When Robert Frost speaks to what gold truly is, he describes the ephemeral quality of nature’s beauty, which can never be possessed. Gold is the tender green of a leaf, a sunset, a blossom in its perfect prime, the fluttering of butterflies over a garden, the chattering of birds overhead, the generous shade of tree heavy with fruit, a sensuous touch, a stunning vista, human ingenuity… Beauty emerges, astonishes us, touches us, changes us, and eventually fades. Nothing gold can stay.
Except, of course, the untarnishable yellow metal that glitters like an eternally shining dawn: Aurum. Au. Awe. Gold.
Seduced by a beauty that doesn’t die, tortured and destroyed by the pursuit of its possession, we harbor hoarding, fire-breathing dragons in the dark caves of our collective consciousness. To understand the extent to which our dragons dominate our thinking, we can simply observe the economic narratives we jealously guard.
While narratives of domination are bound to dominate, the pathological desire to scorch the earth, extract its Beauty, and hoard it in invisible vaults and digital clouds is not the only narrative alive within us. It is just very loud, very scary, and very attention-grabbing.
As we write this next chapter of our human story, and writing like we are running out of time, we must be aware that we are the story, even our hidden parts. We are not mere journalists, claiming objectivity as we take note of humanity’s wounds and ooze grievances. We are the subjects, we are the dragons, and perhaps if we choose well, we are the heroes of this journey. What patterns can we discover from our historic relationship with Beauty and Gold that can help unearth valuable treasures buried beneath the surface and guide our own transformation?
The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent, is one of the most powerful contributions to the narrative of humanity’s cultural evolution. From weaving a cosmology of interconnectedness as hunter-gatherers, to stories of domination and mechanization, societies have to varying degrees either fit in or fought against the ‘overstory’ of Earth’s natural patterns. (Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning awe-inspiring masterpiece, The Overstory, is another book relevant and recommended for positioning ourselves more harmoniously within a broader narrative of life.)
Lent concludes that A Great Transformation would require a new story about virtually everything we think and do, including our values, our goals, and our behavior.
“We can think of our civilization’s values as part of a Global Cognitive System, which has been molded largely on the success of the Economic System that’s dominated the world in the past…”
His basic recommendations are to design cognitive and economic patterns that: 1- emphasize quality of life, 2- base choices on shared dignity, rather than maximizing antisocial self-interest, 3- prioritize flourishing of the natural world. While these goals align with moral values that are consistent across different cultures and social groups, why are we so far from experiencing these as dominant patterns of human behavior?
As an economics teacher, the most common response I get from students and adults alike about what causes poverty or the destruction of the environment is, “It is human nature to be greedy.” Such a conclusion is reinforced by nearly all that is visible. The dominating story is further reinforced by the economic textbooks that open with the primary assumption that humans are motivated by self-interest, so we formulate all mathematical modeling and profit-oriented policy-making from there.
But loud stories are not all stories.
The Social Darwinian conclusion that anti-social self-interest drives human behavior, conveniently excuses a narrative of dominance. But if the cognitive pattern is to see life as interdependent, then a very different kind of self-interest emerges: prosocial self-interest. Prosocial self-interest recognizes one’s own wellbeing as embedded within a larger story that is dependent upon cooperation, shared dignity, and flourishing of the natural world.
The economic science of cooperation, documented by 2009 winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics, Elinor Ostrom, reveals that human groups can and do develop their own economic and governance systems for societies to thrive within flourishing eco-systems.
So at what point did we allow such a destructive system to take over our brains and our planet? Perhaps if we can understand the cognitive pathologies that drive thought patterns and systems of destructive self-preservation, our subterranean dragons will no longer dominate our decisions and our destiny.
If we are to heal, where do we begin? Like the chicken-or-egg quandry of which came first, destructive human thought patterns created destructive economic systems, while destructive economic systems perpetuate, reinforce, validate, and deepen destructive cognitive patterns.
The trick is whether or not these two are so tightly interwoven that we find ourselves in a Catch-22, unable to adjust. In order to cultivate flourishing Economic Ecosystems, we must heal the destructive cognitive patterns, (aka Economic Trauma) that reinforces hoarding, weapons, and walls. But, in order to heal Economic Trauma, we must cultivate Economic Ecosystems.
This is why taking a Relational Design Thinking approach to Economics Education is so important at this time, both in school and out. We can only see what we look at. When our vision is set on a problem, we see the problem, the disease, the pathology. Is our thinking therefore at risk of being slightly pathological or even pathogenic? When we focus on the interconnected nature of life, and optimizing the conditions so that life can flourish, we notice what is healthy. Generating health is what psychologist Aaron Antonovsky called, “salutogenesis” (Antonovsky, 1996).
Relational Design Thinking includes noticing how position ourselves in the present moment, in relationship to nature, to our feelings, to our values, to our history, to our purpose, and to what subterranean dragons might hold us back.
The first step is to calm the nervous system and cultivate a sense of awe and interconnectedness through the simple practice of Noticing Nature. Noticing Nature heals one of the core symptoms and drivers of Economic Trauma: Nature Attention Deficit Disorder.
Research emerging from the field of Nature and Forest Therapy supports and even surpasses common expectations about the physiological and psychological benefits of being in and deeply connecting with nature. (ANFT, 2021)
Noticing Nature has the power to calm our dragons, open our hearts, elicit awe, and align our thinking with the progenerative patterns of life.
The question of the future of the human race, invites Jeremy Lent, is one that we will all participate in answering through the choices we make. Choices are not only motivated by our underlying values, but by the underlying emotional states that determine whether or we can align with our values. So often, it does not, which causes cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is at play when the we uphold destructive patterns and contort our reasoning to rationalize, ignore, dismiss, or deny injury, as evidenced in embattled narratives on war, climate change, racial justice, economic justice, and vaccines, just to name a few.
