The world seems to be moving in two opposing directions: in one, there is death, sickness, loneliness, cruelty, and despair at the crevasse of political turmoil and economic hardship we seem to be sinking into. In the other, there is a wave of collective solidarity, kindness, determination, and altruistic ingenuity that may be unique in recorded history.
Which of these will prevail?
Though outcomes seem to be shaped by forces beyond ourselves, on some questions we have a choice. How governments are structured and when we have to pay taxes are set in law. But our economy, for all its problems, has an element of freedom. What we buy and who we buy it from is up to us. What we produce and who we give it to is up to us. We may be controlled by the tyranny of mass production, prices, and advertising, but this subservience is ultimately voluntary. We have the power to step into a new kind of economy, if we choose to use it.
The economy we have now is neither healthy nor rational. To see our way past it requires a shift of assumptions, not just about economics, but about what it means to be a successful human being on planet earth. This article is a guess at what pieces are needed to transform our personal economies. It starts with some context, then outlines five steps towards an economy of kindness. Links are provided to a repository of resources for making these steps real.
The era of greed
For almost 250 years, we have lived in an economic system designed to be driven by greed. In classical economic theory, selfish motives of rational, isolated individuals power a vast mechanism of commerce and production in a spiral of never ending increase.
So far, this mechanism has been spectacularly effective at inventing new technologies, extending average lifespans, turning natural resources into products, supplying those who can afford it a staggering diversity of material possessions, destroying ecosystems, and producing enormous quantities of cheap, low-quality food. It has reduced extreme poverty in many places while making the very rich much richer and the moderately poor much poorer. It has spawned political decay through the commercialization of attention and cursed us with an epidemic of obesity, loneliness, anxiety, and despair.
Under the pressure of the pandemic, the ideology of the greed economy has been imploding before our eyes. In a span of weeks, nearly the entire population of the planet was asked to reign in their personal desires for the good of others. The altruism of front-line workers inspired celebrations in all corners of the world. Corporations that were supposed to be the bastions of capitalist self-sufficiency began demanding ever larger handouts from governments. Governments that were the bastions of free-market libertarianism started cutting checks for their citizens. A few billionaires even announced donations of double-digit percentages of their net worth, and some governments sponsored volunteer hackathons the size of small cities.
Long before this cataclysm whipped the veil off, the intellectual validity of the selfish rational actor paradigm was already falling apart. Experimental research has shown that we don’t actually behave as selfish, rational agents by default – our natures are selfish and altruistic in almost equal measure, and hardly rational at all; and the material wealth which the economy of greed is supposed to provide doesn’t turn out to be a valid predictor of well-being. Endless acquisition doesn’t make us happy.
A pandemic of possibilities
The collective altruism we’ve seen in the past months could be just an anomaly on top of another transfer of wealth and power up the food chain. As small businesses die, big businesses swallow taxpayer dollars, and governments gain new tools to surveil and control their citizens, we may return to an even less equal, more cruel version of the economy we already have.
That is perhaps a likely outcome, but it is not the only one. As the economy of greed has threatened to collapse from a million cracks in its pavement of normalcy, shoots of something different have appeared.
These shoots are an invitation from a possible world. This possible economy is more rational than the economy of greed, because it accepts our whole selves. It sees altruism, well-being, connection, and love as drivers of our actions. Rather than designing only for the worst, it designs to bring out the best. Rather than narrowing the definition of value into a single monetary quantity, it expands it to include the things that make us most alive and human: our relationships, meaning, and quality of experience. Rather than hoping for future change from above — from new technology, or better politicians, or a deus ex machina enlightenment — it enacts change from below, in the present. It imagines, builds, and celebrates what could be, instead of fighting what is. Knowing that getting everything figured out and predicted and centrally controlled is neither wise nor possible, it relies on thousands upon thousands of experiments happening simultaneously, sharing knowledge and building on the work of others. Setting aside abstract dichotomies between competition and cooperation, individual and collective, freedom and security, or justice and mercy, it finds concrete, case-specific solutions that step lightly over ideological fault lines.
This article is my personal attempt to describe five facets of a possible economy of kindness. I don’t have the answers, but I do have a thought: wherever we are, let us step into doing whatever we are called to do to lead us out the bright end of this tunnel. The future is waiting. It is up to us.
1. Being and feeling as whole humans
A holistic economy starts with holistic experience of being human. This is a superpower, because attentiveness to our genuine human needs breaks the chain of illusion the greed economy depends on. The greed economy’s surrogates for fulfillment – in the form of entertainment, consumption, and status — are only as alluring as we are desensitized to what we really need.
