The long march of hierarchical and colonial history has led us to this moment of awareness. We are learning that the melting glaciers, coronavirus pandemic, species extinctions, racial and income inequality, political turmoil, and other heart-wrenching events are symptoms of a global social-governmental-economic system that is consuming itself into extinction. This is what I call the Death Economy that defines success as the maximization of short-term profits for corporations and short-term accumulation of material things for individuals, regardless of the environmental and social costs.
If enough of us confront our fear of change, this Death Economy could be transformed into one that cleans up pollution, regenerates destroyed environments, and creates technologies that do not ravage the environment—a living economy, a Life Economy. We will either change our ideas, values, and actions and accept new ways of relating to other people, resources, countries, governments, and cultures, or we will propel ourselves into extinction—or something unimaginably close to extinction.
Capitalism versus Predatory Capitalism
There is a major difference between capitalism and what many economists refer to as “predatory capitalism,” a deviant that has little in common with the original. According to Merriam-Webster, capitalism is “An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
Death Economy versus Life Economy
Today’s Death Economy is a far cry from either of these definitions. It is characterized by businesses that destroy or absorb their competition and oppose free market policies. Not only does the state not own businesses; businesses and their billionaire shareholders control the state. It is a predatory aberrant that actually should not be considered capitalism. I am personally familiar with the workings of the Death Economy because I was one of the people who helped develop it.
The Death Economy is driven by the goal that was promoted by a group of economists in the 1970s and 1980s, including Nobel Prize winners Friedrich von Hayek (1974) and Milton Friedman (1976), and can be summarized as “the only responsibility of business is to maximize short-term owner profits, regardless of the social and environmental costs.”
The stories that accompany this perception give corporate executives the right—even the mandate—to do whatever they think it will take to maximize profits, including buying public officials through campaign financing and promises of lucrative post-government consulting or lobbying jobs; exploiting workers; annihilating or buying out their competitors; destroying environments; reducing taxes and wages; lobbying against pro-worker, pro-consumer, and pro-ecology regulations; promising (as well as threatening) to affect economies by locating their facilities in (or removing them from) cities and countries; and depleting the very resources upon which the long-term survival of their businesses depends. These stories promote top-down, authoritarian chains of command and autocratic management styles—in government as well as business.
Key Characteristics of the Death Economy
• Its goal is to maximize short-term profits for a relative few.
• It uses fear and debt to gain market share and political control.
• It promotes the idea that for someone to win, another must lose.
• It is predatory, encouraging businesses to prey on each other, people, and the environment.
• It destroys resources needed for its own long-term survival.
• It values goods and services that are “extractive” and materialistic above those that enhance quality of life (e.g., child-rearing, the arts).
• It is heavily influenced by nonproductive financial deals (stock manipulation, financialization, “gambling”).
• It ignores externalities, such as environmental destruction and exploitation of workers, when measuring profits, GDP, and other metrics.
• It invests heavily in militarization—in killing, or threatening to kill, people and other life forms and destroying infrastructure.
• It causes pollution, environmental collapse, and drastic income and social inequality and may lead to political instability.
• It vilifies taxes, rather than defining them as investments (in social services, infrastructure, the military, etc.).
• It is undemocratic, encouraging the growth of large corporations controlled by a few individuals whose money has a strong influence on politics (monopolies that lead to oligarchies).
• It is based on top-down, authoritarian chains of command that support autocratic management styles in business and government.
• It places higher values on nonproductive jobs (venture capitalists, investment bankers) than productive ones (laborers, factory workers) and those that enrich life (teachers, musicians, artists).
• It keeps billions of people in poverty.
• It classifies plants, animals, and the entire natural world as depletable resources; fails to respect and protect nature; and causes massive extinctions and other irreversible problems.
• It has become the predominant advocate of what it calls “capitalism” around the world.
The future lies in transforming the Death Economy into a Life Economy that cleans up pollution, regenerates devastated ecosystems, recycles, and develops technologies that restore resources and that benefit, rather than ravage, the environment. Businesses that pay returns to investors who invest in an economy that is itself a renewable resource become the success stories.
The Life Economy is driven by the goal of maximizing long-term benefits for all life and the environment.
Key Characteristics of the Life Economy
• Its goal is to serve a public interest (maximize long-term benefits for people and nature).
• Its laws support level playing fields that encourage healthy non-monopolistic competition, innovative ideas, and sustainable products.
• It embraces a sense of cooperation, the idea that we all can win when we set our goals for long-term benefits for all.
• It values quality of life and spiritually enhancing activities above those based solely on materialism and extraction.
• It is based on beneficially productive activities, such as recycling, education, health care, and the arts, rather than the nonproductive, such as stock manipulation, financialization, and “gambling.”
• It cleans up pollution.
• It regenerates devastated environments.
• It is driven by compassion and debt avoidance.
• It helps hungry people feed themselves.
• It includes externalities in its financial and economic measurements.
• It innovates—develops and embraces new, regenerative, sustainable technologies.
• It recycles.
• It defines taxes as investments. (Should your tax monies be invested in health care or militarization?)
• It is democratic, encouraging locally based commerce and employee- or community-owned businesses that benefit many (e.g., cooperatives, B Corporations, etc.).
• It reinforces democratic decision-making processes and management styles—in business and government.
• It places a high value on jobs that enrich life (musicians, social and medical workers, parents).
• It is based on a foundational knowledge that humans are in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, that we must respect, honor, and protect the natural world.
• It rewards investors who support all the previous characteristics.
• It was the predominant form of economic evolution for much of the 200,000 years of human history.
Transforming the Death to the Life Economy
The transition from a failed to a successful system happens through changes in the perceptions that drive values and actions and the stories we tell around them. “Maximize short-term profits for a few, regardless of the social and environmental costs” becomes “maximize long-term benefits for all people and nature.” When groups of consumers, workers, and investors accept these values and take actions to support businesses that promote them and pressure governments to codify them into laws, the change we want and need happens.
There are many indicators that we have the ability to change powerful institutions. Political initiatives such as the Green New Deal; movements such as conscious capitalism; innovative approaches to business that include B Corporations, benefit corporations, cooperatives, and local banks; alternative energy technologies and organic farming; programs like Drawdown; and the creation of the Long-Term Stock Exchange are just a few examples. The August 2019 Business Roundtable meeting was a highly significant signal of impending change; CEOs from 192 of the world’s largest corporations promised to “abandon the idea that companies must maximize profits for shareholders above all else” and instead “commit to balancing the need of shareholders with customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities.” Although this promise, like the other indicators, was a confirmation that concepts in business are changing, it is up to each of us to use social media and whatever other means are available to us to demand that these corporations, as well as the governments that support them, take actions to honor their commitments.
It is up to all of us to encourage it to happen faster.
is the author of 10 books, including Touching the Jaguar, Shapeshifting, and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 70 weeks and published in 37 languages. As an economist, he advised the World Bank, United Nations, Fortune 500 corporations, U.S. and other governments. He has lectured at Harvard, Oxford, and other universities, is a founder of the Pachamama Alliance and Dream Change, and received the Lennon/Ono Peace Prize.