Civilization Reconsidered

Economics: Is Money Evil?

Number 25 / January 1994

Our technological transformation of Nature and our destruction of traditional cultures during the past five centuries have rested upon four pillars-economic greed, nation-statism, religious zealotry, and scientific hubris. Our task in creating a new, life-affirming culture must be to carefully remove all four of these props and to replace them with a single sound taproot reaching deep into the heart of the soil and the soul.

It seems that the other cultures don't see trees. They see money.

­Gwaganad, a Haida woman of Haada Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), testifying in 1985 before the Supreme Court of British Columbia in the matter of the application by Frank Beban Logging and Western Forest Products Ltd. for an injunction to prohibit the Haida from picketing logging roads on Lyell Island, South Moresby.

On the face of it, the question seems absurd. We in the modern world need money in order to survive. It is almost as necessary as food, water, or air. When I ask my friends whether money might be evil, many look at me with a mixture of surprise and pity. They tell me that money is either good (in the sense that the more you have of it, the better) or neutral (in that its effects depend on the purposes for which it is used). It would be crazy, they tell me, to think differently.

From the perspectives of people living in an industrialized country in the late twentieth century, this attitude is logical, obvious, even necessary. Maybe it is crazy to think differently. However, I'm not asking the question as a test of personal morality, but as a matter of cultural inquiry. Money, after all, is a cultural phenomenon, not a biologically innate aspect of human existence. Not all societies have used money-far from it. And in most cultures that have had money, historically speaking, it has been used primarily for luxuries; the basic necessities-food and shelter-were freely available to everyone. It is only in urban centers like ancient Athens and Rome, in Imperial China, and in the modern industrialized world that basic necessities, and human labor (in many cases including the human beings themselves), have come to be evaluated, bought, and sold. It is in this cultural sense that I ask whether money is good, neutral, or evil.

It's Only a Tool

In order to arrive at an answer we first need to decide whether we believe that it is even possible for money to be evil. Money is essentially a kind of tool for the facilitation of trade, and according to some social philosophers all tools are morally neutral; if so, my question makes no sense. Others say that each technology embodies certain values, and that one cannot use a tool without being changed by it. If that is true, then we can inquire as to whether this particular technology or tool embodies values that somehow undermine the ultimate human good. Admittedly this is problematic, because it requires that we define the nature of the ultimate human good so as to see whether it is being undermined. (I personally believe that whatever is good leads ultimately to life, happiness, and health; while evil leads ultimately to death, unhappiness, and sickness. But we all have our own definitions.) Still, even though it forces us to forge a path into the nebulous realm of values and ideals, it seems to me that the latter proposition-that technologies are not morally neutral-is closer to the truth. And while this view is hardly universally held, more and more people seem to be coming around to it.

Consider, for example, the tools known as guns. Currently, many Americans favor increased legal controls on the sale of guns, apparently because they believe that guns are inherently destructive. The National Rifle Association has for years argued that "Guns don't kill people; people kill people"-in other words, that this (and presumably every) technology is good or neutral; only its misuse creates problems. But both logic and evidence contradict the NRA stance. Logically, since guns are designed to kill either people or animals (and handguns and assault rifles make questionable hunting weapons), then the more guns there are, the more people will likely be killed by them. Experience bears this out: America, which has far more guns in circulation than other countries, has far more deaths and injuries from them than do nations with stiffer controls. And it almost goes without saying that most of us tend to agree that the specter of multitudes of annual injuries and deaths from gunshot wounds does not jibe with our idea of the ultimate human good.

So with regard to guns most people are beginning to take the view that it is possible for a technology to be inherently destructive; and that if it is shown to be so, then its use should be discouraged. But with regard to other technologies, many people still tend toward NRA logic. This is true in the case of newer technologies like television, nuclear energy, and genetic engineering, and also that of older and more basic ones like money. Most people apparently believe that the problems that seem to arise from money's use (resource depletion, centralization of power, crime, and social disintegration) are the fault not of money itself, but of people. People are naturally self-centered and greedy, but money is a neutral tool. If people can be educated to use money more wisely, then it can be a tool for great good.

Maybe. But what does the evidence say? Is it possible to explore the issue scientifically?

Let's Try an Experiment...

Some scientists seem to believe that the only way to obtain truly objective data is to perform an animal study. In The Biology of Art, zoologist Desmond Morris tells of his experiment in introducing the 'profit motive' to apes. First he taught them (how many?) to draw and paint. The apes enjoyed this; and some of their productions, according to Morris, were quite appealing. Once they had become established as artists, Morris began to 'pay' the apes, rewarding their efforts with peanuts. Under this new reward system their artwork quickly deteriorated and they began making hasty scrawls just to trade for peanuts. "Money" in the form of peanuts didn't seem to make the apes happier; it made them compulsive and servile.