Giving ourselves space and permission to be with our inner experience is not just self help. It is also economically revolutionary. It is from an open heart that the courage to look our situation in the eye arises. Activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy says that we grieve for what we love. Sometimes the path to whole-hearted action leads through darkness. Sometimes an active hope lies beneath many layers of very reasonable despair.
I remind myself to take time away from the deluge of information and distraction that we all have such easy access to. This is time to let the heart be heard, to feel what the body has to say of this pandemic, to bring the mind home. To breathe.
Sometimes this requires firm boundaries. One friend of mine decided to leave his phone turned off for the first half of each day. Fasting from the internet one day each week works well for me.
When I get closer to center, I realize that much of what my busy mind thinks is normal and important can just fall away and not be missed at all. Another chunk that I may have been neglecting is vital, and needs attention to come alive. The greed economy depends on our imbalance and our numbness to keep the cycle of dissatisfaction and consumption going.
Whatever tools or traditions you have that allow inner awareness to unfold are also tools for making a holistic economy possible. They are antidotes to the outward-facing madness of consumerism.
In every community, there are human and non-human beings and environments that help us come home to ourselves. These are worth finding. We – the community of earthly life – are our own networked psychological support system. This is a good moment to tap into that system.
Fear, sadness, and anger can be felt and accepted for what they might contain, and in the process they become things we are observing and taking care of, rather than things that are controlling us.
Untended or unconscious, these emotions can make us gullible. Fear has always been a favourite tool for consolidating power, and anger a favorite tool for wielding it. Watch carefully. Be with your emotions. Don’t let them be stirred from without. I have sovereignty over my own response.
This tending of the inner garden is the foundation of capacity to serve, to share, and to build something more beautiful in the world around us.
2. Reaching out in community
The greed economy’s power depends on the perception that we are separate, self-interested individuals. Luckily, we are not.
What are the larger wholes of which I am part? Household, neighbourhood, community, district, city, nation, planet. We are each woven into a web of our relationships to people, to our non-human companions, to the natural world, Gaia, rivers, mountains, trees, ocean; connecting by seeing, by hearing, by touch, by looking at eyes, by listening to stories, by sharing music, by imagining together what could be, and perhaps laughing at our own foolishness and excitement while still letting it fill the soul with daring possibility.
If we care for each other, we can be free. It is only through the network of our interconnections that we gain independence from the poverty of selfishness.
This web of connections is the fabric of an economy of kindness. It is like wires and radio signals for the internet, or nerves for the brain, or transmission lines for the electrical grid.
It is our original birthright and source of identity as living beings and social animals. This birthright can be unwittingly sacrificed to the shadow identities of mass media: identification with brands and celebrities and sports and politics and the dehumanizing quantification of social media. These things hack our biology, creating a virtual reality of satisfaction. Our original capacity for connection is still there, though, born into our flesh, just waiting to be brought to life.
In this pandemic, paradoxically, human connection seems to have come up in value. We’ve realized that we need to be connected, to each other and to the rest of life.
At the same time we are in some measure realizing that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The industrial economy to which we’ve sacrificed our mental health, our planetary health, our climate, and thousands and thousands of other species’ very existence has never really delivered on its promise of full and satisfying lives.
There are as many ways to rekindle this direct connection as there are links in the web of life.
We can start by playing the ball where it lies: if, for example, you’re spending hours a day on video calls, make some space to hear how everyone’s doing and feeling before getting down to business. If your life includes answering emails and WhatsApp messages, consider if you could use these tools to build connection in the place where you live. The neighbourhood I’m in started an email list, and pretty soon it was being used to schedule home made-bread and chocolate deliveries, share tools, and offer rides and pickups among the neighbours.
Go quietly into the forest. Plant a garden, however small. Even a few pots of greens on your porch or balcony or beside the sidewalk. Better yet, find a way to garden with others. Learn the stories of your neighbours.
Nature is a great source of solace. Over and over in calls with people in isolation, I have heard that it is contact with nature – whether in a city park, or a forest, or a farm – that anchors lives that are otherwise disconnected from routine. Gardens are also good therapists.
3. Giving courageously
If connection is the wires of the new economy’s social power grid, the electricity that passes through them is trust, reciprocity, and kindness. In her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, indigenous author, mother, and scientist Robin Wall Kimmer gives a good explanation of the difference between gift and exchange. “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of the gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” She points out that a quantified equal and fair exchange – the basic ideal transactional unit of the conventional economy – leaves no relationship behind.
In the famous Prisoners Dilemma scenario of game theory, there are many strategies that lead to a prevalence of cooperation. All of them begin with giving, without guarantee of receiving in return. In fact, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, all of the most effective strategies for individual success also begin by giving.
