The meaning of money

I will be teaching a graduate level course in “Ecological Economics” this semester, a field of interdisciplinary economics that is usually classified under “heterodox” economics or, as the French like to call it, “post-autistic” economics. The fundamental principle of ecological economics is that our economy is dictated by physical limits (such as the second law of thermodynamics) and does not adhere to the assumption that different forms of capital are substitutable… there is an insufficient amount of human labor that can substitute for the work done by pollinators like bees, for example.

Along those lines, I’ve been thinking about what money means to us, specifically how the pictures we put on our currency might shape the way we think about what is valuable.

In the United States, our paper currency and coins all have the head of (most often) a President, Founding Father or Treasury Secretary on one side (we do have dollar coins with Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea on them), and on the other side generally either a pyramid and Eye of Providence and/or an eagle clutching olive branches in one talon and arrows in the other. With these designs I believe we are emphasizing the value of our past, of our country’s “social capital” as a democracy. But aside from the bald eagle (our national bird), our currency doesn’t recognize our natural capital. Does that lead us to devalue it?

What about other countries? Brazil’s currency features memorable rainforest animals on one side… Brazil is a country famous for its Amazon rainforest and the natural capital it represents. Likewise, many of Australia’s coins feature species such as the kangaroo and platypus that are endemic to the country and hold great cultural value. Granted these two countries have dramatically altered their land use and resources – Brazil still suffers from a positive deforestation rate – so a symbolic link between natural and financial capital may be a good first step but not sufficient to promote more sustainable resource use.

One of the most significant conclusions from the ecological (and heterodox) economics field is the realization that selling capital and calling it profit is not good economics. Just as you wouldn’t take $100 from your bank account and say that you made $100 in profit that day, it is unsound economic policy to sell our forests, fish, or other natural capital and call that profit… it is simply the exchange of one kind of capital (natural) for another (financial). I wonder if putting pictures on our money of our natural capital would allow us to make the distinction between capital and profit more clearly.


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