Can We Evolve Beyond Money?

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

This often quoted but infrequently practised quote from Albert Einstein tells us much about why some of society’s most intractable problems remain unsolved.

For example, development had traditionally been pursued through large loans for large scale infrastructure projects until a Bangladeshi economist dared to think differently and lend small amounts directly to the untouchables of the credit sector: poor women. Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank has since lent billions of dollars and shown that micro finance can be an effective and direct way of helping people lift themselves out of poverty. This model has been replicated all over the world, and individuals also provide money for loans.

Solutions that come from linear thinking hold a special appeal because we know where they come from. Very often we cannot countenance that the system in which we live may be flawed; we point to all the benefits and try and tweak the system to eliminate the less desirable elements only for another problem to emerge elsewhere. The end result is a perpetual ‘whack-a-mole’ game where we are forced to innovate quicker than the speed at which ‘unforseen’ problems appear.

On the face of it, this seems like a good system; innovation is good for the economy and as humans we are attracted to the idea of progress and smooth transitions. Yet looked at another way, it that can be argued that our history is in fact defined by abrupt discontinuities coming in social, political, economic and military guises, such as the Great Depression and World Wars I and II. Once again, the partial collapse of the present economic system leads us to chase our tails, whilst believing we are fixing the problems at hand.

It is a truism that all unsustainable activities, by definition, come to an end. But before we contemplate the end of our current system or any abrupt discontinuity, let us think for a moment about what life would be like if we designed society from scratch.

Venus in orbit

For decades, the polymath futurist Jacque Fresco has been doing just that — check out this interview of him by Larry King way back in 1974. Reasoning that money (and, by association, politics and power) is the supreme corrupting influence, Fresco has set about designing a blueprint for a society free of money. Naturally talk of a society without money makes no sense in a society based on money, so one needs to suspend the obvious criticisms and ask, does it sound like a better system than we have now, and if so, how do we get there?

Arguing that we are essentially only as free as our purchasing power, Fresco’s signature initiative, the Venus Project, advocates an entirely different social system, one that puts emphasis on actual human needs and their delivery rather than on the satisfaction of economic needs that we currently set as a pre-condition to addressing the needs of society. Central to the vision of the Venus Project is the idea that resources couldn’t be traded but are instead considered as the common heritage of all people. Through the extensive use of renewable energy, advanced technologies in all areas and centralised computer control systems, resource allocation would be based on optimal production to meet human needs.

Unlike the discredited industrial/agrarian socialism of Stalin and Mao, in Fresco’s ideal world, machines would free humans from the drudgery of much of the labour that inhibited workers from enjoying life and education. Such a system free of political intervention, he argues, would necessarily eliminate war, hunger, poverty and even crime and in the process create better educated people whose talents can be entirely focused on human and natural welfare. The vision espoused by the Venus Project may seem outlandish, utopian and maybe even scary. Drawing on his 94 years of experience, Fresco himself is keenly aware that utopia is unachievable. Rather, he believes that (1) it is a better system than we currently have at present; and (2) the relentless pace of innovation makes such a vision possible, if we choose it.

Certainly, this is one of the most radical expressions of sustainable development and is a leap beyond the current discussions on the wisdom of perpetual economic growth and whether the current economic model can ever achieve sustainable development. Placed in an even broader systemic context, it could be seen as the next evolution in human civilization beyond capitalism, albeit somewhat enabled by capitalism.

The classic criticism that no one would do any work in a world without money is increasingly being challenged by the emerging research on what really motivates us. It seems monetary incentives are only good for straight-forward tasks that require mechanical (rather than cognitive) skill, interesting because it is precisely those that can be easily automated. Creative activities are usually pursued beyond any profit motive, as exemplified by the ever-growing global data bank of digital media that is created and shared for free and directly downloadable from the internet. Currently, people devote their working lives to a set of activities decided by the market and often stimulated by perverse incentives. In this view of the future, people would devote their time to activities more closely aligned with their passions, free of externally imposed targets.

