Growth without growth - a journey down the rabbit hole. Part 1

Thursday, 16 June 2011 at 19:58
There has been a collection of ideas brewing in my mind for some time, but I've been at a loss for a way to share them that was simple and didn't make me look like a raving conspiracy theorist. Now I think I'll just record my thoughts and see what happens.

This is about many things, money, being trapped, finding hope, control, freedom, wising up, how to live life truly to the fullest, and more. It's hard to know where to begin.

Before I get stuck in, I'd like to say that if you're completely content in your life, in your relationships and your role in the world, and you see no cause for there being change in how the society you are a part of operates, then you'll likely have little interest in the following ideas. Enjoy your day. Otherwise I look forward to sharing some ideas and hopefully hearing your thoughts.

Firstly, just to be clear, my intent it to explore how things are currently operating, and how they can work better. It is not to blame, or demonize any one individual or group, since to do so would not be very constructive.

Underpinning much of what I have on my mind are two outlooks, or modes of thinking, together with a fairly straightforward view of what drives us. While it might seem like an curious psychological tangent, the ideas are simple at heart and we'll be making use of them later on. The two outlooks:
  1. 'Threat-focus': In any situation where there is some difficulty in meeting your needs, you focus on improving your situation in terms of neutralizing threat. People can become obstacles, and violence or manipulation options. In this outlook, it's 'you against them'. Winning, securing, or protecting is the goal, to the exclusion of all else. It's a zero-sum game. In this mode of thinking cooperation may take place, but it's the kind of cooperation that lacks a sense of freedom or joy, and it's usually in the wider context on competition against some other person or group. It's very hard to feel at peace in this mode.
  2. 'Collaborative': In any situation where there is some difficulty in meeting your needs, you focus on how you can work together with everyone involved in the situation to find a solution that meets everyone's needs. The aim of working together with respect, gaining deeper understanding and seeking an outcome that genuinely works well for everyone takes precedence over  'looking after number one'. Strong collective benefit is seen as coming from taking this attitude. It's easier to find a sense of freedom and joy in working together in this mode.
Both threat-focus and collaborative modes of thinking are natural and serve a useful purpose. However, threat-focus tends to be a high-stress state, most suitable as an 'emergency backup mode' for when the shit hits the fan, you're in serious trouble, and all else fails. Most people have a switch-over point for when it becomes so hard to meet their own needs (physical or emotional) that they lose the will to collaborate - work together to produce mutual gain, valuing everyone's needs as equal - and simply fighting to meet their own needs takes centre stage. Sometimes, due to our environment, lifestyle or conditioning, we can get stuck in a threat-focused way of thinking.

These two modes of thinking can be active on different scales as we expand our empathy beyond ourselves to our family, partners and friends, then out to our community, nation, race, all people, all living creatures and the planet at large. It's possible to have different modes of thinking on different scales. I believe all conflict is dealt with in one (or a combination) of these two modes. So then it's not that people are inherently selfish or violent, but they can certainly be conditioned into thinking and behaving largely in that way. Luckily, adaptive creatures that we are, it's possible to unlearn such conditioning.

As for the view on what drives our behaviour, the idea is simply that everything we do, we do to meet certain underlying, natural needs.

We may not be explicitly aware of a particular need when we act, and it may be wrapped in many different strategies, habits, customs and beliefs - of varying degrees of effectiveness. But nonetheless, what gives our beliefs and our approaches to any objective meaning, is that these things are orientated towards satisfying those underlying needs. A basic example would be: "I'd like to spend the afternoon in the park with you". Here the strategy is being in the park with that person, while the underlying needs may be companionship, affection, play, etc.

There is a common pool of needs that everyone shares regardless of culture, background, or sex. These include: freedom, support, identity, purpose, nurture, affection, joy, play, security, understanding - as well as the basic needs for food and shelter. These needs unite us. (For those interested, I go into more detail about dealing with conflict and getting in touch with needs in my book "Healthy Loving Relationships")

With that foundation laid, let's now look at some of the issues present in the world:
(warning: you may find it a little 'heavy' from here on. There are also some statistics to digest. But please be assured, there is light at the end of the tunnel.)
  • Rising total level of material wealth, but increasing numbers of people either in or close to poverty.
  • Dwindling natural resources, polluted environments, damaged eco-systems and man-made climate change.
  • Inertia in existing political system, relatively little sign of changing track to stop the practice of economic slavery or to avoid further catastrophic pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources and climate change.
So this gives rise to 3 questions worth exploring: 
What is the connection between the rising gap between a minority of rich and a majority of poor, and the source of their wealth?
What are the effects of this wealth generation on our environment and other living systems?
Why is there such a lack of movement in government to effectively redress the situation?

I think the 2nd question about the effect on the natural environment has been well treated and the answer is relatively widely known (for some background and perspectives on it a previous blog I wrote). I'd like to focus more here on the other questions.

