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Right Relationship

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Our current economic system—which assumes endless growth and limitless potential wealth—flies in the face of the fact that the earth’s resources are finite. The result is increasing destruction of the natural world and growing, sometimes lethal, tension between rich and poor, global north and south. Trying to fix problems piecemeal is not the solution. We need a comprehensive new vision of an economy that can serve people and all of life’s commonwealth.

Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver use the core Quaker principle of “right relationship”—interacting in a way that is respectful to all and that aids the common good—as the foundation for a new economic model. Right Relationship poses five basic questions: What is an economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What’s fair? And how can it best be governed? Brown and Garver expose the antiquated, shortsighted, and downright dangerous assumptions that underlie our current answers to these questions, as well as the shortcomings of many current reform efforts. They propose new answers that combine an acute awareness of ecological limits with a fundamental focus on fairness and a concern with the spiritual, as well as material, well-being of the human race. Brown and Garver describe new forms of global governance that will be needed to get and keep the economy in right relationship. Individual citizens can and must play a part in bringing this relationship with life and the world into being.

Ultimately the economy, as indeed life itself, is a series of interconnected relationships. An economy based on the idea of “right relationship” offers not only the promise of a bountiful future but also an opportunity to touch the fullness of human meaning and, some would say, the presence of the Divine.

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1. What’s the Economy for? A Flourishing Commonwealth of Life

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—Robert Skidelsky1


TO CONSIDER WHAT THE purpose of the economy is, it may help to begin with a small snapshot of an economy working in right relationship.

When members of the community of Woodstock, New Brunswick, organized the Woodstock Farm Market in the 1970s, they made a few rules: local producers selling their own produce only, and no produce from wholesalers allowed. Right off, however, the organizers had to make some exceptions that seemed fair and consistent with the spirit of the market. For example, if your neighbor had extra strawberries, it was okay to put them on your table as a favor. And they would allow one particular vendor who brought fresh fish from the Bay of Fundy to set up a table, as the townspeople really wanted fresh seafood, and what he brought was as “local” as seafood was going to get.

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Baked goods, jams, jellies, and pickles had to be homemade. Craft items had to be locally made, as well. The emphasis on local production was not only a matter of providing opportunity for local growers, but an effort to help build an ecologically sound local food system. Many growers who sold at the market ran small-scale, environmentally respectful operations. In many cases, vendors favored organic methods. The market also served as an information exchange network on sustainable practices for local conditions.

 

2. How Does it Work? Putting the Economy in Its Place

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If a living system does not respect the circumstances of the super system it is a part of, it will be selected against.

—Eric Schneider and James Kay


A HAYFIELD WITH MULTIPLE species of grass, scattered blooms of wildflowers, and populations of field mice, voles, and songbirds sets the stage for a story of both economics and ecology: a story of how the economy works. If the hayfield is mowed in timely fashion when rain can be expected, it will regrow and can be cut a second time (in moderate climates) and still achieve additional regrowth before winter. The hayfield’s resilience depends on a critical variable, rain, because of the relationship of rain to other variables. Although mowing will affect their numbers, mice, voles, and songbirds will still be present, along with hawks, owls, and foxes that feed on them. The livestock fed by the hay, the farm family fed and supported by the livestock, the farmer’s customers and all the wildlife and grasses of the hayfield—all favor this state of affairs.

 

3. How Big is Too Big? Boundaries on Consumption and Waste

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How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But, of course, human activities are not holding at current levels—they are accelerating, dramatically.

—James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World1


THE ECONOMY IS IN right relationship with the commonwealth of life when it respects ecological limits and thresholds. Living within certain bounds is something we can all relate to. Imagine a typical home in Sweden in the thick of winter. Obviously, this home needs an external source of energy to be habitable. Yet, unless the home has a system to control the heat source, it will become either too hot or too cold. A thermostat keeps the temperature of the home within a habitable range. In a similar but much more complex way, the economy needs a set of controls to make sure that the countless interactions that make up the economy, taken together, use the matter and energy available on the earth on a scale that maintains right relationship with the commonwealth of life. Right relationship involves a quest for figuring out the right scale of the economy, and then respecting its key limits and thresholds.

 

4. What’s Fair? Sharing Life’s Bounty

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Love your neighbor as yourself.

—Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31


IMAGINE A BUSY CITY emergency room, around rush hour, suddenly overwhelmed by the victims of a mass transit accident. People with partially severed limbs, severe head wounds, out-of-control bleeding, and so forth are being rushed into the hospital admitting area on gurneys, their wounds barely being staunched by paramedics and their cries of pain filling the air. Doctors and nurses stand at the ready and begin the procedure of triage, that is, separating patients according to the urgency of their conditions. But instead of rushing the head wounds or internal injury cases into the emergency room, they first allow an older woman with a slight nosebleed into the case room; once she’s dealt with, they lavish attention on a family whose daughter has a bad flu, followed by a man who may have broken his arm earlier in the day. It goes on like this until the outcry from the severely wounded is so disruptive that a few nurses, reluctantly, go over and began to treat some of the sufferers. Many are already dying.

 

5. Governance: New Ways to Stay in Bounds and Play Fair

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We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.

—Buckminster Fuller


IN JUNE 2008, the Standing Committee on International Trade of Canada’s House of Commons held a little-noticed, hastily convened hearing on a pending free trade agreement between that nation and Colombia. The witnesses included two labor experts from the Canadian Labour Council, an environmental expert formerly with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and two representatives of Canada Pork International, an agency devoted to promoting exports from the Canadian pork industry. The committee members from the party in government, which had negotiated the agreement, pressed the point that Canada had better quickly get the trade treaty in place, lest the United States or other countries beat them to it and take market share away from Canadian exporters and investors aiming to get a toehold in Colombia. When witnesses offered by the opposition parties testified about the more than 2,000 union activists killed in Colombia in the past twenty years with alleged involvement of the police and military, the government party members said things were getting better and the trade agreement would help even more. Committee members grilled the pork industry representatives on how many more pigs they would sell, for how much more money, and with how many Canadian jobs created, if the agreement were approved. But no committee member asked about the amount of additional pig wastes to be added to Canadian air, soil, and water, or how much more greenhouse gases would be produced by shipping more pork to Colombia, let alone what overcrowding, antibiotics, and other routine matters of large-scale pork production were doing to the pigs’ own well-being.

 

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