In times of economic malaise and financial collapse, people – especially governments and businesses – tend to ask: ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’
This question makes me laugh out loud and at the same time pull my hair in utter exasperation. What do you mean, ‘afford’? Afford in terms of what? In terms of quarterly growth figures? In terms of shareholder confidence? In terms of costs depicted in numbers that refer to monetary units that are actually not units but digits, whose perceived value depends on expectations of financial traders and analysts, and bears very little relationship with the daily bread we eat?
The simple question ‘Can we afford to invest in sustainability?’ lays bare one of the greatest economic misperceptions of capitalist societies; the belief that we are the creators of wealth. That our busy-ness, whether in extraction, processing, producing servicing, selling or renting, creates wealth. It doesn’t. We may support, alter, intensify or speed up certain processes, but the Origin of Wealth is still natural creation.
‘Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your Soul.’ – Walt Whitman
The quote on a little square carton dangled at the end of my tea bag, one cloudy morning in Amsterdam. Three years after finishing that cup of tea, I still carry the piece of paper in my wallet, as the most valuable amongst valuables. The quote touched me. Not because its meaning was so radically new to me, – I once read that books that inspire us are not the ones that teach us something new, but those that give words to what we feel but cannot phrase. I loved the message because it resonated so strongly with my inner truth.
I long believed that rejecting things I saw around me was a sign of weakness. That I suffered from a need to identify myself by what I did not agree with. I judged the world by its many troubles and imperfections, focusing on what was not right. I heard myself being sharp, critical and a nay-sayer. Nay to the boredom of high school – which made me leave for Latin America at the age of 16; Nay to the Economics degree I had earned, – what use are these simplistic mathematical models for the real world?; Nay to my promising job in a respected financial institution. Nay, nay, nay.