It is now 10 Vendémiaire on the French Revolutionary calendar. This past weekend, two friends and myself participated in the Prairie Festival at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Each year, the Prairie Festival is part scientific meeting and part celebration. The formal presentations, mostly by scientists and economists, are not in a climate-controlled room at a conference center, as they are at most meetings, but inside of a big, old barn. People sat on folding chairs or, in my case, on the dirt. Swallows flew in the rafters. The wind swayed one of the big barn doors, as it has at least since I began attending the Festival about 1995, and I keep wondering when it will finally collapse. The celebration part was a Friday night barn dance (in the same barn, sans folding chairs) and folk singers, including the incomparable Ann Zimmerman. There is a newly-constructed fire circle, and many of us sat by a bonfire until long after the stars appeared on Saturday night.
The Land Institute scientific staff gave us an update on their work. They continue to make progress in breeding wild wheatgrass (which they have renamed “kernza”) and wheat-wheatgrass hybrids, so that in the future the world might be able to produce grain without having to plow the soil or use chemicals. (This is because kernza is a perennial.) At the Saturday evening dinner (eaten outside by people sitting on the ground or bales of hay), we got to eat some of the kernza. Not as delicious as wheat, but certainly sufficient. The staff scientists are also breeding wild prairie silphium into an oil crop, and making sorghum-Johnsongrass hybrids. If they do produce perennial sorghum, it will be a benefit not only to American agriculture, but to African agriculture, according to a Ugandan graduate student who was one of the scientific presenters.
But there were also presentations by economists. I will share insights from John Fullerton and Lisi Krall. Fullerton is the founder of the Capital Institute, which promotes sustainable and responsible spending and investment. Fullerton was one of the inventors of complex derivatives, but he could see that such financial practices would lead to collapse, so he got out of the stock market in 2001, long before these financial practices caused the financial meltdown of 2008. He was a very rich man who walked away from his golden pig. He demanded that CEOs apologize for the willful misconduct, violation of trust, and arrogance that led to that meltdown; I’m not aware that he received any response to his demand. He even wondered if the misconduct of the CEOs of big financial corporations were guilty of crimes against humanity. Krall is an economist at SUNY Cortland.
Fullerton had some bad news for us. (There is a reason that economics is called the “dismal science,” and it is not just because of the lingering legacy of Thomas Malthus.) The ecological reality is that we live in a finite world, something that even today many or most economists will not admit. Fullerton said that all economic models begin with the assumption of three percent growth per year, which cannot continue in a finite world. There are several proposals for how to fix the economy and fit it into ecological reality, including carbon taxes and impact investing by conscientious rich people. (There are more conscientious rich people than you might think. They are quiet about their good work promoting sustainable development.)
Krall had even worse news for us. Before we can do anything, she said, we have to look into the black hole and admit our problems. Our economic system is built upon the premise that we can ignore “externalities” such as pollution, global warming, and soil erosion. Another premise is that profitability comes from reducing labor costs. Therefore, our economic system leads to job elimination and lower pay. Resource depletion, global warming, job loss, and lower pay are therefore what come out of our economic system when it is working the way it is supposed to. These unacceptable outcomes are the result of what we usually consider sound business practices. Therefore we cannot solve the problems of the world by means of our current economic system. We need a new system. Of course, we are in denial on this point. There are (mostly Republican) global warming denialists, but most of us (including progressives, especially the green-tech optimists) are economic denialists. Since our economy even when it is working right is unsustainable, we have a failed economy. It hasn’t collapsed yet—Congress is working hard to make this happen—but we already have the terminal disease metastasizing. (This last sentence is mine, not Krall’s.) She ended by saying that we live in the waning days of our economy; we can only choose the manner in which we will participate in its closure. “Is there enough of the wild left in us to do this?”
But Fullerton also had some good news for us. But even this good news is rooted in bad news. Of the 60,000 top corporations in the world, only 1,000 have half of the wealth. And each of these corporations has a few major investors. He said that there are only about a thousand investors in the world who really matter in shaping the future of the economy. So we could solve our problems by convincing these thousand investors. Some, like Warren Buffett, are already convinced; some, like Donald Trump, never will be. But we don’t need to convince all one thousand. If we convince maybe a hundred, we can cause a shift in the economic landscape, resulting in a surprisingly quick transition to a sustainable world. We need an economy with resilience—and resilience, he said, does not mean having to keep getting bailed out by the government. The 2008 federal bailout was, by its very existence, evidence of the failure of our economic system.
In my view, if our economy were working as it was meant to work, we would be striding toward disaster. Congress has created an artificial crisis that totally consumes their attention and diverts it away from solving long-term problems. As a result, we are now stumbling toward disaster.
Someone asked Fullerton what the new generation, people under thirty, should do. His answer did not satisfy anyone, least of all himself. He said that World War Two gave his father a sense of purpose and meaning in life. Those of you who are under thirty will face economic disruption, and the one thing about it is that it will give you a sense of purpose. Gee, thanks a lot, I thought; the Donner Party had a sense of purpose (I wonder if I can eat the sole of that shoe? I wonder if that corpse has been dead too long to eat?). I’m 56 years old, but my daughter is under thirty; behold the world we bequeath you, Anita.
I expect that conservative commentators would have a lot of misinformation to provide about the Prairie Festival. They would certainly label the presenters as socialists and usurpers of the American tradition of rulership by the Rich, and would probably even call the fire circle a pagan wiccan ceremony.