Sharing is caring

In the near term, the rise of what is called collaborative consumption has elements sympathetic to the Venus Project in the terms of a collective pooling of resources. The idea is that if we can efficiently share what we own, either by swapping or sharing, overall material consumption will decline. Given that we only use some of the things we own for a small amount of time, it would seem that that there are many things in our collection of possessions that someone else could use whilst we’re not. Of course, a new buzzword or phrase doesn’t hide the fact that this is hardly a new concept. Sharing, lending, borrowing and swapping are basic human interactions that we have been engaging in for millennia.

What is different about this repackaged concept is that the internet has reduced the friction costs of searching for what is available and massively enabled peer-to-peer transactions to be done on a far wider scale than has ever been seen before. In the same way that E-bay pioneered the sale/auction of other peoples’ unwanted items, swap.com aims to connect all the duplicated media in people’s homes: 450 rarely used media items worth around US $7,500 according to their website. Other sites extend this concept to car sharing and ridesharing. Meanwhile, the collaborative efforts of software developers have provided a range of free to use, open-source software, the basic model for which may also serve in many areas of research including climate science.

Of course, not everything is swappable (much as we may want some things to be)! The key conceptual hurdle is how we perceive our attachment to personal property and whether we are more attached to the physical item (such as the car, book or the DVD), rather than the service it provides — i.e., information or mobility. It doesn’t mean we stop enjoying life, we just don’t own those enabling mechanisms.

So will online swapping replace online shopping? CNN seems to think so and even the Wall Street Journal admits that bartering is not an aberration of the economic downturn. Swap.com reports that so far $11.5 million worth of surplus consumption has been averted over 1.8 million swaps, with the associated carbon savings of 10.4 million lbs (4,717 tonnes).

But even if you accept that real wealth lies in access to services rather than in the goods themselves, how can you trust a complete stranger with your car, power drill, or hope that they will send you their book when you send yours? The next-door neighbour who slowly ends up with all your possessions in his garage has become a suburban legend — but at least we can track him or her down.

What is intriguing about collaborative consumption is that the credit rating upon which so much of our access to goods and services currently depends will be replaced by a new rating — our own personal trustworthiness rating. That is to say, our access to goods becomes, in part, a function of our social capital rather than our financial one. This is an incredibly powerful concept in helping us understand personal wealth in broader terms and indeed, what we might use in place of money. Social capital accumulates over time: the more you share properly, the higher your rating rises, which in turn promotes good social conduct. This is all good in theory, provided that personal freedoms and identities aren’t compromised in the process.

This is not a transition that will happen overnight and indeed, given the interests involved, it will most likely require the growth of human consciousness towards the empathetic civilization. Basically it argues that we are fundamentally empathetic creatures in an evolutionary process that started with blood ties, then tribes, religion, and currently nations but could extend to humans as one, then to creatures, plants and finally our planet.

However, it would seem that some elements of a new system that acknowledges the finiteness of the current one, are already in place. If, as it is frequently argued, Generation Y is the first generation of digital natives and sharing is their norm, could it be that collaborative consumption rather than consumer capitalism will be their norm? If so, what will the next generation bring?

Finally, consider whether our monetary system would make sense if we lived in Fresco’s world. Put another way, if we have access to all we need, would we need money?

• ◊ •

The Venus Project website exhaustively addresses the many questions too numerous to address in this article.

Creative Commons License
Can We Evolve Beyond Money? by Christopher Doll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Christopher Doll is a Research Fellow at United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. His research interest focuses on using spatially explicit datasets to support policymaking for sustainable development with application in areas of urbanisation and biodiversity. He has previously held positions at Columbia University in New York and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. Born and educated in the UK, Christopher holds a PhD in Remote Sensing from University College London.

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  • Green44

    This article is great as always:-)

  • BrendanBarrett

    I was expecting you to explore how people rely on their credit cards, rather than money. Or using your mobile phone to buy goods at the convenience store or to buy train tickets at the ticket gate, as you can here in Japan. In the end, we may not need to actually carry money in our wallets, which begins to change our notions of what money is. It is not a big jump from credit on your phone or other media, to money disappearing all together.

    On the other side of this equation, what about how we ourselves are paid for our labour, how is that handled under the Venus Project?

