Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Ecology of Money: Debt, Growth, and Sustainability


"Modern economics must 'grow' because money borrowed for investment can be repaid only by expanding production and consumption to meet the burden of usurious rates of interest. The roots of this dynamic between debt and growth lay in the financial revolution of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Britain, which establish a new usurious monetary system.

"For the first time in history credit was made widely available, but only on condition of an exponentially increasing debt burden. To pay back debts, production had to increase correspondingly, leading to the industrial revolution, economic 'growth,' and modernity itself. Though private creditors grained a monopoly over the creation of credit, and were disproportionately enriched, the resulting economic growth for a time was great enough to benefit most debtors as well as creditors, ensuring widespread prosperity.

"That is no longer the case. With today's eco-crisis we have reached the limits of growth. We no longer have the natural resources to grow fast enough to pay our debts. This is the real root of our current financial crisis. If we are to live sustainably, our system of money and credit must be transformed. We need a non-usurious monetary system appropriate to a steady-state economy, with capital broadly distributed at non-usurious rates of interest. Such a system was developed by an early nineteenth-century American thinker, Edward Kellogg, and is explored here in depth. His work inspired the populist movement and remains more relevant than ever as a viable alternative to a financial system we can no longer afford."

--  from the blurb on the back cover of The Ecology of Money

The Ecology of Money was published by Lexington Books in 2013 and is available at Amazon.com

A Summary of the Argument of The Ecology of Money in 10 Points:

1. Our ecological crisis is a consequence of the productive effort we must make to meet the demands of our financial system. This crisis is upon us since we no longer have the natural resources to sustain this effort.

2. The roots of this financial-economic dynamic lie in the financial revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Holland and England, where credit and finance as we know them were invented.

3. Unfortunately, this financial revolution as completed in England: a) privatized credit, giving bankers a legal monopoly over money creation through issuing loans; b) created a national debt and a central bank to backstop private lending; and c) allowed bankers to charge high (usurious) rates of interest on loans. The Bank of England became the symbol of this "English system," as Alexander Hamilton called it, which was subsequently exported to America and most of the modern world. American populists called it "the money power."

4. Once key sectors of the economy came to depend on money borrowed at usurious rates of interest, it became necessary to keep expanding economic output. The obligation to repay such debts is what forced modern economies into endless "growth." Traditional, steady-state, reciprocal, sustainable economies were displaced by economies relentlessly seeking out new markets, technologies, resources, and laborers, and the industrial revolution -- and what we call "modernity" -- was born.

5. More than two centuries of economic "growth" have given us the miracle of the modern world, with all its astounding wealth and technology. That miracle has also exhausted our planet, which now staggers under the cumulative effects of resource depletion, pollution, overpopulation, and climate change. Insofar as the limits to growth have been reached, we can no longer hope to repay our debts, as in the past, by growing our way out of the crisis.

6. Our "too big to fail" financial system has succeeded in transferring much of this excessive debt onto taxpayers, postponing and likely intensifying the final reckoning. We are further burdened by a dysfunctional political system -- largely corrupted by the same financial interests -- which is less and less responsive to the urgency of reform, which may now be impossible.

7. The now inter-woven ecological and financial crisis is likely to play itself out no matter what we do. If so, the survivors will need to adjust to a dramatic downsizing and a return to sustainable economic practices. If civilization survives, it will need a financial system compatible with a steady-state, non-growth economy.

8. The outlines of such a system actually exist: they were developed by a nineteenth-century American financial theorist, Edward Kellogg. He proposed a decentralized system of public banking, where citizens could borrow on good collateral at a non-usurious rate of interest fixed by law at one percent. Kellogg's system, which inspired American populists, is a model for financing a future sustainable economy.

9. To say that we can no longer tolerate exponential growth as we have known it is not to say that human ingenuity has no future, that profound innovations in human life are no longer possible, or that the vast store of scientific and technical knowledge born of the industrial revolution cannot be adapted to new circumstances. A sustainable, steady-state economy is not necessarily a static or primitive economy, though likely it will be a far more modest and prudent one.

10. Our immediate prospects, however, remain daunting. Human history has long swung between extremes -- boom and bust, feast and famine, peace and war, the rise and fall of civilizations -- and we have no reason to believe our era is exempt from that ancient dynamic. We are a resilient species, and the silver lining of any crisis has always been the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, an opportunity perhaps not otherwise possible. Let's make the best of it.

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