Something interesting happens to you once given an opportunity to take a well-taught, well-presented, and properly contextualized Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course. You are provided with new tools with which to view virtually every conceivable topic through very different eyes – in this instance, economics & history.
The American Civil War, for example, could easily be understood as America’s first energy war. It was also explicitly a war over capital – the most important capital the United States held at the time, enabling it to become the world’s greatest, most influential economic power with the eventual emergence of mass industrialization & financialization globally.
A clear proof provided for this assertion can be seen in the following, quoted from a Mark Ames piece, The 1%’s Doctrine for the 99%:
A little over a year ago, while researching the Confederacy’s economy, I stumbled across this unnerving graph charting the value of America’s “stock of slaves” in the last decades before the Civil War.
This graph tells the real story behind the South’s secession: the value of the South’s “slave stock” — the property of the ruling class — soared as secession approached, reaching an almost 90-degree angle in those final years before Harper’s Ferry. The South’s ruling class seceded to protect their riches, period:
From afar, if you didn’t know that human “slave stock” was the asset being charted, you could easily mistake this graph, and its parabolic trajectory, for one of the many destructive asset bubbles this country has suffered right up through our own time.
Up close, this graph drips greed, mass murder and shame — it strips away the historical revisionism that falsely ascribed the South’s “cause” to an almost selfless, tragically romantic attachment to “tradition” and “culture”; it gives lie to the myth that slave owners kept their slaves to the detriment of their own bottom line.
Like the worst wars and the worst of history’s villains, the Confederacy’s one percenters (i.e. – the elites) seceded and fought in order to continue profiting from their most valuable investment properties — their human slave stock.
The graph comes from a grim working paper, “Capitalists Without Capital”, written in the late 1980s by a UC Berkeley economist, Richard Sutch, and a UC Riverside historian, Robert Ransom.
As they showed, slavery produced huge profits for southerners who invested in slave capital — to the detriment of all other portfolio investments, as the value of slaves soared in the mid-19th century. By that time, by far the largest cotton-growing states’ wealth was in slave stock, not in real estate or other investments.
The slave trade was outlawed in 1808; but the slave population quadrupled from 1 million in 1800 to 4 million in 1860 — encouraged by slaveowners who “bred” their human stock, thereby multiplying their profits as the value of each slave rose.
Slavery is often portrayed by revisionist historians as somehow antithetical to market capitalism; in reality, slavery was a winning portfolio investment, the very incarnation of just how evil “free-market” capitalism can be. As the authors write:
“If slaves … were an investment included in the asset portfolio of the planter/entrepreneur, they helped satisfy the owner’s demand for wealth. But unlike most other forms of capital, which depreciate with time, the stock of slaves appreciated. Thus, the growth of the slave population continuously increased the stock of wealth.” — The 1%’s Doctrine for the 99%
This is perhaps even more stunningly illustrated in a recent article published by the UK Independent, “Britain’s colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after abolition”, which reported findings based on the work of Dr. Nick Draper from University College London concerning compensation provided by the British government to former slave owners for “property losses” after the abolition of slavery.
The numbers are astonishing, clearly demonstrating how the transformation of slave capital to financial capital formed the basis for the emergence of who would become major players in British banking, industry and politics for years to come:
The true scale of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade has been laid bare in documents revealing how the country’s wealthiest families received the modern equivalent of billions of pounds in compensation after slavery was abolished.
Among those revealed to have benefited from slavery are ancestors of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, former minister Douglas Hogg, authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the new chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette. Other prominent names which feature in the records include scions of one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, an ancestor of the Queen’s cousin. Some families used the money to invest in the railways and other aspects of the industrial revolution; others bought or maintained their country houses, and some used the money for philanthropy. George Orwell’s great-grandfather, Charles Blair, received £4,442, equal to £3m today, for the 218 slaves he owned.
The British government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their "property" when slave-ownership was abolished in Britain’s colonies in 1833. This figure represented a staggering 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual spending budget and, in today’s terms, calculated as wage values, equates to around £16.5bn. — Britain’s colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after abolition
Translated to present-day currency values, each family received £5.5 million GBP (or $8.25 million USD) in compensation:
Mr Cameron, too, is revealed to have slave owners in his family background on his father’s side. The compensation records show that General Sir James Duff, an army officer and MP for Banffshire in Scotland during the late 1700s, was Mr Cameron’s first cousin six times removed. Sir James, who was the son of one of Mr Cameron’s great-grand-uncle’s, the second Earl of Fife, was awarded £4,101, equal to more than £3m today, to compensate him for the 202 slaves he forfeited on the Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica.
Another illustrious political family that it appears still carries the name of a major slave owner is the Hogg dynasty, which includes the former cabinet minister Douglas Hogg. They are the descendants of Charles McGarel, a merchant who made a fortune from slave ownership. Between 1835 and 1837 he received £129,464, about £101m in today’s terms, for the 2,489 slaves he owned. McGarel later went on to bring his younger brother-in-law Quintin Hogg into his hugely successful sugar firm, which still used indentured labour on plantations in British Guyana established under slavery. And it was Quintin’s descendants that continued to keep the family name in the limelight, with both his son, Douglas McGarel Hogg, and his grandson, Quintin McGarel Hogg, becoming Lord Chancellor.
Dr Draper said: "Seeing the names of the slave-owners repeated in 20th century family naming practices is a very stark reminder about where those families saw their origins being from. In this case I’m thinking about the Hogg family. To have two Lord Chancellors in Britain in the 20th century bearing the name of a slave-owner from British Guiana, who went penniless to British Guyana, came back a very wealthy man and contributed to the formation of this political dynasty, which incorporated his name into their children in recognition – it seems to me to be an illuminating story and a potent example."