    • Argosy Jones

      The Venus Project is a variant of high-tech utopian communism/socialism, with computers performing the function of government, and robots doing all the boring work. They deny that their ideas are at all related to communism or socialism, so this is confusing , but they posit common ownership of all resources, and free use of stuff by everybody.

      • Jamie

        communism and socialism are varients of a money society…it would appear you have not done what the article has told you to do and left all that jibba jabba out of the equation. When we deal with a completely different system with completely different behaviors and completely different results we require a completely different perception from what is.

        clean your slate then then think appropriately which is harder for some and easier for others.

  • http://twitter.com/collcons CollCons

    Interesting thoughts, great to see another article exploring Collaborative Consumption. Have RT this via @CollCons.

    You might also be interested in reading more of Rachel Botsman’s thinking on reputation bank accounts: http://www.collaborativeconsumption.com/blog-and-writings/Reputation%20Economy%20BOSS.pdf (PDF download required).

    Love to hear any thoughts via the #CollCons hashtag.

  • http://satoyamaspirit.org Alan Zulch

    I like your apt description of our predicament:

    “Solutions that come from linear thinking hold a special appeal because we know where they come from. Very often we cannot countenance that the system in which we live may be flawed; we point to all the benefits and try and tweak the system to eliminate the less desirable elements only for another problem to emerge elsewhere. The end result is a perpetual ‘ whack-a-mole’ game where we are forced to innovate quicker than the speed at which ‘unforseen’ problems appear.”

    I’m also intrigued by the idea of Collaborative Consumption and agree that its implementation will likely coincide with the continued emergence of ever-expanding senses of identity.

    I’m less enthused by the Venus Project as its techno-utopian Jetson’s technology (from their website link you provided) seems to be prioritized over a natural environments and ethics. Technical fixes are necessary, but not sufficient. I’d like to see more evidence of an overarching ecological consciousness in the their imagined built environment, but maybe I’m missing something.

    • marknotaras

      Enjoyable and thought-provoking read thanks Chris. I am interested in the psychology of people like Fresco. I don’t know enough about him to say, but it seems that some of these worldly thinkers seem to believe that their model, and ONLY their model is the right fit for the whole of the planet. If the financial, food and climate crises tell us anything it is that these big-picture, one-size-fits-all COP-like approaches just don’t work in either a practical sense (e.g. different resource endowments and climates), but also socially (different cultures, languages etc). Even though people’s intentions may be good, there is always an element of neo-colonial thinking i.e. we know better than the natives, some of whom incidentally may have acknowledged the ills of money well before those more enlightened.

  • schmid91

    Thank you, Christopher for your very helpful article. About digital natives and their sharing opportunities let me spill out some services already been in place one century ago. When I started to get into the digital sphere the same time I started to use these digital services immediately. Train tickets have been expensive and therefore colleagues and friends and even business man changed to the opportunities like mitfahrgelegenheit dot de (rideshare dot co dot uk) under the premisses of sharing only the costs of fuel. During my excessive usage of this system I got to know to a bunches of very interesting people and could travel from A to B safety. The security aspect was very much covered by the community on the website via messages about inappropriate drivers and complications during while people shared a car. Still I love to use this system as one of the trustful and sustainable transportation possibilities through Europe I ever traveld with.

    Another opportunity I still prefere when it comes to share DVDs or Books is the approach of bookcrossing dot com If you finished a book, just release it into the wild and somebody else just pick it up to read it. The same you can do with DVDs and Games.

    couchsurfing dot org – sleep on others couch or offer your flat for strangers searching for an opportunity to stay over night

    mitesszentrale dot de – cook and eat with other people – negotiate the price for the ingredients or bring them with you

    All concepts are in place since over 10 years now and proved to be very sustainable and helpful by sharing knowledge, travel opportunities, food and shelter. And unforeseen problems can be discussed by the community which is still follows the principle of be supportive to each other.

