There is a reason that despite the overwhelming evidence that our exponential, growth-based economic system is destroying the very foundations of life on the planet that change has still been hard to come by. The reason is not because of human greed. Greed, too, is a symptom. It’s not because of a competitive human nature. Humans are actually soft-wired for empathy. It’s not even due to some global conspiracy to rule the world. People just aren’t that capable. The reason we cannot “wake up” to the unsustainable nature of our way of life may be traced to our awareness of our finite life and the linear concept of time that it creates.
As far as we know, human beings are the only animals that are aware that they will die someday. This knowledge could be considered either a curse or a blessing and it changes the way people view time. Knowing that, barring an unexpected injury or illness, you will live around eighty years creates a linear concept of time. We think of our lives in terms of our past, our present, and our future.
Many people are not only burdened by events in their past but are also preoccupied with their future, leaving little time to give attention to the present moment. The preoccupation with the future is mostly due to a fear of death (even though it may be a secondary or tertiary reason). For example, people buy all kinds of insurance such as life, health, car, accident, fire, hurricane – some people even bought rapture insurance – as ways to protect them from unforeseen events (that could harm or kill). How many times have you decided not to swim in the ocean for fear of a shark attack or not to travel to a foreign country because of stories of safety issues?
This fear also influences the desire and drive for “financial security.” But what does financial security really mean and, perhaps more importantly, how do you know once you have achieved it? A recent poll queried a group of individuals with an average net worth of $25 million to ask if they felt they had achieved financial security. A majority of them said that they had not and that they would only achieve it if they could, on average, increase their wealth by 20 percent. Even those with modest means feel that financial security is only one bonus away.
Why does financial security remain so elusive regardless of the size of one’s bank account? Most people would probably define financial security in terms of having enough money to secure their livelihoods indefinitely given a wide array of potential hazards that one could face. The problem is that this list of hazards is nearly infinite. Once you’ve amassed enough money to insulate from some hazards, other potential hazards arise that require even more financial security. And so we attempt to earn even more money. The cycle is like an infinite loop in programming language – you don’t even know you’re in it. So what gives?
Money has been created in such a way so as to be completely decoupled from the principles that govern the physical world. Unlike anything in the natural world, money does not decay. It is as eternal as our ego’s desire to exist. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with their treasure so that they could have access to it in the afterlife. Could it be that our design and pursuit of money was based on our longing to identify with something eternal? Perhaps if we could only accumulate enough of it, we could transcend death?
Of course we all know that absurdity of that line of thinking. But people strive for financial security nonetheless and the quest has devastating impacts to the world. Whether you are an investment banker, a daily stock trader or a blue-collar worker with a pension, everyone expects a return on their investment no matter if it is in the stock market, treasury bonds, or real estate. We expect our money to “grow.” And it is this expectation that fuels the desire for exponential growth of the economy. It is this expectation that creates the pressure for corporations to deliver a profit to their investors or shareholders. The expectation is always more.
Economic growth has always been destructive for the planet. Every empire that has ever existed can point to over-exploitation of resources as the root cause of their demise. The difference between empires of the past and those of today is that we are now exhausting the entire planet at once. Empires of the past could rise and fall and their impact would be limited to a small geographic region. This is no longer true. Today, we live in an exponential economic growth paradigm which sees no limits.
Our quest to secure access to future resources is causing the deterioration of those same resources. As we drill for more oil, mine for more metals, pollute more water, and convert more forests to ranches, we are eating through our natural capital – the very foundations of the earth’s capacity to support life. We are eroding the capability of the earth to meet our collective expectations. Our salvation will come when we collectively understand that financial security, no matter how much one has, will never prevent our death. A little more money might insure us a little better, but no amount can insure us completely. Our death is inevitable.
Once our delusions of immortality have been cast aside, we can see the truth about money – that it is simply a claim to future resources. We expect that we will be able to trade the money we have saved and invested for goods and services in the future. When we invest money, we are placing value on future, on things that do not even exist yet. It is the ultimate expression of viewing time linearly. But how much is money worth if there is no clean air to breathe or clean water to drink? If there are no more bees to pollenate the crops, if ocean acidification collapses the ocean food chain, if hydraulic fracturing pollutes our water supply, then what good is money?
Accepting the knowledge of our finite life allows us to live with a different concept of time – one that focuses on each moment. It also helps us to understand our connection to nature. Like everything else, our bodies are subject to the natural lifecycle of growth, maturation, and decay. The current culture of death denial not only attempts elevate humans above nature; it actually fuels a system that destroys nature as well. In the attempt to preserve our own life, we may actually destroy it.
What might an economy look like that instead of focusing on securing the future needs for some, it cared about meeting the current needs for all? What would happen if money was designed after nature in a way that it decayed over time? Perhaps instead of chasing the illusive reward of ever more money, we might focus on what is truly most important – things like clean water and nutritious food for our bodies, a healthy environment void of pollution and toxic chemicals, and sustainable ways of living on the planet. An abundant world is possible but only if we take yet another cue from nature by focusing on meeting the present needs of every human, animal, and plant on the planet. We must value life in all of its forms and create modes of living based on the principles of interconnectivity, empathy, and the love of life, allowing it to flourish in all of its diversity and beauty. If we begin to view each moment of our lives as the gift it truly is, we can finally shed this very real fear that holds us back from living our lives in a way that allows us to be present each and every moment.