What if the Economy Listened?

It would be a good conversationalist: It would hear the world it lives in and respond accordingly.

By Scott Gast

Barth Bailey via Unsplash

Geese are arriving in my corner of the world. It takes me awhile to notice, but I hear them regularly now. They’re not quiet. They honk and flap and peck and stand in the damp fields, their necks thin, extended, alert. Spring is here, and the season has a sound: the bird’s throaty calls work away at the winter quiet, and the racket in the sky seems to seep into the ground. The dirt is spongy. The air is wet-warm and washed. Beads of rain move across my window, but the birds keep moving, keep calling. It’s exciting.

I wish we listened more. I wish I listened more. Wouldn’t things be better if we listened? What more could we learn about the world? What could we learn about ourselves? Of course, listening doesn’t make you any money; no great business plans come to mind. But I’m convinced that there are a bunch of other riches related to listening, and that most of them have to do with being more alive and more receptive to stories, to other people, to the utterly amazing fact that we’re even here at all. Being more aware of what’s going on in this minute of this hour of this day of our lives. I think listening makes us better humans.

I don’t think our economy makes us better humans. Our economy is more like a bad conversationalist: it talks, roars, steams, beeps, rumbles, and seethes-but it doesn’t listen. Like a drunk man in public, it doesn’t seem to be aware of anything beyond itself. It doesn’t even seem to know where it is or what planet it’s on. It doesn’t seem to know that it’s had too much (the bottle’s nearly empty and his stomach is turning); that it’s ruining things for other people (he’s loud and threatening innocent bystanders); that it’s incapable of learning much that really matters (he wouldn’t remember it anyway).

When she was in her 20s, the writer Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer. She grew up along a stretch of the Illinois River that’s dense with industry and its effluents, not to mention the kind of agriculture that requires big machinery, big money, big debt, and big doses of chemicals. Bladder cancer, as she would discover, is considered a “quintessential environmental cancer” — meaning it’s strongly linked to toxic chemical exposure; exposure to the same chemicals that grease the wheels of our economic system.

This is stuff we produce. This is a cancer we help bring into the world.

We know it, too-the data goes back nearly a century. But we don’t listen. We use these materials anyway. We make economic arguments for them; we run cost/benefit analyses; we weigh life against money.

But what if the economy listened? What if, for a minute, the economy stopped talking to itself-to its own swirl of messages and indicators and pundits and forecasts-and actually gave an earnest ear to the world around it? Here’s Steingraber in a 2009 column for Orion magazine:

Imagine that ecological metrics were as familiar to us as economic ones. Imagine ecological equivalents to the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P that reported to us every day-in newspapers, on radio, on websites, on the crawl at the bottom of TV screens, on oversized tickers in Times Square-data about the various sectors of our ecological system and how they are faring. What are the atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide today? Has the extinction rate become inflationary? What is the exchange rate between sea ice and fresh water? What is the national deficit of topsoil?

Suppose that ecological pundits discussed every night on cable TV the ongoing disappearance of bees, bats, and other pollinators and the possibly dire consequences for our food supply. Suppose we received daily reports on the status of our aquifers. Suppose legislators and citizens both agreed that if we don’t take immediate action to bail out our ecological system, something truly terrible will happen. Our ecology will tank.

What would a listening economy look like? One thing I bet it wouldn’t look like would be a growing economy. A listening economy would be aware of the world beyond itself-that there is a world beyond itself-which means it would know that there’s no more room to grow. It would be a good conversationalist: it would listen to the world it lives in and respond accordingly. It would be less noisy, because listening requires periods of quiet and slowness and caution. It would be principled — and its highest principle might be the precautionary principle. It would know that listening is progress. It would know that listening is related to learning.

It would pause for geese. I bet it would even make us better humans.

Originally published in April 2011 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI on our website.

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