Money and death

05/23/2013

In the face of overwhelming evidence that our exponential, growth-based economic system is destroying the very foundations of life on Earth, we remain trapped in the same motions that are bringing about our and other species’ collapse. How can this be? When we look deeply inside the human psyche we find a basic inability to rest in the present moment.

We tend to think of our lives in terms of our past, present and future. But we are so burdened by events in our past and so concerned for our future that we leave little time for the present. Unconsciously fending off our mortality, we buy all kinds of insurance—life, health and accident—as ways to protect ourselves from unforeseen events that might harm or kill us. We are driven by the quest for financial security, yet for most of us such security remains elusive, regardless of the size of our savings and investments. 

Many people define financial success as having enough money to secure one’s livelihoods indefinitely, given the wide array of potential hazards one might face. The problem is the list of hazards is infinite. Once we’ve amassed enough money to insulate ourselves from some hazards, other potential hazards arise that require even more financial security. And so we strive to earn ever more money. 

Money decouples us from the physical world. Unlike anything in the natural world, money does not decay. It’s as eternal as our ego’s desire to exist. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with their treasure so they could access their wealth in the afterlife.  Could it be that our design and pursuit of money was based on our longing to identify with something eternal? If we accumulate enough of it, perhaps we can transcend death.

Of course we know that’s absurd. 

Whether we are an investment banker, a corporate manager or a blue-collar worker with a pension, we all expect a return on our investments—be it in the stock market, in mutual finds or in real estate. We expect our money to grow, and it is this expectation that fuels the desire for exponential growth in the economy. It is what creates the pressure for corporations to deliver a profit to their investors and shareholders. The expectation is always for more.

Our striving for increasing wealth has devastating impacts on our planet. For every empire we can point to over-exploitation of resources as the root cause of its demise. Empires of the past could rise and fall and their impact would be limited to a specific geographic region. This is no longer true. Today, we live in an exponential economic growth paradigm that acknowledges no limits. Today we are exhausting the planet all at once.

Our quest to secure access to resources is causing the deterioration of those resources. As we drill for more oil, mine for more metals and convert more forests to ranches, we are eating away 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. We must begin to understand that no matter how much we have, we cannot prevent our own death. A little more money might make us a little more comfortable, but death is inevitable.

If our delusions of immortality could be cast aside, we might see the truth about money as simply a claim to future resources. We expect that we will be able to trade the money we have accumulated for goods and services in the future. 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 pollinate the crops, if ocean acidification collapses our food chain, if hydraulic fracturing pollutes our water supply, what good is money?

Accepting that our lives are finite—bringing our awareness of death into our consciousness so that it does not dominate us unconsciously—might allow us to live in the here and now. It might help us rediscover our connection to nature. Like everything else, our bodies are subject to the natural lifecycle of growth, maturation and decay. In denying death, our culture attempts to elevate humans above nature.  But by attempt to preserve and prolong our own lives, we are actually destroying our ecosystems.

What might our economy look like if instead of focusing on securing the future needs for a few, it was concerned with meeting the current needs for all? What would happen if money were modeled after nature, such that it decayed over time? Perhaps instead of chasing the illusive rewards of ever more money and wealth, we might focus on what is truly important: clean water, nutritious food, basic shelter, a healthy environment void of pollution and toxic chemicals, and sustainable ways of living on this planet.