Charles Eisenstein Interview Part 1
Charles Eisenstein is an author and public speaker, and self-described “degrowth activist”. He is the author of several books including The Ascent of Humanity, Sacred Economics, and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (2013). I was honored to be able to include him in ‘Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds’ but was only able to include a small fraction of his amazing interview. The following text is derived from our transcribed conversation at his home in Pennsylvania. Any grammatical errors are the fault of this website.
Seeds Documentary: I really enjoyed your book Sacred Economics and I’m wondering if you can speak about money and some of the ways it affects us?
Charles Eisenstein: When you start to look at what’s wrong in the world. It’s hard to avoid the topic of money and I’m not saying that money is necessarily “The Reason” why things are messed up today. I’m not really a Marxist in the sense that I think Capitalism is to blame for all of our problems or even money is to blame for all of our problems but it certainly very deeply implicated. It’s implicated not just in our systems and our institutions but also in the way that we think. Money has kind of infiltrated our psychology, so that we look at the world through kind of through eyes of money like that little voice of “Will I be okay? Can I afford this?” That’s never very far away. So it colors our thinking. So I really wanted to understand this powerful force.
One way to look at economic history. It’s a progressive migration of life from the gift realm into the money realm. And that has two aspects, one aspect is the progression the migration of nature into the money realm where things that were once free gifts of nature, things that no one paid for. They get turned into products or things that were just sitting there nobody was using at all like petroleum for example 200 years ago, no one was using that at all. But even the land itself was never something you could buy and sell at one point in history.
So it’s only quite recently that land has become property and this process has happened to almost anything that can be bought sold. Almost anything that can be, will be and sometimes we need to develop new technology to make it into something that can be bought and sold. But in our generation we are seeing goods and services come into the economy that weren’t there even 50 years ago, for example food preparation. People didn’t eat at restaurants that much 50 years ago. I mean they went to the supermarket.
They bought raw ingredients and made food at home. And I remember when I was a kid, the first TV dinners came into being and my mom was like wow, this is so convenient you know. I can buy these TV dinners, stick them in the oven you know and now the TV dinner section has taken over almost the whole supermarket. Almost everything is prepared to some degree and so this service of food preparation that was once in something you could call the gift economy. Like the mom didn’t charge me for making dinner it was a gift and now we pay somebody in the supermarket deli or fast food restaurant or whatever to make dinner.
So that’s an example but other examples, I mean every where childcare, you know you don’t see the kids playing outside after-school so much now you know especially the little kids. Music, Entertainment a 100 years ago I read that almost every town in America even like a 5000 person town had its own marching band and now you know people purchase their music instead of getting together to create for each other. Even intangible things have become consumer products. Imagination you know the worlds of the imagination that children use to create.
They would have maybe a few simple dolls, a few simple toys even like a block of wood would be a truck and they would create a world and now those can be purchased. Most usually through video games or these really lifelike toys you know that go by themselves and stuff and those make imagination unnecessary and so. And then, when anything isn’t used, it atrophies or fails to develop. So we have a generation now growing up who are susceptible or accustomed to merely consuming the world that is offered to them or going through the world that is offered to them rather than creating their own world.
So this conversion of life into money has a lot of dimensions and essentially the special moment that we’re reaching is that we’re running out of things to convert into money and the closer we get to that point the more impoverished life becomes because it’s a conversion of things into money. It’s not creating necessarily new functions of the human being or new kinds of relationships
Seeds Documentary: What is money?
Charles Eisenstein: You can define money in a lot of ways. Economists defined it basically by what it does; you know it’s a medium of exchange and so forth. Bernard Lietaer defines it as an agreement among people to use something as a medium of exchange. So an agreement and my definition comes close to that I say the money is a Store, it’s a system of agreements. A system of meanings of interpretations of symbols. But there’s another answer too.
“Money is Magic.”
Money is magic. Here is this abstract thing, the symbol, these bits in computer and you change those bits in computers these symbols and the external world changes too, that’s magic. If you saw a primitive cave person you know painting pictures on the cave and you said “what are you doing?” Well I’m going to bring the animals to our hunting grounds. I’m going to change the world by manipulating these symbols.
