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Advice to Students: Understand Money, Localize

EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

A coal industry CEO told students at a small Quaker boarding high school to prepare for jobs in coal mines and power plants, rather than study philosophy or become community organizers.

“We don’t need another community organizer,” said Bob Murray, the chief executive of Ohio-based Murray Energy, to “revolutionize the country.” Instead, he said, students need skills for jobs in the real world, and “I’m the guy that does create jobs.”

Oddly enough, the venue for Murray’s talk was at the Olney Friends School’s sustainability summit in Barnesville in October, where teachers, students and alumni were imagining how the Southeast Ohio school would fare in facing the end of the fossil fuel age, and how they might build a green economy in the region.

Participants learned about green entrepreneurism, food cooperatives, Amish technology, renewable energy innovations, local food organizing and local currencies; made apple butter and watched films on the problems of industrial corn production.

The wide-eyed optimism of the green future may have been dimmed by a king of dirty energy imploring that coal was necessary to maintain their quality of life, except for an even more confounding presentation by policy wonk Michael Shellenberger.

Shellenberger, famous as the co-author of an influential New York Times article, The Death of Environmentalism, traced humanity’s greatest accomplishments, including the civil rights movement, to the affluence created by fossil fuels. His solutions for global warming, since individual actions like buying hybrid cars do little to nothing, were nuclear energy and genetically modified foods.

At first glance Shellenberger, a young, crisply-dressed West Coast environmental strategist, and Murray, a stocky, graying man who has spent his career in the coal business, seemed not to have much in common. But both preach high technology as the answer to humanity’s energy woes—technology created and owned by large multi-national corporations, which are designed to amass enormous monetary and physical wealth by exploiting natural resources and human labor.

Murray started his talk by telling students they needed jobs to live, specifically jobs in his “real economy.” I spoke before Murray and essentially said the students needed to work with others in their local communities and neighborhoods to provide for much of their essential needs, such as food, shelter, healthcare and security, by exchanging local goods and services and relying less on money and debt.

I also offered a general description of the current monetary system, in which the nation’s money supply is created out of thin air by private banks as debt. This system can never be used to create a sustainable economy because it requires the economy to continually grow through borrowing or collapse. While the loan making helps to keep enough money in circulation and wards off a deflationary collapse, it can also accelerate natural resource depletion as income must be generated to pay at least the interest costs on accumulating debts.

And this debt-based, wealth-concentrating growth model, predicated on turning natural resources into consumer products and, ultimately, waste, only works in the long run if resources and pollution sinks are infinite. But carbon dioxide is fast filling up the atmosphere and fossil fuel production is on the verge of decline. In the meantime, the growth imperative continues to lead to a free-for-all for the increasingly scarce money and jobs that people think they need to live and for the economy to grow.

I suggested that by developing local credit and currency systems and small businesses to exchange goods and services—such as through local agriculture and energy production—communities can keep more of their money circulating locally. And to realize that by some estimates, about 40 percent of what we spent on goods and services is to cover the interest costs on the debts that producers and service providers accumulate—not to mention the finite fossil fuels devoured in the long-distance transport of consumer products under free trade.

Perhaps Olney Friends School could teach students about how this unsustainable, debt-based money system really works—for it is based on charging interest on loans, a practice claimed at times to be usury, and said to have been condemmed as morally wrong by various philosophers and religious leaders throughout history. And students can also learn how to connect with their neighbors to meet many of their needs locally and sustainably.

In short, the students should study philosophy and become community organizers.

Click here for other EarthWISE Columns by Megan Quinn Bachman

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