Money – the Root of our Problems?

Have you heard the story of the couple who set out in their fancy car, their destination, Joytown? They left home without asking for advice about their route, and without a map. They drove for miles, at each junction choosing the road with the smoothest surface so as to protect their precious vehicle. When night began to fall, it became clear that they were lost.

By Jon Rawlinson – The Long Road Ahead, CC BY 2.0,

They decided to ask for directions of an old fellow who was walking towards them along the side of the road, carrying a bale of hay on his shoulder.

‘Hello, there,’ the woman shouted through the car window.

With a wide smile, the old guy dropped his hay onto the ground and clumped to the car window. In a broad country accent he said, ‘Evenin’. You need some help?’

The woman pulled away to avoid the strong smell of manure that rose from the old man’s clothing and said, ‘Yes. We’re trying to get to Joytown; can you direct us?’

The old fellow straightened up and rubbed his hand over his stubble in thought. Finally, he looked the woman and said, ‘Well lady, if I was agoin’ to Joytown, I wouldn’t start from here.’

But here is where we must start. With symptoms of our journey, like war, disease inequality and poverty, caused by us all choosing the smoothest road or at least travelling with no concept of where our route leads.

How on earth did we get to this point, where the world is being destroyed and there is huge inequality between the planet’s richest and poorest peoples? My first reflection was that money is to blame. But, money can be used for good as well as bad. It is a useful way of conducting business, collecting for charity, providing for the weak and protecting our planet.

Thousands of years ago, people would barter, a straight swap: Jack offers a service or item Jill needs in return for an item or service she has that he requires. But not everyone’s items or services matched. Individuals would have to seek a person to fit their needs. And so, the idea of an IOU came into being. This was often a token, the equivalent to the value of something like a handful of grain. The grain did exist, and the tokens were issued by the owner of the grain and could at any time be used in exchange for the face value (a handful of grain) or swapped for some other item with a tradesman, who then held the right to that quantity of grain.

This all sounds fine – fair. I expect there was dishonesty, forgeries, tokens offered for mouldy grain and so on, but everything was probably local and an individual suddenly able to purchase an unusual number of goods and services or the dishonest owner of a barn of grain, would be conspicuous.

In time, tokens became formalised into metal objects. Gold and silver have been the most common forms of money throughout history. In many languages, such as Spanish, French, Hebrew and Italian, the word for silver is still related to the word for money.

Here we come to the beginning of world currency markets. In some countries, metals other than gold, such as silver, were considered more valuable. The exchange rates between the metals varied with supply and demand. For instance, the gold guinea coin began to rise against the silver crown in England in the 1670s and 1680s. Silver was exported from England in exchange for gold imports. And in Asia, traders did not share the European appreciation of gold at all.

Some time prior to this, governments began to assess tax dues. Things called tally sticks were used for this. A split stick marked with notches. Each party in the deal held half. Irregularities in the wood meant that the two pieces of stick could not be forged and could be matched together (a unique reference like your bank account number, today). These tally sticks were used by the crown as a statement of tax owing. Then the Treasury discovered that they could also be used to create money. When the Crown was in need, it could use the tally receipts representing its future tax income, as a form of payment to its own creditors, who in turn could either collect the tax revenue directly from those assessed or use the same tally to pay their own taxes to the government. The tallies could also be sold to other parties in exchange for gold or silver coin at a discount reflecting the length of time remaining until the tax was due for payment. Thus, the tallies became an accepted medium of exchange for some types of transaction.

Now we reach (in my opinion) the beginning of the invisible greed: The Treasury soon realised it could issue tallies that were not backed by any specific assessment of taxes. By doing so, it created new money that was backed by public trust and confidence in the monarchy rather than by specific revenue receipts. In other words, money became theoretical.

Nowadays, exchange rates, banks, coinage and notes are pretty much normalised throughout the world. In the West, success is measured in terms of financial wealth, governments are driven by the creation of wealth, businesses have become craven to greedy shareholders and over history, peoples have been exploited and their lands ravaged in the search for irreplaceable resources below the ground and above it. Greed for these natural resources has led to wars – the battle for territory. Fear of change and these borders we have constructed, for financial efficiency, between countries, counties, districts, have led to discrimination.

This is an over-simplification, and only my opinion of why we are where we now find ourselves.

Despite our financial success (we in the West, are vastly the wealthiest in the world), we are not happy. In her book, Ancient Futures, the author Helena Norberg-Hodge wrote, among other things, of her observations in Ladakh, a region of the Himalayas. She reported a, ‘Remarkably joyous and vibrant people who lived in exquisite harmony with their harsh environment.’ She tells that their society was awash with mutual respect, gratitude, kindness and love of life. The people were spiritually aware and conserved their environment, and nowhere was there abuse of power, discrimination or violence. Certainly, clinical depression was not heard of.

Ladakhi man

In 1981 the newly appointed Development Commissioner for the region allegedly said (paraphrased), ‘If Ladakh is ever going to be developed, we have to figure out how to make these people greedier.’ With his eventual success came a decline in the happiness of the people. Yes, they had more posessions and probably better health, but they also experienced a rise in depression, family breakdown, crime, land degradation, unemployment, pollution and a widening of the gap between rich and poor.

To return to the story at the beginning, we so called civilised societies are, like the couple in the car, lost, and Joytown (pre 1980s Ladakh) is the place to which we must try to return. Not ideal from the point of view of the simple old man with his bale of hay but nevertheless possible.

I have representation in my head of our financial and social systems as a huge, crocheted net wrapped around the globe. It comprises a myriad of connections, each of which is dependent on the other, and although it seems to give us security, keeping us warm and safe, it also confines us, preventing us from seeing the truth, that we are poisoning our world and harming ourselves and others. The idea of severing one thread is terrifying as it would quickly lead to the unravelling of the whole blanket.

A huge, crocheted net wrapped around the globe

But wool is made of fibres and with wear or encouragement, fibres fall to earth. Each small fiber removed from the blanket is an infinitesimal unit of hope. The more fibres that fall away, the thinner the blanket becomes and the clearer the universe beyond. In turn, the fallen strands can be formed into a finer blanket, one with the aim of adding true value to mankind and our beautiful world.

To quote Josei Toda, second President of the Humanist Buddhist peace organisation, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which has a steadily expanding twelve million members world-wide, ‘To put an end to war, it is not enough to simply transform our social or political systems. The root lies in human beings, who themselves must change. People need to become strong and wise. People around the world must connect and join together heart to heart.’ For the purposes of this article, and wishing no disrespect, I would add, ‘and greed’ after the word, ‘war’.

All of us have the capacity for good, and those who already choose it, those who work for the benefit of mankind and the earth, are escaped threads of the net. Anyone can change their mindset, all it requires is to visualise a world where we all add value. It is not necessary to strategise, or to reject the idea as impossible. Do not think of reasons not to change, think of ways to make change happen. Invest your money in companies that add value to others, buy less meat, plant fruit and vegetables, look after your friends and neighbours, volunteer in your community, give your time and heart to others.

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there…

Many thanks to Wikipedia and SGI Quarterly for material used in this article.


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