Money Talks: How the dollar dominates our discourse, and why we need to ditch it

By Kari McGregor

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

– Albert Einstein

Money makes the world go round. Or so we’re told. And you’d be far from foolish to believe it, as finance is our global operating system. If crashed, it will bring industrial civilization to its knees. If money is the root of all evil, yet makes the world go round, then solving our planetary predicament presents quite a conundrum.

Political discourse frames practically everything we need and do in terms of money: cost-benefit ratio, value for money, and return on investment. Even time is money as we milk the cash cow dry, and scapegoats for our inflating Ponzi pyramid of problems become priceless. We seem to have only this one way of valuing things. And when money talks everyone listens, but nobody checks the grammar.

Our society’s problems are defined in financial terms, and so, too, are the solutions. The solution to every problem is to pump more money into it; endless economic growth will leverage us all to lofty heights. In our attempts to merge the fields of ecology and economics  we’ve come up with the concepts of ‘natural capital’, in order to place a dollar value on our biosphere’s natural ‘assets’, and ecosystem ‘services’, in order to integrate these features of the natural world into our financialized economy. In order to assist governments with their carving up of ‘natural capital’, ecosystem ‘services’ are being assigned economic values, much as any service performed by a human in exchange for money. But, in our money-driven growth economy, the making of a quick buck still takes precedence over the long-term stability conservatism affords, regardless the value of our natural world.

We frame the climate crisis in terms of how much it’s going to cost us to address it, and how much more it will cost us if we continue to delay action. We talk about the financial toll of a climate-related natural disaster as though it were of greater significance than the death toll. Where we’re going to find the money to rebuild cities on eroded coasts and floodplains dominates the discourse, and grieving loss of life credits barely a mention while we’re busily doing the math. When loss and damage do crop up in conversation, such as at last year’s COP in Warsaw, hot on the heels of super-typhoon Haiyan, it is in relation to financial loss and property damage, for which someone needs to be held accountable – for settling the account.

Biodiversity, too, has its costs. When it comes to saving critically endangered species from the brink of extinction we are told of the cost in financial terms. So far the Australian Orange-bellied parrot has cost Australia millions of dollars and conservation efforts have delayed or prevented ‘developments’ – apparently worth tens of millions of dollars. We are asked to consider whether such a trade-off is economically worthwhile to save the remaining 50 parrots, or whether we should give up on them entirely and focus on ‘cheaper’ species. The Orange-bellied parrot will likely only be saved if it can be proven that the ecosystem services it provides save more money than the parrot costs to conserve.

We are apparently unable to house, feed, heal and educate every individual in our society because there simply isn’t enough money. Although there seems to be plenty for the obscenities of some. Providing the basics of survival comes at a premium, and it just isn’t viable to address all needs in a system in which the almighty dollar comes first. Yet recent studies have demonstrated that it costs the taxpayer more to maintain homelessness, for example, than it does to address it. Only when the issue is framed in such callous terms are we finally prepared to throw a few dollars in the direction of the needy, patting ourselves on the back for our self-interest disguised as compassion.

Our bottom line of financial restriction means we can only afford to invest in the healing of those whose lives can be valued in quantitative and financialized terms. QALYs (Quality-Adjusted Life Years) are the benchmark for determining the cost-benefit analysis of treating a medical patient.6 Your QALYs are your guarantor, and don’t expect an angel investment from the medical establishment this backup in your bank. Chances are you’ll miss out on a transplant if you’re deemed a poor investment – you’re competing against those who are simply fitter for more taxable years of labour.

The bottom line of accounting has become synonymous with money, and we have no other way of assigning value or wealth. Even if we accept such utilitarian forms of value and measurement as natural capital or QALYs, should money be our only yardstick? What of intrinsic value? We are so often told there is no such thing. Nothing is of value to us unless we can make or save money from it. Hence we do not value in-home childcare, or the time and effort families put into caring for their sick or elderly relatives, and we certainly do not seem to value the thousands of hours poured into voluntary work for good causes – often by frontline activists whose media profile is often utterly demonic. If you can’t make money from it, don’t expect to be respected for doing it; if it doesn’t have a dollar value, it isn’t valued.

Why is it that we seem to know no language other than money?

This might have something to do with the fact that money is not only the way we frame our problems and solutions, but it is also the often-ignored cause.

Were it not for our pursuit of the almighty dollar, much of the damage we wreak on our ecosystems and our people – viewed as a workforce, and not individual, intrinsically valuable, humans – would simply not occur. Resource extraction and acquisition line pockets while they provide for artificial needs and destroy our landbase. Impoverished humans are chewed up and spat out by a system that spirals wealth to the upper echelons while selling fabricated wants to those in the middle. While money continues to make our business decisions for us, it is unlikely to provide satisfactory solutions to the problems it creates. Fighting fire with fire only fans the flames.

The Ecuadorian government caused great excitement when it enshrined the rights of nature in law in 2008, and immense disappointment when it stomped on those very laws five years later by violating the rights of Yasuni National Park – reputedly the most biodiverse place on Mother Earth – for the sake of oil extraction. Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, was caught chasing his own tail when he rationalized making a mockery of law by claiming that the developing nation would need to grow its way out of poverty before she could afford to uphold the rights of nature.6 And then, presumably, money would have to be spent on cleaning up the damage. If, of course, enough remains after oligarchic palms are sufficiently greased.

We’re not going to grow our way out of the problems that the almighty dollar has landed us in. The notion that poverty can and should be eradicated via the mechanism of markets and growth is one that is deeply paternalistic, creates patronizing stereotypes, and hides the real cause of poverty. At the bottom of the barrel of solutions, aid is essentially a function of the trickle-down dynamic, a hierarchical donor-recipient relationship that exists if and only if the donor has sufficient surplus to allow some of it to trickle down. Such handouts reek of after-thoughtism; while a sincere solution to the problem of poverty requires profound solidarity.

We are going to need an alternative discourse for framing our problems and their solutions if we mean to address our planetary predicament. Our alternative discourse is going to need a new vocabulary of value, and a fundamentally different framework for accounting. We need to frame that which is fundamental to our survival as priceless, and that which is damaging as too costly. Perhaps Emerson was right when he said money often costs too much; our relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar renders bankrupt both the biosphere, and the human spirit. Let’s ditch it from our discourse.

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