    The secret to get all the services is to have a mutual approach. Be friendly, hospital and respectful. Seems the digital world isn’t as different from the real one. But it can cross cultural boundaries…

  • ThisOldMan

    For some interesting related ideas, see http://www.WebOfDebt.com

  • http://twitter.com/davidsherr davidsherr

    Clarification of my Tweet. Basing society on Utopian ideals while interesting is not solving real problems. Money is not the problem. It is the solution! The Biblical phrase “Love of money is the root of all evil” was paraphrased by Fresco in his Larry King interview. There is enough food in the World. Distribution is the problem. Distribution is facilitated by demand AND an ability to satisfy that demand. We don’t need to evolve beyond money. We need to evolve money! Money is a consequence of human activities. We need to find ways for people monetize their activities to the extent necessary to satisfy their Maslow hierarchy of needs: Shelter, Sustenance, Sex, Sociality and Spirit. Problem specifically is we have not found the maximum standard of living as evidenced by the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people (relatively speaking). Am I being the idealist here now?

  • Haddylife

    The problem is not the existence of money. The problem is the lack of money. The simple solution to nearly every single social problem in the world is to use taxes to redistribute money. At DemandTheGoodLife.com they advocate paying every citizen a $50,000/year dividend as their right as a citizen. It eliminates poverty, makes everyone in society wealthy and enables everyone to trade in their jobs (which machines should do not humans) for a life of leisure

    • christopherdoll

      As I understand it, this sounds like a large scale stimulus plan which maintains the freedom for some to accumulate more than others. In such a system, it seems that inflation would turn the $50,000 into very little very soon. Fresco argues that as long as you have money, people will still strive to accumulate it and build power structures to control it. Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the Venus project is the societal transition required to consider resources common to all people and not the property of individual nations.

    • Darek

      Haha, what a great idea. With that redistribution, I imagine demand for staples would increase, and demand for luxuries decrease, and cut income inequalities that underpin social woes as you describe. I wonder how many societies would have that kind of tax base to redistribute though (tax rates would increase). Massive money might be diverted from social spending, which means individuals would have to pay out of pocket. Still money should move from the rich to the poor..interesting thought experiment.

  • Haddylife

    Their program does not cause inflation.

    Inflation is caused by increasing the money supply greater than the amount of stuff available to buy. However, the dividend is paid for using taxes, not by printing new money. Taxes do not increase the total money supply, so it does not cause inflation. It just redistributes existing income. Some people will get more income, some people will get less.

    Fresco’s system cannot work without money. You need money to ration goods. Otherwise people will demand far more than you can produce. And although people do volunteer, there is no evidence that you can run an entire economy on volunteers alone. So you need money to incentivize people to work.

    • Joe Smith

      It is not just volunteers but world wide automation and extensive development in automation technology. You don’t need money to ration goods when there is an abundance. If it rained gold for three months, people wouldn’t care about it as much as they do today. You need to do some more research.

  • Andy Crimson

    I like the notion of social capital – that there is some non-arbitrary way of determining whether or not I’m a good guy and that allows me to participate at some level that without the rating would be barred to me. But what immediately rises to the surface is this – how would such a system deal with mental illness?

  • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

    Andy, please clarify. Mental illness does not preclude collaboration, sharing or good social conduct…

  • James

    Social capital sounds exactly like a pre-money system. If you share your labor or its products with others a lot, and if people really enjoy those things you’re sharing, then you get lots of recognition that you’re a kind person and you should be given things. The only thing money does differently is that it precisely quantifies how much you’re satisfying other peoples’ desires, and also generally makes it much harder to lie about how much you’ve benefited others (and therefore how much labor or stuff from others you deserve).

    You’re probably not going to get people to not want to use money. The cat’s out of the bag; people know they can form incredibly complex, reliable, and efficient networks of favor-trading just by having a common unit of value.

  • Tom Clarke

    “But even if you accept that real wealth lies in access to services
    rather than in the goods themselves, how can you trust a complete
    stranger with your car, power drill, or hope that they will send you
    their book when you send yours?” This is a great example of something that’s only an issue because of our current world view. In the future being described, there’s no such thing as ‘your car’, it’s no more yours than anyone elses. However, I think the point you’re trying to raise is that how do you ensure that commonly used goods are always responsibly used. Way I see it, there are no guarantees, and no point in pretending otherwise, but the goods being shared are replaceable, and society will still inform what’s collectively preferable.