Such mechanics are true, but also almost beside the point. To give is to trust, to plant a flag on the generosity of the world, to become part of a benificent universe.
For millennia, sharing was our economy. Giving into a community seeds the field for reciprocity and mutual aid. It is tending a garden from which the community can all find sustenance.
Along with the waves of viral infection, waves of spontaneous kindness have been sweeping the world. Projects like KarunaVirus or have sprung up just to document this trend.
Where we give from, and where we give to matters. I ask myself: is this kindness coming from an open heart? If not, how can I shift what my role or gift is? And, where is this gift going? Is this creating joy, and a web of gratitude that will outlast the pandemic? What are the economic implications of this gift?
Governments around the world have taken to giving bailouts to their citizens and companies, but often with very little thought to where that calculated generosity actually lands. What if bailouts had to circulate among local economies, rather than making a bee-line straight for the coffers of the world’s wealthiest corporations, leaving small and local businesses struggling and in need of further bailouts?
I wish to give strategically, but most importantly, from an open heart. Remember that gift are also contagious. In your neighbourhood, there are probably those who have the resources to give without suffering, and there are probably those who will suffer unless there’s giving. When the recipe is right, those who have more than they need will step up to the plate.
For this to work, the atomic self of classical economics has to loosen its grip on our minds a little, so we can see ourselves in the whole. That doesn’t have to be painful. In return for turning in the little “me me mine” self, we can get a bigger self in exchange.
Giving starts the wheel of reciprocity turning. For it to continue, we also need systems that support it.
4. Building the mechanics of a new economy
Economies rarely work by good intentions alone. Human nature is a mixed bag. The privilege of enabling the beautiful goes with the responsibility of attenuating the ugly.
In the economy of greed, we are encouraged to build new products, but not to build new economic systems. The features of new economic systems that work: democracy; decentralization; solidarity; and community.
We can think of an economy as flows of goods, flows of information (or control), and flows of money (or medium of exchange). In the conventional economy, all these flows are structured in large-scale hierarchies: goods flow from mega-scale mines, farms and factories, through distribution systems, to consumers; money flows from consumers into larger and larger aggregations of wealth and corporate or government coffers, and then back down the food chain to workers; information follows a similar pattern, centrally controlled by states and mammoth technology companies.
In an economy of kindness the pyramid changes shape into a network, coercive participation becomes elective, and flows form loops at much smaller, more local scales.
There is something else these three flows leave out: affect and meaning – how we feel about the things we’re participating in. This factor is present at every interaction in the economic network. Think about it: every time we make a transaction, there is some way that that transaction makes us feel. Whether that is buying something from Amazon, or from our local farmer’s market. And at every transaction there is also a relationship of affect. There’s how we feel about the relationship we’re in to make the transaction.
In the economy of greed, the affective relationship between entities is deeply asymmetrical. On the production side, it is about engineering experiences through advertising, product design, marketing, and user experience design that make us feel something like good – the small doses of pleasure-inducing chemicals that squirt into our brains on seeing a Facebook like, the satisfaction of unboxing a new iPhone, the pleasure of getting a good deal on eBay.
The greed economy plays our nervous systems like a gamelan orchestra, tricking us into consuming things. This is akin to the way that low quality starchy, sugary, salty foods hack our biology. We may crave them, and feel full after eating them, but they’re not providing what our bodies actually need.
Advertising, branding, and convenience give the psychological equivalent of sugar coating on economic flows that actually harm our health. It is a hack of the same sort as junk food, but much more pernicious. As the economy gives us fewer opportunities for whole-human feeling, it gains more and more power with the ability to microdose us with shallow injections of pleasure while leading us farther and farther away from truly satisfying lives. Through the bait of pleasure, we end up feeling worse and worse.
There is nothing wrong with our tendency to want beautiful and useful things, the appreciation and respect of our peers, or information about the world around us. But these naturally occurring mechanisms were not prepared for targeted attack. Like a cell succumbing to a virus, with no natural immunity, we are not built to withstand a sophisticated, carefully optimized exploit that targets our receptor sites for pleasure while stealing our lives and the living systems we depend on.
The function of structure in an economy of kindness is to connect flows of real economic good with flows of real affective good. In other words, to make it easy, fun, and healthy to do things right.
In every part of the world, legions of mostly obscure pioneers have been working on this for decades. The economy of kindness goes in the opposite direction from the standardization and monotony of the conventional economy, so there are as many approaches as there are people taking them. But, there are a few patterns that appear in many places where new economics is emerging. Some of these patterns are as old as humanity. Looking for these in your community and neighbourhood is a good way of finding the network of people building structures for an economy of kindness.
