The real world is the world of light, air, water, soil, and food. It is the world that trees and other plants create for us by producing oxygen and food, by enriching the soil and holding back floods. It is the world of ecology and evolution.
In contrast, the financial world is an artificial world. This fact has become apparent to those who thought that the real world just consisted of moving other people’s money around. Before the Collapse, James E. Cayne was a billionaire and the chairman of Bear Stearns. He lost $900 million of that in 2008. Noted New York Times’ Landon Thomas Jr. on March 28, 2008, “It represents a humiliating capitulation for a brash executive who, with his ever-present cigar, suspender-snapping ways and Friday golf outings…epitomized the classic, if outdated, picture of the Wall Street chieftain.” We have one of these bankers, right down to the cigar, where I live in Durant, Oklahoma. He just built a huge mansion that is a pastiche of every style smushed together; its only unifying theme is arrogance. He paid almost as much for his front door—not the whole porch, just the door—as I did for my house.
If you drive through rural Oklahoma towns, you will see all of the buildings run down, except, of course, the bank. Interest, or usury, is the best source of wealth today. But it is parasitic and unstable. Just ask Mr. Cayne, who now has to suffer with his remaining pittance of $61 million.
I don’t think Mr. Cayne has a clue about what the real world is. But I’ll tell you who does. Wangari Maathai is an African woman who has led millions of Kenyan women to plant trees, not instead of improving their economic lives but in order to improve their economic lives. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, the only environmentalist (and African woman) to have done so. But her Green Belt Movement was a major financial benefit—to the rural poor of Kenya. Now there is a woman who understands the real world.
We have to accept the reality of light, water, air, soil, and plants. We cannot create reality. George W. Bush said, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” To me, this sounds like blasphemy.
The real world is bears, not teddy bears or Bear Stearns; and is green, not greenbacks.
A version of this essay appeared on my website on November 23, 2008.