I was recently reminded by Survival International of the Belo Monte mega-dam being built in the Brazilian Amazon, one of several dams in Brazil’s “Accelerated Growth Program.” Protests against the dam have broken out all over the world, as it promises to be a huge ecological and humanitarian disaster. Vast areas of rainforest would be destroyed, along with the livelihoods and cultures of thousands of indigenous people, some of whom may be still uncontacted.
The true extent of the disaster is even greater than what has been described. The dam would be a major step in the conversion of the Amazon basin into money. It would indeed accelerate Brazil’s growth — the growth, that is, of its money economy. It would bring electricity, roads, towns, people, and therefore the production of commodities and the consumption of services into a vast new realm. Surely, as a result, the economy grows. In fact, every time you tear people away from their traditional culture and means of subsistence, the economy grows. Take a bunch of Amazonian Indians, destroy their fishing resources, privatize their land, and house them in concrete shacks to work for wages, then however miserable they are, the economy has grown because they are now paying rent, buying food, producing salable goods, and earning a wage. It is good for business profits — here is a new source of cheap labor and a new market.
The money economy has an inexorable internal compulsion to grow, to convert nature into goods and gift relationships into services. Borne of debt-pressure, the compulsion to grow is a relentless force opposing our every effort to preserve what is good and beautiful in the world — in this case Amazonian land and cultures. Perhaps in this instance, activists from around the world will be successful in opposing the money power, and the dam will be stopped. But meanwhile, thousands of other expropriations of the commons will be underway, thousands of other “development” projects that stripmine land, water, and culture to feed the growth compulsion. We are always swimming against the tide of money.
The efforts to protect and preserve the planet are important, but as long as we have the present money system, they will be fighting a losing battle — an occasional hard-fought victory amid a tide of defeat. Thus it is that today, fifty years after the birth of the environmental movement, we nonetheless have a biosphere that has been immeasurably depleted since 1960. Science understands the catastrophe we are creating, and most people wish to reverse it, yet we seem helpless to do so. That is because all our efforts must fight the power of money, and that is why a transformation of the money system is indispensable to the healing of the planet. Without monetary transformation, for every megadam stopped, a hundred will spring up elsewhere: a hundred dams, power plants, and trash incinerators; more drilling, more quarries, more mines, more clearcuts, more roads, more plantations, more broken cultures, more televisions, more cars, more consumerism, and less life.
Can you imagine a world in which money is no longer the enemy of our efforts to preserve and restore the biosphere? Today it is quite easy to predict government policy: faced with two choices, you merely evaluate which will contribute to the growth of the realm of goods and services. About 95% of the time, that’s the one that will be chosen. That is because money as we know it is an embodiment of the valuing of growth. It springs from a mythos that holds sacred the growth of the human realm, the human mastery of nature. But growth is becoming no longer sacred to us. Our hearts turn elsewhere, and it is time to reinvent money so that it embodies those things that are becoming sacred to us today.
It sounds like an impossible dream — that we no longer have to fight against the money power to preserve ecosystems, indigenous cultures, and the planet. We are so used to big money and corporate power to be on the side of destruction, that it is hard to imagine a world otherwise. Yet it is not an impossible dream — it is actually quite close. Sacred Economics describes a system in which money and ecology, art, gift, and love are aligned. Money after all is a human creation, a system of symbols empowered by agreements, a story. It is built upon our consciousness, and that, right now, has the potential to shift, along with all that is built upon it.