines the neurological bases of both fear and creative risk-taking and how they relate to our current economic situation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he suggests that this is a moment rife with opportunity for those who can move beyond fear and have the eyes to see it. He calls the people who routinely do so “iconoclasts” and explains how their innate ability to do what others say can’t be done can be trained in those whose thinking is more standard.
One such person is former climber and current international peacemaker Greg Mortenson. The story of his journey to build schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan is an example of how much can be done with very little; many of his contributors are schoolchildren who collect pennies.
And what else can one man do? Consider the simple concept of combining a pre-existing technology (wiki) together with an incredulously ambitious idea (free access to the sum of all human knowledge). Jimmy Wales’ creation, Wikipedia, has evolved into what has become an international internet phenomenon: An electronic, open-source, free-access encyclopedia in 253 languages that is overseen by hundreds of volunteers worldwide. For most of the people served by this resource, having access to such an abundance of knowledge is as good as gold.
Just as children outgrow the stage of selfishness, the opportunity before humanity as a whole is to evolve beyond our collective beyond greed-based materialism into an era of cooperation, partnerships, simplification and sharing. While the world progresses through its current economic challenges, the possibility to choose and accept greater levels of personal and collective responsibility are laid before us. This issue profiles several complementary models representing some of the more progressive leading trends driving future wealth generation. It is up to each of us to create our selves, our families, and our communities into the future through example and leadership. In fact, we might just realize that in doing so, our lives have already become wealthier.