Reflections on the Economics of Peace Conference
In October, the Praxis Peace Institute and RSF Social Finance hosted a conference on the Economics of Peace in Sonoma, California. The conference brought together some of the leading thinkers and doers on alternative economics to discuss a wide range of topics relating to current efforts to transform our economy and our society into a more community focused, ecologically sustainable and socially just system.
The conference provided an unprecedented forum for exchanging ideas on economic change. The information and resource sharing that occurred throughout the week, both during the sessions and also, importantly, at the breaks, made it apparent that those of us engaged with the work towards community-based economies are ourselves in need of community building. Daniel Pinchbeck addressed this in his Friday morning session, "Why We Launched Evolver: A Social Network for Conscious Collaboration." Establishing more regular and accessible forums for sparking the type of collaborative energy and momentum that characterized the week in Sonoma is an urgent task ahead of us. I spoke with several conference attendees who are already at work creating such platforms.
While this conference was a huge first step, its potential was underutilized. While generally all speakers hit on the conference's key themes of Transforming Money, Rebuilding Community, and Redefining Wealth, a lot of the substantive questions of this burgeoning movement -- both in terms of its ideological underpinnings and the logistics of the important work ahead -- were left largely unaddressed. Before delving into some still-murky areas, I'll start with some observations on where I think the movement, as reflected in the ideas expressed at the conference, has reached consensus.
Firstly, and importantly, a new consciousness is on the march. This consciousness leads us to favor a transformation that embraces cooperation, oneness, and abundance and rejects the false prophets of competition, individualism and scarcity. Tom Greco, author of The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, echoed Ivan Illich when he called the coming era a "new convivial order," but he was hardly the only speaker to address the palpable sense of the broader, societal awakening underway. David Korten, founder of Yes! magazine and author of, most recently, Agenda for a New Economy, also spoke of the potential for awakening in his energetic speech on Monday night. He said, "Our reflective consciousness gives us the capacity to choose our future with conscious collective intent." Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety and author of the pamphlet Salmon Economics (and other lessons), published by the E. F. Schumacher Society, also spoke of an awakening consciousness, and the need to address the psychological and spiritual issues at hand in our current, destructive way of living.
Second, our current economic system is one of inherent violence. In pursuit of growing profits through extraction and accumulation, our current system inflicts violence on living beings, our earth and our communities. Vandana Shiva, renowned activist, thinker and author of many books including Stolen Harvest and most recently Soil not Oil, took up this theme in her Tuesday night keynote. In her gripping style, she spoke of the violence of aerial crop spraying, a literal bombing of toxic chemicals that suggests full-scale warfare between humans and the earth. She also spoke of the violence inflicted upon farmers in India, who, indebted, hungry and dispossessed by corporate agents of industrial agriculture, take their own lives by drinking the same chemical poisons that have destroyed their land. By Shiva's figures, more than 200,000 such suicides have occurred in India in the past decade.
Kimbrell also alluded to violence when he spoke of the ways in which our society honors the use of technology to subvert the natural world, and the absurdity of our efforts to conform our ecosystem to fit our economic system. He spoke of efforts to genetically modify commercially raised hens to inhibit their tendency to brood, an inconvenient biological feature for today's industrial farming practices. In a system that values profits at the expense of all else, the logic is one that favors changes to the animals themselves, not the horrific conditions in which they are raised.
Third, opportunities to establish and reestablish community are everywhere, and taking advantage of them is an essential part of our work ahead. At the top of my post-conference to-do list was joining my local community time bank. Stephanie Rearick, founder and director of the Dane County Timebank in Wisconsin, spoke of the enormous community-building potential of timebanks, where members offer services to one another in exchange for time credits, redeemable in another member's services. She also spoke of the transformative power of valuing all members' work equally, in units of hours, saying that new members often express a sense of exhilaration at being an equally valued part of an economy. Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money Alliance, also spoke of the everyday potential to reconnect with one's community, and of the importance of conceiving of our monetary exchanges in terms of community returns.
Despite the important groundwork laid, the conference missed the opportunity delve into some conceptual questions, an exposition of which is essential for mapping out the work moving forward. At some point around day four of the conference, on idea overdrive, I feverishly scrawled in my notebook: Are we tweaking the recipe or are we baking a new pie?! Put differently, in sorting out which strategies and innovations are actually getting us closer to a new convivial society, we've got to be more discerning about what constitutes sustainable, fundamental change and what constitutes a temporary tweak to make our current, unsustainable system slightly more tolerable.
In describing what led him to pursue the Slow Money project, Woody Tasch, reflecting on so-called socially responsible investing, said (paraphrasing): "It's not enough to pull a couple of troublesome items out of your investment portfolio and go on about your day." This reminded me of a simple axiom I first heard from noted Marxist geographer and political theorist, David Harvey. In discussing the sustainability efforts coming from within the current system (such as carbon credit trading regimes), he noted that it's important to recognize when "sustainability" is actually referring to the sustaining of capitalism and not to life on earth. This rather simple concept has become a powerful tool in my own thinking about the way forward, and could be helpful in the next round of discussions on the coming peace economy.
Will some regulatory tweaks and strengthened democratic institutions do the trick, as economist James Galbraith rather anticlimactically proposed in his Thursday night keynote? Many of us no longer think so, and yet the same crowd that clapped enthusiastically to Andrew Kimbrell's critique of present day capitalism did so for Galbraith's tepid talk on regulatory reform.
Tom Greco suggests that we won't begin to see the changes in society that we desire until we upend the hegemony of state-issued money through alternative currency systems, but David Korten, whose vision for a better future seems similar to Greco's, speaks of a need to "refederalize the Federal Reserve" (i.e., take back the control of money creation and allocation from private banks) and doesn't address alternative currencies at all. It seems time these two well-regarded authors on an economics of peace engage in a dialogue with one another.
Before this overlapping set of critiques and visions laid out at the Economics of Peace conference can be appropriately termed a movement, we need to hammer out some of these pesky substantive questions. While there's of course room for a wide range of views, the future work we do will benefit from more directed communication on the issues. In some ways, the conference felt like a week-long pep rally, and I think the attendees welcomed the opportunity for some much needed momentum boosting, but the more detailed questions await us. I, for one, am voting for a new pie and I'm looking forward to exchanging recipes.
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