On the subject of wealth distribution here's a graph from a recent report by the Office of National Statistics, for wealth in the UK 2006-08.

From this graph it's clear just how little wealth the large majority of the population have in comparison to the top deciles. According to the official report, the poorest 50% of the population's households have just 9% of the country's wealth, while the richest 50% have the other 91%. Actually the bottom 10% are an average of £20,000 in debt, excluding mortgages.

[For anyone who's not familiar with the terminology of the graph, you can think of the vertical wealth axis, as a 'wealth cake' representing all the financial wealth in the country. The markings divide it into 10 equal slices. The horizontal households axis as a queue comprising all the households in the country. The queue is arrange in wealth order, the poorest people down at position zero, getting richer towards the 100% mark. So then to find out how much wealth the top 10% have, for instance, you subtract the wealth value at the 90% (~55% of the wealth cake) mark from the 100% mark (100% of the wealth cake) and be left with 45%. If wealth were distributed equally then it would follow the straight diagonal line.]

We'll talk much more about debt in Part 2. But very briefly looking at mortgages, as at April 2011 personal mortgage debt in the UK stood at £1.24 trillion, or £1,241,000,000,000. In the USA in 2007 mortgage debt for single family homes stood at $14.5 trillion, which, amazingly, gives a 10% compound annual growth rate in mortgage debt since 1955! Like the wealth gap, personal financial debt is something that is continually expanding.

The gap between rich and poor in the UK, USA and the majority of the 34 OECD countries is wider now than ever, since records began (See this report for figures covering the last 30 years). Thus the idea of the 'trickle down effect' of wealth is fine, so long as you realize it really is a little trickle, while the main pipelines of wealth creation flow directly to the wealthiest and, to a great extent, stay in those small circles.

Naturally, the rich can only be so rich because the poor are so poor; there is a limited amount of material resources to go around, and so vast wealth for a few depends on vast numbers of poor. The more people there are on a finite planet, the more stark the situation becomes.

Of course, technology can improve the efficient use of resources, health care and other things, but in terms of access to and use of land, raw materials and political power, here there is increasing disparity. Also the limited access to technology can help to maintain these vast divides in wealth. Not only this, but it is the labour of the poor that creates much of the wealth of the rich and allows it to be spent. This is not intended as a political statement, merely an observation, and one that many have made in the past. And for the record, I do not consider myself a Communist, or even a Labour party supporter.

With the above graph, and similar stats for economically developed countries, it's important to realize that the bottom of the graph doesn't really end there. The practically flat line for the poorest 10% in the UK actually continues a long way backward, getting ever closer to zero wealth, as you trace the supply chains back to the countries where many of the products we consume come from. In parts of India, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and many others - and sometimes much closer to home in exploited groups of illegal immigrants - that bottom 50% would look at many of the poorest UK citizens and see a rather comfortable, maybe even lavish living. This is the system we live in. 

When talking about uneven wealth distribution, it's fairly common to hear - even from those near the bottom of the distribution - a response along the lines of: "If you don't have the wealth you'd like, you just need to work harder and smarter, it's your responsibility. Everyone has a chance to be rich."

It's vital to separate the truths from the assumptions with this kind of response. Working harder and smarter does tend to lead to more material wealth, and everyone does have a chance. However, firstly, realistic opportunities for material wealth vary very widely through most societies, with factors including quality of education, upbringing, gender, accent, part of the country you reside and social circle - alongside any factors of real aptitude. So the chance is there, but it is not the same chance. Secondly, although the current system, in terms of how 'success' is measured out, isn't exactly a zero-sum game, it's not that far from it (in fact for many it's arguably a negative sum game). As we'll discover, it's not even remotely possible for there to be a level playing field and broadly even access to resources with the current system.

Considering the whole picture, looking at the level of government policy, established economic and business strategies, law and technologies, the problems are rather complex and evidently hard to tackle.

There is, however, one aspect of 'the system' that I believe can unravel most if not all of the issues mentioned so far. 

In nature, infinitely complex forms in everything from clouds and rock faces, to shells and leaves can be accurately modelled with simple formulae (fractals). I believe a similar level of understanding of the current global socioeconomic system can be gained by looking at one aspect of it: the money system. 

By understanding how the money system works, in combination with the concepts of 'threat-focus' and 'collaborative' thinking previously introduced, the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of expanding calamity that is the global socioeconomic system can be understood, and knowledge for how to apply the breaks gained.

Tune in next time when we really take a dive down the rabbit hole, exploring the, strangely mysterious, 'money system', and some practical changes that could lead to a better future for the vast majority of the planet. (Btw, this future does not involve living in huts and wearing grass pants - unless you want it to.) 

In this journey we will discover where the drive for perpetual economic growth really comes from (no, it's not jobs and prosperity for all), what some saner alternatives might look like, and how money is literally created from nothing - and interest earned on it (sorry, you have to be a bank to pull that one off), and maybe more...

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