Towards an economics of non-violence

The continuously evolving Occupy Movement, if nothing else, has stirred up great debate about the nature of capitalism and the failings of the current global economic system. While labeled as an ‘anti-capitalist’ protest by the mass media, the true identity of the movement is far more subtle and multi-faceted.

Anti-capitalist or not, there has been remarkable consensus on the disastrous impacts that the current economic system has wrought – across nations, generations, social classes, religions, people from all walks of life are beginning to speak out against the appalling concentration of wealth, the corruption of the democratic process, and the inherently violent nature of free market fundamentalism.

The roots of non-violence

As I and many others have already argued, the Occupy Movement is not about creating a list of demands for someone else to carry out. The systemic failings are many and creative, collective responses are what is needed more than anything else. However, there seems to be at least one fundamental ideal which has the potential to unite all the diverse occupations around the globe: non-violence.

Non-violence (ahimsa), in this sense, is more than the mere absence of violence and more than a tactic for social change. As understood by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Thich Nhat Hanh and others, non-violence is a moral imperative, a way of being, a way of understanding and relating to the world. It is not simply a means towards some desired outcome; it is a principle to be expressed in everything one does, an end in itself.

J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhi’s lesser known but highly-influential economist, developed the idea of a economic and social order based fundamentally on non-violence in the 1930s and ’40s. Seeking a middle way between the violence of market-dominated capitalism and state-dominated communism, Kumarappa spent his career weaving a vast and interconnected web of small village economies across India, based on the decentralized and localized production of crafts and agricultural products. The separation of the worker from his land and from the creative impulse, as well as the endless accumulation of capital, exploitation of non-renewable resources, and undemocratic system of taxation practiced by the British Empire, represented fundamental forms of violence to Gandhi and Kumarappa.

Response to a violent system

While the current global financial crises are far more complex and pervasive than the economic problems of colonial India, Kumarappa’s economic and moral philosophy offers profound insights – and extremely relevant suggestions – for addressing our current problems. The true significance of the global Occupy Movement lies not in a list of demands or proposed solutions, but in the very reorganization of human relationships based upon an egalitarian – and essentially non-violent – form of consensus democracy. And while the organizing principles of co-creation, self-organization and consensus-based decision-making have been clearly articulated and put into practice in General Assemblies across the globe, the underlying principle of non-violence (ahimsa) has been less thoroughly developed.

To be sure, the Occupy Movement is a peaceful one which encourages non-violence “to maximize the safety of all participants.” But the use of non-violence as a tactic is significantly different from non-violence as a deeply-held worldview. We have all seen the immense power of non-violence in the face of violent and repressive police action – in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in the anti-war protests of the 1970s, in the Arab Spring of 2010-11, and more recently in the Occupy demonstrations in New York, Oakland, and Atlanta. But ‘tactical’ non-violence seeks a revolution through various means, while true non-violence is a revolution in and of itself.

In response to a fundamentally violent economic, political, and social system which objectifies people and the natural world, which commodifies human relationships and labor, which endlessly exploits the earth for unjust and unequal private gain, the most radical rejection of this system is a vow of true non-violence. Implicit in the practice of this form of non-violence is a demand for rights along with a recognition of responsibility. If we, the 99%, are to demand change, we must actively practice that change – which is precisely what Occupy camps are doing. However, if ahimsa does not underlie this practice, true and lasting change within ourselves, within our societies, and across our globe may not be possible.

Particularly in places like London, where the camp is facing possible eviction measures by St. Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London Corporation, a commitment to non-violence as a core principle will ensure that, whatever the actions of the authorities, we remain steadfast in our way of living.

If indeed we do seek a non-violent and non-exploitative economic system, we cannot seek it in a violent way. This division of means and ends is a hallmark of the old, violent paradigm of Pure Rationalism and Objectivism. Practically speaking, a truly non-violent economic system founded on participatory and non-hierarchical democracy, cooperation and mutual aid, respect for all life and deep connection with the earth, non-extractive and zero-waste resource use, and more sustainable levels of consumption is the best way towards a just and sustainable future.


Occupy LSX: Thoughts from the ground

This past weekend, I had an opportunity to participate in some direct democracy in action as part of the Occupy London movement. As a student in the newly-created MA in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College, the opportunity to contribute to – not simply study – the co-creation of new forms of social, political, and economic organization was fantastically empowering.

