The heavens made civilization possible.
The positions of the sun, moon, and planets in the sky allowed us to anticipate days, seasons, and years.
The sun will indeed come up tomorrow. And we know that summer won't follow autumn.
By interpreting the sky, we could anticipate the growing season. Reading the sky allowed us to develop agriculture, hence civilization.
Having acknowledged that we can mark time by the positions of bodies in the night sky, however, we proceeded to deceive ourselves.
We began to think of the future as something real. But it's just a concept.
We may know what the moon will look like on September 24, 2010. We may know what house Mars will be in.
But we won't know if the Yellowstone supervolcano is going to erupt and bring an end to civilization. Indeed, we know very little about how humans will act, let alone nature. And any one of us may be dead tomorrow; who knows about next year?
If we're thinking decades ahead, there is even less we can predict. In the early 1970's no one thought their children would grow up to be "web designers." They had more reason to believe their children would become engineers on a moon base.
We can prepare for many contingencies, but we can't "plan" for the future with the sense of certainty that if A is done, B will follow. Floods, famines, and plagues may get in the way. We don't know what tomorrow will hold.
We can't know, for instance, whether technological innovation will be able to clean the planet of our pollution. We don't know if population growth will ever level off until there are too many people to feed.
Our financial system, which is managed by the government, provides all the wrong incentives. It encourages environmental degradation, making a dire future more probable, because it is based on the assumption that the future is real.
Imagine a country unlike ours, where gold is the most accepted form of money and banks are storehouses that all depositors could withdraw from on demand. The gold exists; it is not a future potentiality. Progress in all industries would stem from investing profits, i.e., existing surplus wealth, back into production. As production improves, prices fall, which is to the poor's benefit. And if a new venture doesn't work out, all the investors lose is their surplus wealth. They are not ruined by debts.
Now consider our system, in which the Federal Reserve's bank notes constitute legal tender, the Fed can print them up at will, and banks can lend ten times the amount of paper dollars they have on hand. Instead of raising money from investors to start his business, Joe instead decides to borrow money from the bank.
By borrowing, Joe accepts available paper money, backed by nothing, in exchange for his future earnings. But those earnings are a mere potentiality and do not exist. In the process, he hires contractors to build his shop and he places orders with vendors. In turn, all of their activities consume scarce resources from the planet. And if Joe's business fails? Vacant buildings and unsold inventory were created and paid for by borrowed money that was created out of thin air.
In a savings-and-investment economy, potential investors would have to be convinced of the business plan. But because a bank can lend one dollar to ten different people for every dollar in its vault, it can bet that, overall, most borrowers will be able to make the interest payments and pay off the loan.
Neither Joe nor the bank actually had the money to consume the earth's scarce resources to build his business. Yet, it was built. These resources, which might have been used for wiser purposes or preserved in nature, were instead consumed.
Along with Mark Davis, I call such a system creditism. Houses and cars are built with borrowed money. College education is paid for in large part with borrowed money, and then the kids are also given credit cards to indulge their impulsive desires.
I admit the post-WWII consumer culture built on credit has an incredible number of pleasures and attractions. At the same time, the over-production and over-consumption have not been good for the planet. And we can't have it both ways, as President Obama does, by saying that credit is the lifeblood of the economy while also claiming that regulatory boondoggles like cap & trade will save the environment. What will save the environment is if people stopped producing and consuming unneeded goods with borrowed, inherently worthless money.
When we consider the present, however, we see that there are enough resources for everyone to be fed, stay warm, and stay in good health. The reasons they are not, on a global scale, has nothing to do with "free market capitalism." Rather, it is government intervention in areas like health and energy that have kept those prices high, and it is the government credit-based financial systems that creates income disparities and massive personal debt.
If we had a free market in money, along with a free market in everything else, credit will be less available but prices would be forced downward and everyone would be free to work for a living. People would have incentives to be thrifty because they likely wouldn't have access to credit lines as back-up for impulsive, extravagant spending.
This "savingism" would divert resources to their best, most necessary use. It would make efficient use of the planet and promote better stewardship of it. It would free the people from long-term debt.
In such a society, there may be less conspicuous consumption. But there would be better health, less stress, and an end to the over-straining of the earth's resources.
That would be genuine prosperity.