Rob Parsons

Consumer retorts

Finding real wealth in a home-grown economy

by Rob Parsons

May 7, 2009

"Money, it's a gas/Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash."

- Pink Floyd

The looming economic downturn has sent a chill across the United States and throughout the globe, as if Darth Vader had just walked into the room. Great political debate is focused on how to prop up our failed economic system, through a combination of bailouts and infusions of capital seeking to create jobs and spur spending, even while increasing our national debt—now more than $11 trillion and increasing by close to $4 billion daily.

President Obama has been both praised and criticized for his humongous economic stimulus package, aimed at providing relief to the auto industry, mortgage lenders, insurance giants, and teetering banks and Wall Street investment firms. Less focus has been given to the causes of the predicament Obama inherited: a virtual financial inferno stoked by President George W. Bush's massive tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy, combined with the expense of two foreign wars sold to the American taxpayers as emergency appropriations against global terrorism.

The American dollar, once backed with gold and silver, now is bolstered by little more than bank promises and Wall Street wishes.

Three hundred million Americans, locked into our consumer culture, resemble gerbils on a treadmill, earning and spending as fast as they possibly can but getting nowhere. Many have watched in dismay as their 401(K) retirement funds evaporated, stock market investments plummeted, or inflated home mortgages thrust them into foreclosure.

Sadly, the American Dream has become an export commodity, with the mega-populations of China and India now aspiring to Western ways, conveniences and conspicuous consumption.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Bank espoused the altruistic goals of offering an economic hand up to third world countries around the globe. But rather than build wealth from the skills and resources of indigenous communities, the WTO brought in multi-national corporations to exploit cheap labor and abundant resources, often creating one-dimensional economies without regard to environmental or social justice.

Far from humble beginnings around 600 B.C., when Lydians in ancient Turkey stamped precious metals into coins as accounting chits for barter of grain, livestock and other commodities, our 21st century monetary system has devolved into an artificial construct, in which the relentless quest to acquire more money perpetuates a system that dilutes real wealth.

So what's a revolutionary sort to do? Certainly there are better options than holding roadside protest signs in "tea party" kvetching over our tax and spend government practices—aren't there?

YES! magazine co-founder David Korten, in a recent commentary writes that Wall Street bailouts coupled with economic stimulus packages, "amounts to trying to revive an economic system that has failed in every dimension: financial, social, and environmental. Rather than prop up a failed system, we should use the financial crisis as the opportunity to create a system that works."

Korten contends that Wall Street's modus operandi is creating more money for rich people, but without actually producing anything of real value. Their inflated claims of wealth without increasing a supply of goods, he says, actually makes it harder for the rest of us to meet our needs.

"Real wealth," says Korten, "is, first of all, the tangible things that support life—food, shelter, clothing. Of course, the most valuable forms of real wealth are those that are beyond price: love; a healthy, happy child; a job that provides a sense of self-worth and contribution; membership in a strong, caring community; a healthy vibrant natural environment; peace."

Korten believes the Wall Street-driven economic system, with the fantastic amounts of money it generates, actually diminishes or destroys these many forms of real wealth. Perhaps the most apparent example is the price the fossil fuel-bolstered global economy has exacted upon the planet's fragile forests, oceans, inland waters and weather patterns.

More than half the world population—some 3.5 billion people—now lives in urban environments, often far from food supplies, watersheds and locales where goods are made. As any part of the overall supply system is affected or strained, these enormous population centers could deteriorate into chaos or anarchy, as survival instincts trump civility.

Yet many continue to cruise through life undaunted, pulling out their drastic plastic credit cards to cover purchases they hope to pay off later, even as their interest rates soar. "There are some things money can't buy—for everything else, there's Master Card."

David Korten celebrates the model of a "Main Street Economy…comprised of local businesses and working people who produce real goods and services to meet the real wealth needs of their communities." This, he maintains, "is the logical foundation on which to build a new, real wealth economy of green jobs and green manufacturing, responsible community-oriented businesses, and sound environmental practices."

Early Hawaiians developed a subsistence economy, based on highly sophisticated agricultural production of taro and other crops, and on food caught, gathered or raised in the ocean. No monetary system was in place at the time Captain James Cook sailed to the islands.

The concept of wealth, however, did hold a place in Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian word waiwai, meaning goods, worth or prosperity, has its etymological roots in the word wai, or fresh water. Early residents of the islands recognized the vital connection between this precious natural resource and its life-giving properties.

It is often said that the environment is the economy and that health is our only real wealth. Yet our current economic practices are eroding ecosystems both locally and globally, while continuing to cater to the golden calves of tourism, real estate development and construction. A great national debate is underway over finding cures for our ailing health care system. Congress endures persistent lobbying efforts from HMOs and pharmaceutical corporations heavily invested in treatment of disease, with barely a thought to prevention and nutrition.

Family farms, once the backbone of America, are now an endangered species, as corporate agri-business rules our food supply, abetted by government subsidies. According to YES! magazine research, two companies sell 58 percent of all seed corn and corporations produce 98 percent of all poultry in the U.S.

Over the past eight years, the amount of genetically modified corn grown in the U.S. has increased from 25 to 80 percent. GMO soybeans have soared from 54 to 92 percent over the same period. Shockingly, iceberg lettuce, frozen and fried potatoes, chips and canned tomatoes make up almost half of U.S. vegetable consumption. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight or obese. But it's not just the people that are unhealthy—widespread herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer usage has poisoned our once-healthy agricultural lands and water supplies.

In the Maui microcosm, the picture is much the same. Plantation agriculture of sugar contributes to environmental degradation through burning, spraying, topsoil loss and coal burning emissions from the Puunene Sugar Mill. Hundreds of acres are leased to Monsanto's GMO seed production for Mainland farm operations.

Yet Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar and parent company Alexander & Baldwin seem to resist bona fide changes to support local food or energy production. Amidst contested case hearings with the State Commission for Water Resource Management, they claim that any reduction in the vast amounts of water they use for irrigation or processing will jeopardize their viability. They, too, know that water is connected with wealth.

The good news is that there are ways to reconnect people with the real wealth of food, goods and services produced locally. The current issue of YES!, "Food For Everyone," offers a cornucopia of good ideas. Articles include: "Top 4 ways the Farm Bill should change to a Food Bill"; "How a community-based food system works"; "8 ways to join the local food movement"; and "The Good Food Revolution," which includes accounts of sustainable food efforts on Kauai and in Kipahulu, Maui.

Those who contend that local farming can't compete with imported foods are looking through lenses tinted by the limitations of the current economic system. It is time to invest in the broad possibilities inherent in a homegrown economy, and to plant seeds now for a bountiful harvest to come.