When Eduardo Porter, an economics reporter for The New York Times, recently wrote about "fixing the future," did he know he was recapitulating an Iroquois perspective? He posed this question: "What would you pay to protect the world in which your great-great-grandchildren will live from hurricanes, drought and the like?"
Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons has put it this way: "One of the first mandates given us as chiefs, [is]… to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come… What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?"
According to Porter, the Obama administration published a set of estimates of the costs of future damage from such things as floods, pandemics, and depressed agricultural productivity from releasing heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He pointed out that the estimates show a likelihood of substantial harm, but suggested that the analysis raises questions about "how much weight the people of the present should give to damages caused by the climate in the distant future."
Where the Iroquois view posits concern for coming generations as a basic principle, the "market" view posits a cost-benefit tradeoff between present and future generations. Porter says there are two ways to look at the cost-benefit analysis. One way is that the present generation should shoulder a burden equal to the predicted burden on future generations; he calls this the "moral stance." He calls the second approach "business logic": namely, that the present generation's burden should be limited to investments that provide a satisfactory after-tax rate of return.
According to Porter, the business logic approach is likely to dominate, not because it has merit, but "simply [because] the world’s decision-makers are following it." So there we have it in stark contrast: the moral concern for future generations is trampled by business logic. The seventh generation is subordinated to an investment outlook built on profit.
The problem—and the irony—is that business logic is a key element in creating environmental damage. Following this logic extends the damage-causing approach into the effort to contain and repair the damage. If you think about it, this isn't logical at all. As Albert Einstein is said to have remarked, "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it."
A news article appeared in the Times the same day as Mr. Porter's column, discussing the work of economist Wynne Godley, who died in 2010. Godley was "one of the few economists who saw [the 2008 financial crisis] coming," in contrast to "mainstream models that famously failed to predict the crisis." The article says Godley criticized the mainstream assumptions that individuals maximize their self-interest and that markets move the economy to equilibrium. He said that individual expectations can go awry and that markets can create instability.
Take heart if you don't have an economics background. It turns out that Godley had barely any economics training. Perhaps that is why he was able to see outside the mainstream box. As the article puts it: "In mainstream economic models, individuals are supposed to optimize the trade-off between consuming today versus saving for the future…. To do so, they must live in a remarkably predictable world. Mr. Godley did not see how such optimization is conceivable. There are simply too many unknowns, he theorized."
Living with unknowns is living within the Great Mystery of Creation. Living with unknowns is being aware of our own limitations, including our limited ability to understand what we need and to predict the future. Living with this awareness is based on a foundation of respect for all our relations. It is not based on the so-called "rational mind" that presumes it can know everything.
Adbusters, the organization that fostered the Occupy! Movement, is embarked on a project to upend mainstream economics assumptions right in the classrooms of college campuses, under the banner, "Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics." The campaign is premised on the view that economics is not a "science," but rather a "highly contested field [whose] axioms and credibility are being questioned" by the facts of species extinction, resource depletion, and climate change.
One need not be an economics student to see that economic problems around the world are worsening in the face of increased efforts at resource extraction and a tunnel-vision emphasis on "growth" in consumption and production. Perhaps we fail to understand the implications of these problems: the fact that they are created by an economics that pretends to be "rational" but is unmoored from reality; that our habits of life are entwined with this irrational "rationality," our own 'religion' of consumerism is tied to the destruction of the world.
Much of the rhetoric about climate change encourages us to reduce our consumption, but this message is hard to follow when we are embedded in wasteful systems and institutions. I can change my light bulbs, but I cannot change the industrial extraction of shale oil. That sort of change is social, involving people in shared actions like the meme wars campaign. Meanwhile, the inertia of existing institutions and modes of thinking carries us further into a future that we can barely imagine.
The old mantra about "survival of the fittest" is sometimes taken as a guidepost for the future, with the implication that the "best" will survive in a competitive world where everyone is grabbing resources for their own "growth." The assumption is that the future will be richer, more refined, with better living conditions as a result of economic progress, and that those who "deserve" it will reap the benefits.
Unfortunately, this mantra doesn't question what really will be "fittest" at a future time. If the environment degrades in the competition for resources, the future will be poorer, cruder, with worse living conditions, and the "fittest" will be those who can tolerate degradation. It's not a pretty picture.
The traditional Native philosophy of "living in balance" is an enemy of irrational "progress." The forces of mainstream economics aim at uprooting and displacing traditional peoples and taking their 'resources', capturing them in the push to "growth." This process has been going on for some centuries, around the world. The fact that it is still going on is a testament to the underlying strength of traditional ways.
The fact is that traditional economies of "balance"—with concern for all our relations, and not just ourselves—are a lifeline to a livable future. The economic model they offer is among the most important elements in a rethinking of world economy.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.