It’s not the apple that’s rotten but the barrel: Why capitalism fails the test of stewardship
Authors: Wilson Wong
Dr Wilson Wong
10 May 2012
This week I heard James Quilligan, economist and founder of the Global Commons Trust, launch his series of London seminars on the Emergence of A Commons-based Economy at Portcullis House. He put forth his argument that the sequestration of the planet’s resources by the few so that the majority are denied the means to their survival, livelihood and well-being is morally and economically corrupt. By considering only consumption, capitalism fails to address the flip-side, replenishment. He argues the solution is a system of governance that preserves, protects and uses the resources with a view to its enjoyment by our children and theirs – the Commons.
Also this week, at the London School of Economics, Adair Turner, Margaret Hodge MP, Jonathon Porritt, David Robinson and Dharmendra Khanani converged to speak on the irreparable harm posed to future generations of a system of economic governance based on the dogma of growth at all costs.
The evidence is there for all who choose to see – the overfishing, the Gulf of Mexico, the rapacious system of banking and finance, the repeated failure of the market to allocate resources to ensure fair access for all, growing poverty, starvation in the midst of an obesity pandemic – the list goes on ad infinitum. All these in pursuit of a narrow definition of wealth as GDP growth – a measure based on the calculated exclusion of priceless intangibles like health, happiness, community and stewardship.
As consumers we are too removed from the process of production to appreciate the impact we have when we treat everything as disposable and purchase every gizmo as fast as it rolls into shops. I have colluded with this system all my life. I’m even now shamelessly coveting the iPad 3 as I blog on my perfectly adequate 1½ year old laptop. Apple doesn’t need me to add to its $100 billion in cash reserves.
As an economic psychologist studying the way time horizons frame decisions, I realise of course that it’s all about immediate gratification. Why take a long-view of my behaviour towards other people or the planet. After all, who can hold me to account?
After 9/11, Dubya exhorted the American people to go about their business: “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point…where people don’t shop.” So, by consuming, I am doing my patriotic duty. Hooray! Multiply that millions of times and you have consumer-driven capitalism; which by the way also means that millions more are disenfranchised from being consumer-citizens.
There is something bankrupt about a civilisation based on consumption and one that reifies everything people need for continued survival - water, clean air, land, creativity, etc. - onto a spreadsheet while denying us health and well-being, human dignity, security and peace. The Quilligan trusteeship-stewardship model, by setting a cap on the extraction and use of resources in order to preserve these for future generations sounds by comparison - sensible.
I don’t expect the governing elite – the multinational corporations, the financiers, politicians and neoclassical economists – to agree. After all, they think market failure is the exception and the financial crisis is just a case of a few rotten apples. But I have on my side a formidable array of minds of those who know (e.g. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom) that the current system of capitalism is the road to certain hell. That barrel is rotten. If we are all going to have a future, it is time for everyone to recognise that a new form of economic governance is overdue.
The Work Foundation 2012 Annual Debate on 30 May is part of that journey. Deborah Meaden, Mark Littlewood, Umair Haque and Lucy Marcus will be discussing the price of and for business should they ignore the growing consensus that the present system of capitalism is broke.
Meanwhile, I am continuing my journey to discover just how rotten an apple I am by attending another Quilligan seminar, this time on economic stewardship. Feel free to join me.
Seneca, Stoic philosopher, Roman statesman, tutor of Emperor Nero, shared this caution 2000 years ago, “Wealth is the slave of a wise man. Master of a fool.”
In colluding with the status quo, what price the fool?
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