Even from his hospital bed after he had a stroke my father Erwin kept working on his projects for the good of humanity. A week before he died he came up with his final project. He called it ‘the currency of love’. No one ever found out exactly what he meant by it but I think in this essay I am getting close.
There is a well known story about heaven and hell.
In hell there is a group of people sitting around a table set with a feast of exquisite food. Their problem is that all they have to eat with are spoons that have handles so long it is impossible to bring any food to their mouths. They are constantly frustrated and hungry.
The scene in heaven is almost identical to hell. People sit around the same table with the same long handled spoons. The difference is they use their spoons to feed each other across the table. The same situation as in hell except here everyone is satisfied from the abundance in front of them.
This analogy of the spoons could also apply to our current world economic system with its seeming inability to respond to the hunger and poverty that exist in the midst of overflowing abundance and productivity. In spite of the incredible productivity of our global economy many people are not getting what they need for an adequate life. Depending on where you are located the same situation can be experienced as one of unsolvable chronic poverty or one of ease and grace. We have the means in our grasp for global well-being, but we are blinded to the potential paradise we live in by the shutters of limiting self interest and inertia that our economic thinking imposes on us.
We live in a world of extraordinary abundance. I am not just referring to the fruits of nature here, but also to the incredible ingenuity of the human race. Because of our continually developing technological ability, one person can now do the work that a century ago would have needed a hundred of us. This technological advancement has given us the power to produce surplus upon surplus with ease.
The problem of poverty in our world today is not because we can’t produce enough. There is currently more than enough to go around – even taking into account projected population increases. The know-how to give the world’s marginalised poor adequate food, education and healthcare is already here and rapidly increasing. The recently agreed upon United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are proof that this is common knowledge amongst those in the know. World leaders have now signed a commitment to end the worst of global poverty within 15 years. For me it is truly a cause for celebration to be living at such a time as this.
In all the reporting of this historic event there are many voices of doubt whether the willpower to actually make it happen will be there – and for good reason. There have been many declarations made for human development goals in the past which were announced with great fanfare, but when it came to action the financial and political motivation were just not there.
That is the long spoon of hell.
There are people suffering from simple lack of food. At the same time there is enough food already here and certainly an abundance of knowledge how to grow and distribute even more. Yet inspite of the facts showing us that ending hunger is attainable, putting this into practice has not happened. Other things are given greater priority – often things that seem trivial in comparison. A large part of the reason for our reluctance to act is the ‘everyone for themselves’ attitude our economic thinking engenders. Helping those in need is not classed as a viable economic activity. It is in fact considered a drain on economic resources and is thus usually only reluctantly done. Even if we know it is possible we avoid action hoping someone else will commit their resources to the job.
Our present economic system developed at a time when there was genuine scarcity and survival for many was a struggle, much as is now in many African and Asian countries. The early economists tried to find ways of dealing with this. So much so that economics is often defined as the science of how to best make use of scarce resources. Economists also made the assumption that human wants are unlimited, thus putting us on a path of perpetual contest with each other for the said scarce resources. Since these early days the concept of the human being as a primarily self-interested actor in the play of life has become integral to our economic life. But what happens when advancing technology delivers us to a place where the scarcity side of the equation is less and less relevant?
I am not saying that self interest has no part to play in motivating economic activity. Rather I am saying that in a world of plenty, unmoderated self-interest is an impediment to realising the fruits of our abundance for us all.
Accumulating and holding onto as much as I can has some rationale when there are limited resources to go around and someone will therefore miss out, but it is counterproductive when there is an abundance and there is the degree of specialisation and interdependence that exists in today’s economy.
We live in an economic world of such complex interdependence it approaches the complexity of the human organism. We are a mass of cells in the global body, each one of us having a particular role to play. All these specialised parts are coordinated to work together for a common aim and are dependent on all the others for their survival. It is now largely impossible for any individual to produce all their needs for living. We depend on each other to a degree not seen before. Yet as our combined productive ability increases and we are more and more dependent on the fruits of each other’s work, insecurity driven by economic thinking based on scarcity and self interest, compels us to compete with each other, to undercut the other person’s wages and job conditions. In the global economy whole industries move from country to country insearch of the cheapest labour and lowest level of regulation. We all know what happens in a human body when its cells start working against one another.
In a healthy human body resources are freely distributed to where they are needed. One cell doesn’t refuse to send resources to where they are needed because the other cell doesn’t have sufficient units of currency to exchange. Of course when there is scarcity such as a limited food supply the essential organs get fed at the expense of the rest of the body. But in a healthy body resources always go to where they are most needed. So when enough food is again available it goes to those parts of the body that had sacrificed themselves to keep the essential organs going. If the food kept being restricted to those parts of the body when it was no longer in short supply, it would be considered to be an unhealthy body.
The same goes for our global economy. Why don’t the resources go rushing to those in the greatest need to end the worst of global poverty, not in fifteen years but in fifteen months. It would be possible if we operated from a paradigm of ‘enough’ rather than ‘never enough’ as economic thought encourages. Our great technological abundance is calling us to evolve to a new level.
So we need to take more care of our less fortunate brothers and sisters who are sitting around the global table. Simply for the reason that the table is overloaded with produce and that our spoons are presently better able to reach their mouths than their own ones.