The notes of Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortez, and Francisco Pizarro embody a pattern of cognitive dissonance that people enslaved by debt used to rationalize enslaving other people. Every time we sacrifice awe, curiosity, connection, and coherent thinking, we sacrifice health, life, progeneration, and Beauty.
An economy that values scarcity will cultivate scarcity. An economy that values abundance will cultivate abundance.
Scarcity is another primary assumption on page 1 of the economics textbook. Scarce resources amidst infinite wants equals instant cognitive dissonance as our lives are at once at odds with life itself. It could be the original guilty sin of homo economicus weighing us down and forestalling a sense of interconnectedness and abundance. Living from a place of scarcity has been proven to limit our cognitive capacity and decision making. (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013)
Can we learn to calm our dragons for just long enough to gather our values. If we take them out and polish our innate human values, those that bespeak our interconnectedness, we might be able to reincorporate values-based decision-making into our economic narrative and economic designs.
Our values could be like gems we place in our crowns, our crowns professing allegiance to our greater purpose. Our greater purpose guiding the trajectory of our story.
If you are learning about, teaching about, investing in, or designing economic systems, platforms, or policies, what cognitive patterns do you resonate with? What story are you telling (or selling)?
Every innovation is a narration. When new technologies, or tools, are put to use exclusively for the purpose of making more money, the thinking is so shallow, I beg you to pause, notice nature, be calm, submerge, hang out with your dragon, and see if it will allow you to recover your values.
When we align our actions with our values, we are investing in a story that, adorned by our values, can access infinite prosperity. The Latin root “investire” to to be clothed. Like the famous emperor with no clothes, being invested in money without meaning, or infinite monetary growth, is to be invested in nothing, clothed in nothing, naked, vulnerable, and foolish.
Invest in gold, and you are clothed in a legacy that has raped and devastated the Beauty of the Earth. While perhaps less violent in terms of weapons and war, when it comes to investing in (or mining for) Bitcoin, are we still being dominated by our dragons? Everyone knows that Bitcoin uses enormous energy resources to create obscure invisible digits that can be owned by a handful of people at a time when energy- driven environmental destruction and inequality are major global concerns. We can hardly think that the laser-focused efforts at manifesting an increase in BTC price as good as our collective thinking can get, right?
Innovation is narrative. More technology is entering the economic space, NonFungible Tokens, or NFTs. Slightly less energy intensive, creating trusting contracts between people, stories, and investments. How coherent and creative can the thinking get? Can we invest in NF-Trees? How about soil regeneration? Cultural regeneration? How about awe-inspired epiphanies?
This essay is for you, who insists that tethering our economic system to gold will return us to a place of security. Or you, who insists that Bitcoin will liberate humanity. Or you, who has lost hope because humanity is fundamentally greedy and tribalistic. This essay is to challenge those who insist that financial education is the pathway out of poverty- learning how to work hard, save, and invest. Same money, same message. Please consider Noticing Nature if you are excited about the power of compound interest to work for you. Most of these statements will likely be severely triggering and obviously highly controversial. Economics is known as the dismal science for a reason. But why are we collectively convinced that an economic system can be divorced from a natural system?
Because when we feel unworthy to be in the Garden of Eden, we feel a sense of separation from the interconnectedness of nature. If we feel disconnected, we feel vulnerable. If we feel vulnerable, we can feel afraid. So we construct narratives to control nature, and by doing so, we become controlled by them. To avoid becoming vulnerable, we become naked, vulnerable fools. Our only solace is, if enough people try on the same story, we can reconstruct reality.
Our fear of being a naked vulnerable fool motivates collective cognitive psychopathy, keeps our values underground, beneath our dragons. So we continue to invest in an economy of walls and weapons, to bolster our short-lived bodies, and protect whatever we attempt to possess.
In Spanish, temor means fear and awe. This could hint at what is meant by a God-fearing Christian, I’ve always wondered about that. So while fear and awe may initially be somewhat similar emotions, their cognitive impacts are vastly different. Awe researchers contend that there are two major aspects of awe: a sense of vastness (like feeling oneself to be a drop in the ocean), and the need for accommodation, which basically means, the need to adjust our thinking to accommodate a broader perspective (Mikulak, 2015). In my own experience, this means realigning the mind with the heart, my thinking with my values.
Further, those who experience awe are more likely to demonstrate generous, prosocial behaviors (Hoffman, 2015), we are more likely to be creative, open-minded, and cooperative, and align our thinking with patterns of nature. (Zhao, et.al. 2018) Furthermore, researchers, educators, and Nature and Forest Therapy Guides are convinced that, like gratitude, self-compassion, and other positive emotions, one can exercise the ability to experience awe like working a muscle. (Allen, 2018)
Like reverse alchemy, can we return Gold to Beauty?
Can we design an emerging economic ecosystem that is backed by Beauty, rather than Gold? Can we replace our attachment to a guilty gold-and fear- based mentality with an awe and beauty-inspired reverence for reciprocity and our interconnectedness?
Does it sounds too good to be true? Does it sound possible to achieve Lent’s proposal that we align with our values to design cognitive and economic patterns that: 1- emphasize quality of life, 2- base choices on shared dignity, rather than maximizing antisocial self-interest, 3- prioritize flourishing of the natural world?
Perhaps if we stop for just a moment and Notice the proverbial Garden of Eden never left? Perhaps there is something to forgive, as any mistake, any sin if unforgiven will make us feel separate, apart, not belonging, and even feeling ashamed or foolish to have stood so naked and vulnerable.
Can we approach Beauty in love, in awe, naked and unafraid, because as Rumi says, “Be foolishly in love, because love is all there is.”