Granted, Morris's experiment is hardly conclusive. After all, not everyone who works for a paycheck does shoddy work, and it isn't always possible to draw parallels between animal and human behavior. So: what happens to a human society when it adopts money? Let us consider a contemporary example. Helena Norberg-Hodge, a linguist who has for nearly twenty years closely observed the process of economic development in the traditional society of Ladakh in northern India, is in as good a position as anybody to comment. In her eloquent book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Sierra Club Books, 1991), Norberg-Hodge describes the transformation of a Tibetan Buddhist agrarian village culture-from moneyless to mercantile-in a single generation.

What was Ladakh like in the old days? "In the traditional society," writes Norberg-Hodge, "villagers provided for their basic needs without money. They had developed skills that enabled them to grow barley at 12,000 feet and to manage yaks and other animals at even higher elevations. People knew how to build houses with their own hands from the materials in their immediate surroundings. The only thing they actually needed from the outside region was salt, for which they traded. They used money in only a limited way, mainly for luxuries." And they seemed happy. "Only after many years of peeling away layers of preconceptions did I begin to see the joy and laughter of the Ladakhis for what it really was: a genuine and unhindered appreciation of life itself."

But by the mid-1970s Ladakh was beginning to change. The biggest town in the region, Leh, had been linked by road with the rest of India and trucks were beginning to carry in manufactured goods. Tourists were arriving. Money was changing hands. And the close-knit social fabric of the Ladakhis was starting to unravel. "For centuries, people worked as equals and friends-helping one another by turn. Now that there is paid labor during the harvest, the person paying the money wants to pay as little as possible, while the person receiving wants to have as much as possible. The money becomes a wedge between people, pushing them further and further apart." The increasing use of money also increases the gap between rich and poor. "In the traditional economy there were differences in wealth, but its accumulation had natural limits. You could only care for so many yaks or store so many kilos of barley. Money, on the other hand, is easily stored in the bank. . . ."

Norberg-Hodge quotes the Development Commissioner in Ladakh in 1981 as saying: "If Ladakh is ever going to be developed we have to figure out how to make these people greedy. You just can't motivate them otherwise." This was still in the early years of "development." Norberg-Hodge: "When I first arrived in Ladakh the absence of greed was striking . . . people were not particularly interested in sacrificing their leisure or pleasure simply for material gain. In those years, tourists were perplexed when people refused to sell them things, no matter how much money they offered. Now, after several years of development, making money has become a major preoccupation. New needs have been created."

Before, people were self-sufficient; now they feel the need for money, and young men go to the city to look for jobs. At the same time, traditional controls on population growth have broken down and the population is rising quickly. "In traditional Ladakh there was no such thing as unemployment. But in the modern sector there is now intense competition for a very limited number of paying jobs, principally in the government. As a result, unemployment is already a serious problem."

Norberg-Hodge acknowledges that many things about old Ladakh were far from ideal: communication with the outside world was limited, illiteracy rates were high, and infant mortality was higher and life expectancy lower than in the industrialized West. But, in the context of the traditional society, these were not serious problems.

If economic "development" has such disastrous consequences, why do people go along with it? Partly because they cannot see the long-term consequences. (A Kashmiri trader told Norberg-Hodge proudly, "Our vegetables are much better than the local ones. We have at least seven different chemicals on ours."). They want to be like the rich American tourists who seem to have an endless supply of money and who never seem to work. They have no idea that America is polluted and crime-ridden and that Americans suffer from stress and degenerative diseases brought on by their fast-paced lifestyle. They have been told that their traditional way of life is inferior, that they are poor.

Norberg-Hodge believes that, on the whole, the new money economy is a disaster for the people of Ladakh because "The emphasis is not on human welfare but on commercial gain." And in her book she makes a powerful case that Ladakh is a microcosm of the world: the process of development is essentially similar throughout the Third World; moreover, what is there called "development" is the same as what Westerners call "progress," and as the result of it our culture is degenerating as surely as is the Ladakhis', and in similar ways.

What's Money For, Anyway?

If the purpose of guns is to kill, then what is money's purpose? Is it a purpose that serves the ultimate human good?

Money is a medium of exchange. It allows us to quantify value (an hour of your life is worth how many dollars?) and thereby to equate the value of fundamentally dissimilar things (such as an owl and a gram of plutonium). It facilitates the trade-and therefore indirectly the extraction, production, or movement-of resources and manufactured goods. The more abstract the medium of exchange, the more these processes can be expanded and speeded up. If trade is based on the exchange of yaks, it can go only so far and so fast. Gold and silver offer somewhat more fluidity but still imply a certain discipline. If trade is based on electronic impulses that can be flashed around the world in nanoseconds, its limits are virtually nonexistent.

This much is beyond argument. Now: is that a good purpose? Many people (principally those involved in trade) would say that it is. But others would say that we already extract far too many resources far too recklessly, and that many of our manufactured products are superfluous, polluting, or shoddy. As the Haida woman quoted at the beginning of this essay put it, we don't see trees; we see dollars. In other words, some values resist quantification and therefore tend to be progressively discounted as a society becomes increasingly monetized. And these are often precisely the most important values from the standpoint of what many people might define as the ultimate human good: values like truth, community, mutual understanding, and a sense of responsibility to future generations and to the rest of life.