Mutual aid and sharing networks that allow us to help each other and make good use of the resources we have, without depending on money.
Cooperative businesses that turn the hierarchical pyramid upside down with democratic ownership.
Micro and community credit that humanizes the process of access to capital, and opens doors to healthy growth for small scale enterprises while keeping money in the community.
Local currencies that encourage circulation of wealth within a local area, supporting people whose livelihoods are creatively tied to place and escaping the tyranny of debt-based money (and the risk of economic collapse).
Community benefit enterprises that operate as effective businesses, but for the benefit of the community. These can be anything from a railroad line to an apartment block to a holding company that runs a currency and wind farm.
Local gardens and farms – wherever you are, there are people not far away growing food, building the foundation of change at the level of nutrients.
Community democratic governance can allow a community to make legitimate, coherent decisions together, building solidarity and the possibility of generating sufficient community will to take collective steps toward an economy of kindness.
Economically-aware activism that makes strategic demands to allow community sovereignty over economic flows.
None of these things is easy. Separately, they are very hard indeed. But together, they make a mutually-supporting network that can start to form the skeleton of a new world.
Building alternate economic systems is challenging, but economic depression is the mother of economic innovation.
This may be the first time that a depression has coexisted with the internet. This gives the technical ability to build things locally with an entire world’s experience and collective learning on tap. Today, we can create an alternative digital mutual credit currency or a mutual aid network or a local email distribution list in minutes. We can learn what neighbourhoods across the world are doing to solve the same problems we face. The possibilities are enormous.
Wherever you live, find out who in your neighbourhood or area is one of those dreamers who has been thinking about or playing with alternative economics for years, even decades. They seem to exist nearly everywhere. It’s time for them to be called up like a reserve force of economic system construction workers and start rolling out new systems.
5. Living in a more beautiful world
We’ve talked about opening to ourselves and to the web of human and non-human life in which we live, about kick-starting cycles of reciprocity with our own generosity, and about building the economic mechanisms that are structurally supportive of an economy of kindness. These are the building blocks, but to actually inhabit the world we would like to see exist requires a leap of something like faith.
In Donella Meadows’ classic book on systems, she talks about the levels of systems change. One of the most powerful levels is the level of the system goals – what is the system trying to do? In the case of our economy, we may wish to update that goal, perhaps from “grow the GDP” to “wellbeing for humans and planetary life”.
But this is not the most powerful level of systems change. The more powerful level is that of the paradigm the system operates under.
Visionaries throughout history have discovered a dangerous trick: there is power in envisioning the world as it could be, and then behaving as much as possible as if that world already exists.
How do we actually step into an economy of kindness, without requiring permission from anyone?
It has been noted that walking on two legs is the process of continuously falling over forward and then catching ourselves. To the extent that human society makes progress, it is by a similar mechanism. It requires being out of balance. This unbalance is the visionary foolishness of behaving as though what we see as possible already exists.
When we’re lucky, a leg steps forward and catches us. Of course, there is no guarantee this will happen. Greed and cruelty and may win. But, at this point, for those who are watching the arc of history and ecology, there may be two options: either we risk failure as foolish idealists; or we stay in our comfort zone and accept the defeat of our species. If we don’t at least believe in the possibility of the improbable, and act on it, prospects for the human civilizational experiment look grim.
Once we’ve opened to ourselves, and to the web of human and non-human life in which we live, and we know something about the harm that comes of the products and services we consume, they cease to be fun any more. Joanna Macy, borrowing from Buddhism, calls this the Revulsion.
The alternative hinges on what Charles Eisenstein calls Reunion — coming home to ourselves as connected with all of life. This perception of Interbeing (to borrow zen teacher Thich Naht Hanh’s phrase), is a more challenging, but also more rewarding way of being. It is ultimately more fun than either sense-deadening consumerism, or a reasonable but nihilistic acceptance of apocalypse. It is also more effective.
We can overtake the greed economy not by tackling it like a football player, but simply by building a more satisfying alternative, stepping into it, and inviting others to join us.
This vision of a kind economy may be idealism. But, so were many of the movements that changed history. You could say that the laws of biological human nature prevent such a bright future. But, you could similarly say that the laws of gravity flatten things to the earth. And yet we build bridges and airplanes and skyscrapers and send rockets to the moon. Human nature, accepted, can no more prevent us from building an economy of kindness than gravity could prevent us from walking on two legs.
Let’s build the economy we want to live in, and inhabit it while it’s under construction. Let’s let contagious kindness spread like a virus. Let’s lean forward, beyond what’s currently real, and take the next strategically daring step into what is possible.