You will say well he is engaging in magic but we do that all the time and those the most powerful magicians are able to make you know a whole building arise or a nation fall because of their voodoo magic of manipulating symbols. Yeah, money is magic I would say. That’s my best definition.
Seeds Documentary: And in what ways is the birth of money tied to the birth of agriculture?
Charles Eisenstein: Well, there are a few different origin stories about money. The economist’s story that money began as barter is a myth. There is no etymological evidence that money originated in barter and people who don’t use money don’t use barter either but money as we know it today did originate with agriculture because with agriculture it comes a division of labor. So you have some people producing things that other people need but those people can’t give you the thing that you need. So you know you need a medium of exchange.
In any anonymous society you need a medium of exchange. In a really small scale society and that’s really what happened with agriculture. Agriculture, it increased the scale of society. In a small scale society you don’t need money because these societies are gift societies and if you are producing more of something than you need and giving it to other people the community recognizes that and they say “Oh! Charles has been making you know lots of musical instruments and giving it to all of us and so we recognize that”.
You would know who is contributing to society and you don’t need money to kind of keep track of that. But you have this kind of social witnessing of gifts. But when the scale of society gets really big as it does with the agriculture and you no longer have necessarily these mechanisms of social witnessing then you begin to need something that you could call money.
Seeds Documentary: How did agriculture change our attitudes?
Charles Eisenstein: Today a lot of our basic worldview comes from the time of agriculture, comes from the development of agriculture. Agriculture was the first time that nature became sometimes an enemy where such a thing as bad weather happened. Hunter gatherers, if there was a drought or a lot of rain they would migrate to different places you know and it wasn’t a big deal.
But for farming population if there is a drought or a plague of locusts or some unusual event because the population had risen above the natural carrying capacity of the uncultivated land. They would face starvation. So they began to have to supplicate the gods and it became a virtue and a goal of society to be able to control these incursions of natural forces to be able to control the floods, to be able to control the insects, to control the weeds and so the idea of mastery of nature came into being around this time.
And the goal was to master nature better and better and better. We still have that attitude with us today that human progress comes through the progressive conquest of nature. It started with a literal conquest of animals in domestication and plants in domestication. We made them ours, we subjugated them and that mindset continues to the present day where we talk about what’s the next frontier of technology.
Well maybe that would be to conquer the atom, to piece matter together atom by atom with nanotechnology but it’s always about exerting more control over nature and this is a mindset of agriculture as it developed thousands of years ago. Where control was a good thing but I think now this mindset is becoming obsolete because we’re finding out that the more we control nature, the more we say okay, we have these problems in agriculture for example and so we are going to genetically modify and control the genes and control the intellectual property rights over those genes and control the seeds.
You know like we’re discovering that, that isn’t working. You can genetically modify them to resist pests but for some reason more and more pesticides are still becoming necessary and as the pests develop resistance each generation of new pesticides than the solution, control isn’t working. Therefore lets do even more of it and that’s really an addiction mentality.
If you’re drinking level isn’t making you feel good anymore. If 10 beers aren’t giving you that buzz, well the problem is not enough beer you know maybe 15, maybe 20 and we’re doing the same thing with applications of technology in every realm. Medical, educational, agricultural and ever realm the solution to technology not working is to use even more of it. But that program, that approach isn’t working very well anymore.
We’re reaching a point of diminishing marginal returns which means that you… the more you use the less of a benefit it gives you until eventually no matter how much you use? You get no benefit at all. We’re seeing that in the medical field now where life expectancy is now leveling of and maybe even beginning to decline. Is that because we’re not spending enough on healthcare?
No, it’s that we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and I’m afraid we’re going to see the same thing in agriculture as long as we continue to pursue the goal of more control-based technology. Now there are other approaches to technology. I mean really what is technology? Technology is the use of human hand guided by the human mind. So technology could be very different thing. It doesn’t have to be based on controlling nature. It could be based on serving nature.
It could be based on co-creating with nature and already we’re seeing new kinds of technology that are coming from this different relationship to nature. So were seeing different… already we are seeing different kinds of technology that come from this a new relationship to nature where we’re. For example Permaculture, where it’s not about controlling nature anymore.