Some Objections

But money doesn't have to undermine "higher" human values; many people use their money to help good causes.

Yes; assuming a society with money, it is true that some of its uses will be more beneficial than others. It may indeed be morally more ennobling to spend one's dollars protecting an old-growth forest from being logged rather than to invest them in shares of Louisiana-Pacific Corporation. Similarly, one can use a gun either to defend oneself against a burglar or to murder a cashier while one is robbing a convenience store. But that doesn't tell us whether, on the whole, our society would be better off with more or fewer guns. My question is whether, in sum, a culture is better off when more or less money changes hands. As the example of Ladakh demonstrates, a society with little money can get along quite well.

Isn't this whole discussion pointlessly unrealistic? Our society is what it is. What do you expect people to do-give all their money away and live on acorns? Besides: you sell subscriptions to this newsletter; aren't you a hypocrite?

Maybe. But as members of this society our ability to refuse participation in its basic economic paradigm is limited. Even self-sufficient hunter-gatherers from the Amazonian rainforest who, for one reason or another, find themselves in a modern city are forced to find ways to obtain money in order to survive. It is possible, as a homeless person, to live almost entirely on handouts. But that only tends to shift the economic responsibility for one's existence onto others' shoulders. Again, my purpose in this discussion is not to question personal morality so much as cultural conventions and tools.

We can, of course, individually lead our lives according to values somewhat different from those of the society as a whole and thereby push the envelope of possibility in certain directions. That's why I'm interested in building my own straw-bale house and feeding myself as much as possible by way of sustainable horticulture. Meanwhile, I'm thankful for the money I receive: I treat it as a symbol of life energy and use it carefully. For others interested in transforming their relationship with money I would recommend Your Money Or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (Penguin, 1992), which guides the reader through a process of self-evaluation regarding goals, priorities, and expenditures. The first step in escaping from enslavement to an inherently destructive technology is to use it more consciously and deliberately.

But isn't it ridiculous even to think of eliminating money from the modern world? Wouldn't we all have to go back to living in the woods and wearing animal skins? Not many people are voluntarily going to do that, and those few who try invariably fail.

This is not necessarily a discussion of absolutes. Ladakh got along very well using money on a much smaller scale, so long as the people kept to their self-sufficient, land-based traditions. It is only when money invades all departments of a culture that it tends to cause widespread and progressive social disintegration.

It is indeed difficult to swim upstream against the current of our society, which flows so powerfully in the direction of economic growth and increased global trade. Sadly, some of the most vulnerable people in the present situation are culturally some of the most valuable-small-scale farmers who know and care for the land, and indigenous peoples with rich land-based cultural traditions. Still, there are millions of others who are quietly withdrawing from participation in the mainstream culture and who together constitute an alternative stream flowing toward a life of Earth-centered values and simple pleasures. It is easy to underestimate the true significance of this movement of what Helena Norberg-Hodge calls "counter-development," which is occurring both in the industrialized countries and the Third World. Norberg-Hodge's own Ladakh Project and International Society for Ecology and Culture are important sources of information, examples, and opportunities in this regard.

Frankly I'm uncomfortable thinking of money as evil, no matter what you say. For one thing, by doing so I may somehow be psychically repelling needed finances from my life and attracting poverty. Also, it makes me feel guilty for all the thousands of dollars I've made and spent. Why should I feel guilty for doing what I must in order to survive? And I've seen the entrenched habit of fighting evil turn good people into bitter, frustrated, and angry partisans.

Excellent points. Rather than hating the evil of money, which pits us against social trends far too vast for any one of us personally to reverse, perhaps we should concentrate instead on loving the good of a life lived close to our basic means of sustenance, a life of conscious mutual interdependence. Rather than losing ourselves in recriminations over our losses, we might better spend our energy in sowing fresh seed.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that it is essential to have a realistic view of the society in which we are living. I freely admit to using the word evil primarily for shock value. My aim is to dissipate a particularly virulent form of cultural trance. To inquire whether money is a destructive force in our collective experience is to raise the possibility of fundamental and deliberate cultural change. Until that inquiry is made, we are simply being swept along by forces we neither control nor understand. We must learn to ask the real costs of "progress"-in individual peace of mind, in cultural integrity, in our own health and that of the biosphere-and also to ask ourselves what we value most. For it is only when our values rest on firm biological and spiritual footings that we can know the true meaning of wealth. And it is only when the direction of social change is determined by such reaffirmed innate values that the whole world can begin once again to share in the abundance that is our wild biotic birthright.

(The Ladakh Project has for fifteen years been undertaking a wide-ranging program in the Himalayan region of Ladakh aimed at exploring alternatives to conventional development. Its parent organization, The International Society for Ecology and Culture, can be reached at P.O. Box 9475, Berkeley CA 94709.)



© 1994 Richard Heinberg. All rights reserved.



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