Untold future

Posted on September 24, 2011


The garden was large by a child’s standards.  There was a shed, two large garden beds.  A lemon tree and a courtyard.  I thought it was a bit special at the age of five.  One day, I got the urge to dig in the garden.  Not in a gardening kind of way, but to see what lay underneath.

I grasped the spade whose handle came to my nose, and began to dig.  Slowly, slowly, I eked out the heavy, rich, dark soil from the place I had chosen.  The small pile of loam grew bigger as the afternoon wore on.  Each time I struck something hard, I got to my hands and knees and used my hands to pull the thing out of the black depths.  This time a stone, that time a piece of slate.  It was early evening when my spade struck something hard that had a special ring to it.  ‘Bink Bink’.  It didn’t sound like anything I had struck before.  I moved the spade to one side, hoping to dig around the obstacle.  ‘Doink’ went the spade.  I repeated this right round the hole.  Something was down there.  Something big!  Once more I fell to my knees and reached into the hole.  I cleared away the soil, working my fingers around the outline.  It was oblong.  Shifting the soil from its surface I realised that it was a jar.  A huge jar.  Now, I knew I had to get the jar out.  There might be something in it!

My father was calling me for dinner, but still I worked my fingers down and down around the sides, slowly releasing it from the soil’s grasp.  When finally I had the jar in my two hands, I held it up to the last vestige of evening light, and there, inside the jar, was something coloured.  In fact, there seemed to be many colours.  The lid was firmly on, so I tried to pry it off with the spade.  Finally it gave way.  Peering into the jar, I realised that I had discovered something far better than a tunnel to the centre of the Earth.  For, peeking out at me, was a thick roll of bank notes.  They were red, blue and green.  They were notes I had never seen before.  I ran inside and showed the adults.  Much gasping and oohs and aahs as it dawned on everyone that I had discovered a stash of old-money bank-notes.  Pre-decimal currency that had been buried years earlier.  Hundreds of notes.  I was rich!

When the notes were finally taken to the bank and exchanged, I found myself with a brand new bank account and several hundreds dollars deposited.  A huge sum then, and a huge sum for a child.  The money lasted me years – paying all my pocket money into my early teens.

It was a moment of pure magic.  How did I know to dig in precisely that spot in the garden?  How often does anyone, let alone a child, come across more money than they could possibly hope for?  It was of course a completely unexpected boon, random, magical and completely undeserved.

When I am in need of cash, I often think about that moment.  I have not been lucky in prize-winning, or lotto or any of those games of chance ever since and I wonder whether I have used up all my luck in that one magical experience.  Yet, it doesn’t stop me fantasising about what it would be like if I were a multi-millionaire.  This generally happens when I’m bored or dissatisfied, fantasising about money as a kind of proxy for happiness.  I know intellectually that money does not bring happiness by itself, but an injection of cash can be critical to resolving health crises, homelessness, and other symptoms of poverty.  For those who are not poor, money buys access, consumer quality, and an increasing array of choices.

So….when I think about the financial crisis we are all facing, I wonder whether we are all hoping for the magic pot at the bottom of the garden to buy us out of the hole.  And I think, what will happen if we don’t run into that bit of luck.

As we all know by now, the financial world is in free-fall.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer says Europe has six weeks to solve the Greek debt problem.  The head of the International Monetary Fund says we are in dangerous economic times globally. Banks and governments still seem to have faith in traditional solutions like printing money, pump-priming through capital projects or quaintly named ‘austerity measures’.  While they squabble about which set of measures is needed, we fail to collectively explore the implications of global economic failure.  We had the Great Depression and we have had recessions.  Japan has seen many years of deflation, but have we understood what this would be like for the entire globe?  Even China, India and Brazil are highly reliant on consumer nations like the US, the UK and Australia and could not simply pull up the drawbridge to rely on their own internal growth drivers for success.

Sustainability theorists have begun the conversation about no-growth economies (see for example Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth).  What would it really be like and what could be the alternative currency to measuring financial spending? Economists are terrified of no-growth scenarios because they are unable to reward the entrepreneurial as there is simply no new market, no expansion room.  Of course, austerity measures, aimed at stimulating the private sector at the expense of the public sector, can only work if there is sufficient borrowing room to enable entrepreneurs to flourish.

So, what is the realpolitik of doing without an expanding economy?  Are there any real alternatives or do we in fact need growth to, perversely, kick-start an alternative model based on sustainable principles? Well, perhaps we are about to find out. After all, should the global economy go into a period of deflation, stagflation or recession, we will find out whether we like it or not.  One powerful argument put forward by economists against no-growth theorists is that the haves are forever the target of the have-nots, who without growth, have no way of improving their lot.  Disturbing and certainly a possibility, this argument assumes that we fail to find an alternative reward to money, or that we cannot find a way to redistribute wealth within an economy.

Jackson, makes a powerful argument for redefining wealth in terms of prosperity – a more holistic term that encapsulates health and wellbeing as well as having the means to achieve one’s goals.  So, if there is no cash in the attic, or any nicker in a bottle, no pot of gold, what is going to happen?  Will banks foreclose on loans, sending businesses and mortgage holders bankrupt?  Will young people be able to get jobs?  Will governments continue to cut welfare? Will people be able to buy the things they need?

How will people feed themselves? How will they travel to work if they can no longer afford the transport costs?  What will people do with their time when they are out of work?  How long will it take before people begin to take over public space to barter in goods, food and services?  Will we see public parks given over to growing food?  I guess all of this depends on how deep the crisis becomes.  But it also depends on what will there is within communities to forge their own form of prosperity while financial prosperity remains illusive.

I don’t know what will happen, but I suspect that my magic moment is well and truly over, so I had better work out what I’ve got to barter!