Sunday, August 18, 2013

Extractive or generative? (5/13)

Dear all,
    As we settle into an intensive family time around our older son Tim's upcoming wedding, I'm newly grateful for the deep connections I have with that core of loved ones, and all the circles of caring that spread out around it.  A wish for myself is to give those connections their true value, and not be confused by a culture that values work and production so much higher. 
    I've loved putting this column together--I hope some part of it releases new energy in you.

Extractive or generative?

When people talk about our economic system, the traditional language is about free markets, free enterprise, free trade, the invisible hand, the profit motive, supply and demand.  Critics use different—and often stronger—language: runaway capitalism, profiteering, unbridled greed, systemic inequality, corporate control.  But until recently, I’d never heard our economy characterized as “extractive”, and that term has gotten me thinking. 

There’s something about it that rings very true.  We pride ourselves on the amount of minerals and fossil fuels that we can extract from beneath the earths’ crust.  We extract maximum value from the topsoil and the forests and the oceans.  Employers typically have a goal of extracting ever more work from their employees.  Financial institutions prosper when they extract maximum profit from every transaction—ATM withdrawals, credit card charges, mortgage rates, currency exchange interactions, and things most of us don’t even understand, like credit swaps, hedges and derivatives. The goal in each case is maximum extraction for maximum profit.  The losers, clearly, are ordinary people, the earth, and other living things.

The alternative could be characterized as a “generative” economy.  I looked this word up to make sure I knew what it meant:  “having the power or function of generating, originating, producing, creating”.  Where there wasn’t anything before, there is now something new.

Generative.  My mind goes immediately to the soil.  I was picking lettuce not long ago, getting ready to make a lunch for work, and noticed a little dirt at the base of a leaf.  I rubbed it off, but didn’t even bother to wash it.  After all, that was dirt that had been created in my compost pile, and I knew all the good ingredients that had gone into it.  I love generating soil for my garden.  There is some necessary extraction of nutrients from the soil as the plants grow, but with compost continually added, it just keeps getting richer and richer.  Overall, my little agricultural system is far more generative than extractive.

There are many other places in our lives where this distinction might apply. I think of extracting productivity from those who work under us, as opposed to generating loyalty and trust.  I think of extracting obedience from children, as opposed to generating a spirit of mutual cooperation.  I think of extracting the benefits of a nice neighborhood or a well-functioning religious congregation for oneself, as opposed to putting energy into generating benefits for others. I think of extracting entertainment from an outside source as opposed to generating fun for oneself and others.  I think of extracting the maximum value out of any exchange, as opposed to focusing on the opportunity it brings to generate new possibilities or relationships.

I’m deeply committed to building the power and the will to challenge our extractive economy, from curbing fossil fuel extraction to taming multinational corporations to taxing speculative financial transactions that maximize profit without increasing our community well-being.  I’m also committed to supporting new economic institutions that help build up a generative economy—coops of all kinds; credit unions; community gardens; enterprises that embrace the triple bottom line of profit, people, and planet; initiatives of the Transition movement.

As I continue to find my place in such efforts, however, I don’t have to wait.  At the same time, I can consider my own life choices.  I can notice where I am extracting as a citizen, family member, worker and consumer—and where I am generating new wealth, resources and possibilities.  As I notice, I can shift my weight toward a generative economy.

Dare to imagine:  A new economy is possible!

Two bankers who work with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have recently proposed a bold way to deal with public debt:

One could slash private debt by 100% of GDP, boost growth, stabilize prices, and dethrone bankers all at the same time. It could be done cleanly and painlessly, by legislative command, far more quickly than anybody imagined.

The conjuring trick is to replace our system of private bank-created money -- roughly 97% of the money supply -- with state-created money. We return to the historical norm, before Charles II placed control of the money supply in private hands with the English Free Coinage Act of 1666.

Specifically, it means an assault on "fractional reserve banking". If lenders are forced to put up 100% reserve backing for deposits, they lose the exorbitant privilege of creating money out of thin air.

The nation regains sovereign control over the money supply. There are no more banks runs, and fewer boom-bust credit cycles.

More at:

This theory, a variant of which was proposed and almost implemented by President Roosevelt during the Depression, has many critics as well as supporters among economists.  Yet the IMF is not a radical institution, our current financial system is not working well, and it seems prudent to consider very different ways of managing our banks, our money and our debt. 

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The kindness of strangers in Russia, as seen through dashboard cameras.

KIVA, a web-based no-interest loan program, that allows individuals throughout the world to loan as little as $25 to other individuals who are working to rise out of poverty.

Studies showing that bees, which are experiencing devastating colony collapse, often fare better in the modern urban environment than their rural counterparts, partly because the urban polyculture is healthier than vast agricultural monocultures.

The public school system in Union City NJ, an overwhelmingly Latino immigrant and poor community, where commitment to shared effort, common-sense solutions and an emphasis on high quality pre-kindergarten programs has created student achievement scores that approximate the statewide average, and a high school graduation rate of 89.5%, about 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

New:  posts on other people's blogs: 

More resources:
NEW:  Check out my friend Daniel Hunter's new book, a narrative of direct action campaigning:  Strategy & Soul: A Campaigner's Tale of Fighting Billionaires, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos:

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:, a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to

My favorite magazine:  YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world:   

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