Now entering its second week, Occupy LSX – just one of over 950 related Occupy movements across the globe – is continuing to grow and thrive based on a non-hierarchical, consensus-based model of organization. Everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, socio-economic status, religion, nationality, etc, is encouraged to participate in the decision-making processes which affect the camp. With several hundred ‘permanent’ campers (now at two sites!) and up to several thousand visitors, sympathizers and tourists interacting on a daily basis, this is quite a dynamic, evolving, sometimes lengthy, but collectively empowering process.

Roughly 200 tents occupying the square in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London

And as several representatives of Occupy LSX beautifully expressed in the Guardian, this participatory democratic process is exactly what the movement is about. It’s not about merely producing talking points for the media to regurgitate or politicians to ignore, it’s about collectively creating an alternative way forward. It’s not solely thinking and talking about change, its about living that change.

To be sure, there is quite a lot of fruitful thinking and talking taking place at St. Paul’s as well. The Tent City University hosts a varied array of lectures and discussions on a daily basis – I participated in talks on political philosophy and practical reforms of the financial system on Sunday – and completely self-organizing working groups are exploring everything from the health and safety of the camp to recycling and waste collection to climate change to land reform.

The newly occupied Finsbury Square in London

But this is a movement built from the ground up by people taking action. As an example of how easy it is to contribute, I showed up on Saturday afternoon just after the second occupation site had been established at Finsbury Square, about a mile away from St. Paul’s. By Sunday afternoon, I had physically helped build a giant public kitchen and construct a yurt for a second Tent City University at Finsbury Square, joined a newly formed working group now called ‘Energy, Equity, and the Environment’, and helped write an environmental statement that will soon be added to the official Occupy LSX Statement.

In true democratic form, all voices are respected and given space. At the general assembly on Sunday, two members of the St. Paul’s congregation expressed anger and sadness at the Cathedral’s closure. Indeed, there has been an unfortunate lack of communication between the camp and the Cathedral in recent days, but the Cathedral’s decision to close their doors is simply not a response to health and safety concerns posed by the camp. City officials themselves have confirmed that the camp poses no direct fire threat and all entrances to the Cathedral have been kept clear.

Expressing solidarity with the movement, a retired reverend from St. Paul’s came forward on Sunday to criticize the Cathedral’s decision to close. Speaking to the general assembly, he said, “I had no difficulty whatsoever in getting to the door [of the Cathedral on Sunday]. The only difficulty I had was getting into the Church because the doors were locked.”

While these global actions may have coalesced around corporate greed, unacceptable levels of inequality and a destructive financial system, ultimately this is a revolution in how we choose to relate to one another. The communities growing up in St. Paul’s, Zuccotti Park and elsewhere are demonstrating how we can organize our relationships around something more meaningful than monetary transactions, that we can choose to base our relationships on cooperation instead of competition, generosity instead of greed, creation instead of consumption.

While it may not appear to be causing any change at the highest levels just yet, this is definitely a threat to the status quo as more and more people begin to see themselves as co-producers of their world, not just passive consumers of it. It is a non-violent and egalitarian response to a fundamentally unjust and violent system. Whether it changes the entire economic system or not, there is no doubt that it is changing people on a daily basis. And it is just one part of a much larger process of change.

These are my thoughts from the ground in London. Have you participated in other Occupy actions? Have thoughts on the movement as a whole? If so, please share them below!

The case for a Land Ethic

This post was first published at on Mar 08, 2011.

