Book Review: Life, Money and Illusion

Life, Money and Illuision is not about the magical arts or wizardry, though it does demystify money and Wall Street’s greedy aspirations abetted by the global push for more growth and consumption (and jobs).

Life, Money and Illuision: Living on Earth as if we want to stay (New Society, 2009) by Mike Nickerson is a driving tome that reconciles how our economy operates in relationship to the ecological and social systems on which we all depend.

In this second revised edition of Life, Money and Illusion, Nickerson explains that “Life” refers to the biological processes by which living things maintain themselves over time. “Money” represents our economic ideology that claims that as long as the volume of money changing hands increases, all will be well. “Illusion” refers to the fact that these two perspectives are directly opposed in terms of how they would solve current problems.

As one might imagine, a book of this stature and ambition — if providing meaningful analysis and argumentation (which it does superbly) — is not a cursory or a casual read. Running 448 pages, Life, Money and Illusion is meticulously fashioned in easy-to-understand language that makes Nickerson’s arguments and ideas both compelling and provocative. It draws from numerous fields, including ecology, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and, of course, economics.

Nickerson’s solutions are drawn and synthesized from the leading thinkers of this past century, with plenty of historical context that reveals how we, as a species, came to think of money, the economy and nature the way we do. The day of shopping until we drop is over. Nickerson’s explanations stand in stark contrast with our economic spokespeople of today’s headlines, people like “bailout” Ben Bernanke and US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, both of whom believe that we can grow our economy despite a planet clearly limited in resources and over-whelmed by our wastes.

Writes Nickerson: “Economics is everything people do for each other. Whether actions are taken for love, barter or money, they contribute to mutual provision. I use the phrase “mutual provision” synonymously with “economics” to make it clear that the whole process is, in essence, about people taking care of each other. This reassuring perspective is often lost in the shadow of the competitive economic model now in command. To the extent that the present model no longer serves the common good, it will change as conventional wisdom recognizes the deviation.”

After setting up our current situation in the book, Nickerson tackles, head on, the type of changes and solutions we need. While Barack Obama talked of sacrifices during his election acceptance speech in Chicago, he has managed to avoid touching on them since, perhaps due to the worsening economic situation (the present speculative stock market rebound aside). Nickerson clearly explains how a fundamental shift is, in fact, occurring in our human relationship with our planet. “Throughout history, the amount of fish that people could catch was limited only by how much time and equipment we invested in fishing,” writes Nickerson. “Today, the amount of fish we catch is limited by the number of fish in the sea… We face similar limitations with forests, food lands, fresh water, fossil fuels and the Earth’s ability to absorb waste.” Millions of us recognize this and are fundamentally changing how we live, where we work, and what we eat.

Life, Money and Illusion describes the wide assortment of strategies and approaches to solving our problems to accommodate a “full” Earth. From adopting well-being measurements to tax-shifting and full cost accounting of ecological damage done by various products or services, from alternatives to our debt-based monetary system to shifting our own personal fulfillment away from being based on consumption, Nickerson offers practical avenues to redirect our economic policies to help sustain and restore our planet. We need to put the ecology and humanity back in the economy.

“For effective change to take place, the goal of growth, which has been primary since ancient times, must move to second place, behind living within planetary limits,” writes Nickerson. “A secure, fulfilling future is possible if we make it our primary goal. Security won’t be found under the street light of perpetual economic expansion, but the option of a secure future exists as surely as life has thrived on this planet for thousands of millions of years.”

Life, Money and Illusion provides just the right mix of ideas to illuminate even the darkest shadows of today’s economic closets — and inspire your advancement of the great transformation already underway.

Photography: Courtesy of New Society Publishers

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