What kind of system design thinking necessitates the dehumanization of human beings on the basis of phenotype? The very character of this paradigm required, in the minds of the system’s designers, the dehumanizing & subsequent enslavement of not only black Africans to misappropriate their labour – it was also deemed necessary to do the same to the indigenous inhabitants of many parts of the Western world in order to misappropriate their land. Through these means the aggregation of enormous amounts of capital was enabled for those not subject to such social, economic and political exclusion.
Strangely enough, a great deal of this was justified and legitimised through the misuse of science and religion. In that respect, how are science and religion to be differentiated if they can both be used to confirm the biases and prejudices of people? How can the purportedly unassailable objectivity of science be ensured if it is still reliant upon (and affected by) human perception, judgement, opinion and intention – just like religion? If human beings can be made non-human through sophistry using scientific means, what good is it as an ultimate benchmark?
I’d like to revisit a point I’d made in a previous article:
Economics is a continuation of energy by different means.
Classical physics defines energy as the ability to do work. Money represents the ability to do work. Fossil fuels furnish the ability to do work — quite a great deal of it — and, for the moment, relatively cheaply when one accounts for the finite nature of its supply in relation to what it facilitates.
Before the advent of fossil fuel (and modern finance), the ability to do work was represented by the possession of human chattel, or slaves. History, in its politics, economics, and social development, can be condensed into the unfolding of how work is accomplished in providing our human needs and subsequently how wealth is generated.
In short, the success of any and every system is dependent upon the nature of the supply of energy it requires in order to exist. From a theoretical standpoint, this is where Permaculture excels in expressing the criteria upon which proposed systems of design ought to be judged, avoiding the pitfalls of what we’ve seen throughout history — formally with slavery and currently with industrialization (although, the unfortunate reality is that slavery still exists today).
Taken from Chapter 2 of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (“Concepts and Themes in Design”), there are three practical design considerations that make our choices unquestionably clear:
- The systems we construct should last as long as possible, and take least maintenance.
- These systems, fuelled by the sun, should produce not only their own needs, but the needs of the people creating or controlling them. Thus, they are sustainable, as they sustain both themselves and those who construct them.
- We can use energy to construct these systems, providing that in their lifetime, they store or conserve more energy than we use to construct them or to maintain them.
In section 14.13 of the Manual’s last chapter, “The Strategies of an Alternative Global Nation”, Bill covers the features of what would comprise “An Ethical Investment Movement”. He highlights indicators for systems that fail to care for people, an essential element defining Permaculture Ethics:
- Production of dangerous foods or medicines
- Have unsafe or polluted workplace; this includes noise pollution
- Deal in addictive substances or provide addictive services (alcohol, tobacco, gambling)
- Do not permit organized labour; do not deal with employees on a fair basis, nor pay fair wages
- Exploit people directly via slavery, bonded labour, excessive profit margins, by forms of prostitution, racial and sexual discrimination, or harassment
- Support or cooperate with regimes using torture or imprisonment without charge, dictatorships, corrupt regimes restricting voting, disenfranchising people by gerrymander, or by allowing votes only to certain groups.
Environmental filmmaker, John D. Liu, expands on these points in an article he wrote last year “Functional Ecosystems as the Engine of the Green Economy”:
Studying the Earth’s ecosystems is fascinating and can show us the way to sustainability if we are willing to act on the evidence before our eyes. When we consciously observe nature – the tides, atmosphere, movement of clouds, river systems, microbial communities, living soils, plants and animals – evolutionary logic is revealed. Nature is always adapting to changing conditions and seeking equilibrium. Everything has a purpose, nothing is lost, nothing is wasted, and nothing is extraneous. We know that the Earth’s naturally functioning ecosystems are the basis of life on Earth, providing air, water, soil fertility, raw materials and energy. It is also clear that the global economy does not recognise that the production and consumption of all goods and services depends entirely on the on-going functionality of these ecosystems, and, as a result, fails to value it correctly. This is not surprising for a system that was founded on feudal privilege, military force, colonisation and slavery. While our stock market screens and bank accounts claim we have generated wealth, in reality, we have enriched a small minority of people while impoverishing a much larger majority of people on Earth, and destroyed ecological function over huge portions of the planet.
Humanity is exhibiting the behaviour of what in a natural system would be described as a parasite – we are consuming our host. When a host dies the parasite dies as well. This characterisation, while accurate given our current behaviour, seems dark. An alternative would be to seek what is humanity’s unique evolutionary niche and contribution to maintaining ecosystem function. This seems to be consciousness. We have developed the ability to think abstractly, to envision our own death, to consider time relatively and to communicate complex thoughts from generation to generation. So, if we are to be conscious beings rather than parasites, we need to consciously design a fair, sustainable economy and society. Acknowledging that functional ecosystems are the basis of all life and therefore basis of all wealth is the first step down a long path. Leaving the path of violence and inequality that we are on is fraught with difficulty, but is there really any other choice? Making functional ecosystems the engine of a new economics, positions all people’s efforts to benefit themselves, their families, human society and the Earth. The path that values ecosystem function as the basis of life and wealth is the one that leads to sustainability, less conflict, and ultimately, survival for the human race. — Functional Ecosystems as the Engine of the Green Economy
This piece could be taken as an indictment of a system that has been founded upon a distortion of nature and the human being — a system that has made both the oppressed and oppressor into something much less than they should be. Both are in need of help and healing. But it is also an exhortation to do better than we have up to this point. We can and we must.
There’s a lot of work to do.