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.”
—Aldo Leopold
Over the past couple months, I have been thinking quite a bit about how our society relates to nature. From covering the PASA sustainable agriculture conference to discussing the tension between conservation and economic development in southwest Pennsylvania, this theme has been as much a response to current events as to timeless moral questions.
The question that everyone seems to be asking these days is whether it’s acceptable to sacrifice the future for the good of the present. It’s the argument that Republicans have been using to justify budget cuts, contending that mounting debt threatens our security and stability in the future. And of course this has been the argument environmentalists have been using for decades to demonstrate that short-term economic gains at the expense of environmental health is not sustainable. What we are really dealing with, though, is not purely economic or environmental — it is a matter of ethics.
Aldo Leopold wrote compellingly of the need for a land ethic over 60 years ago. He believed that ethics have developed in an evolutionary process, governing first the relationship between individuals, then between the individual and society, and finally between society and nature. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Our ethics evidently have not yet evolved. Not when increasingly risky and destructive methods of mining the earth — mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sand mining, deep sea oil drilling, and now hydraulic fracturing — are the basis of economic growth. In one of the first articles on their recently launched website covering the Marcellus Shale, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked of natural gas drilling, “A boom without a bust?” Even from a purely economic standpoint, the answer seems clear. If we consider the environmental and ethical dimensions of thus degrading the land, the answer is certain.
As I recently paraphrased Wes Jackson, drilling in deep shale is a sign not of technological advance, but of economic desperation. Recent stories by the New York Times on previously unknown environmental risks associated with drilling wastewater seem to confirm this.
We are too bent on defending a status quo that is no longer plausible given economic and environmental realities. But more than just our economic models and environmental regulations, it is our ethics that are outdated. How we choose to relate to the land will certainly have far-reaching consequences for ourselves and future generations.
Perhaps it is not too late, though, for our current economic and environmental problems offer an unprecedented opportunity for change. Evolution, after all, is the process of adapting to changing circumstances in order to survive and flourish. These global crises demand a new way of relating to the earth. Only through the lens of a land ethic can we have an honest discussion of the true value of life and the true cost of our current way of living.

The ecology of Occupy Wall Street

This morning I decided to read a newspaper, something I rarely do these days. Here’s why: a two-page spread in The Guardian contained articles on a new oil spill off the coast of New Zealand, widespread protests in Bolivia against exploitation of indigenous land, a scientific conference confirming the existence of the Yeti, and a meteorite crashing through someone’s roof in France. The other half of the spread was advertisements.

The world is changing rapidly around us – environmental degradation, social dislocation, and financial collapse are no longer taking place in distant lands or in a distant future. They are affecting our lives on a daily basis, whether we live in Bolivia, New Zealand, Siberia, or Paris.

In this incredibly unique stage of global transition, we have a choice as individuals, communities, and societies: sit quietly by as an impartial world changes around us or empower each other to stand up against an immoral system. Increasingly, people – the 99% – are taking that stand.


The people of Bolivia and New York City are part of the same movement, whether they realize it or not. So are the thousands who have protested against piping tar sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands which if magically burned overnight would shoot the CO² concentration in our atmosphere instantly from  391 ppm to well over 500 ppm. According to Bill McKibben (who visited Schumacher College last week), James Hansen, and pretty much every other scientist to consider this, the burning of this source of carbon will fundamentally and irreversibly change our planet. If that happens, it may not matter who are the rich and who the poor – we will all share the same fate.

And herein lies the strength of this burgeoning movement – it can no longer be narrowly defined as the “environmental movement” or the “social justice” movement. It crosses all causes, all classes, all countries. Without equality, we live in an unjust and unhappy world. But without a stable, resilient, healthy planet, who knows how we live at all.

Speakers at the Schumacher Centenary included environmental lawyer Polly Higgins, post-growth economist Tim Jackson, Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins, and educator and activist Satish Kumar.

It is no longer just “activists” voicing these concerns, but  people from all walks of life. Last weekend I attended a conference to celebrate, explore, and further the ideas of E.F. Schumacher, the pioneer of holistic economics. The speakers included not just environmental organizers and green economists inspired by Schumacher’s ideas but also a lawyer, a banker, and a politician. Things are beginning to change, indeed.

Occupy Wall Street, now rapidly spreading across the US and elsewhere (there are demonstrations planned for London this weekend), is a collective expression of outrage. It is about reclaiming some agency in the effort to move beyond a crumbling and corrupt system. It may not have a unified voice or demand, but right now its diversity and passion are its strengths.

Whether non-violently occupying downtown Manhattan, marching 50 days across Bolivia to La Paz, or holding a bicycle rally in one of 2000 cities across the world, this is about exploring the space of possibility. We need the courage to name what is wrong, envision a positive alternative…and ultimately to embrace a profoundly unknown future with compassion and community.

All of these popular movements, from Tunisia to London to Wall Street, are part of the same process of creative destruction, of reclaiming our right and our responsibility to create a world where everyone, human and non-human, has the opportunity to flourish.

We have a choice. And a responsibility – to ourselves, our fellow beings on this planet, our children and their children. No one has the One Solution to fix it all. The collective genius is beginning to activate though, in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. As the late great Wangari Maathai once said, “Only those who risk going too far can know how far they can go.”