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The New Economics: Elemental Economics

The matrix of ideas and attitudes about economics is perhaps a bit like soil. Various soils are more or less fertile, and soil can also be degraded through overuse—or contaminated, as we see with modern-day industrial farming. In the same way, our economic thought systems have great potential for understanding, but are clouded by culture, history, and by basic human confusion. 

In particular, modern economics falls into the abyss of pseudoscience when it obsesses on mathematical analysis of buying and selling behavior, all based on simplistic assumptions about human motivations, and seen through the lens of assigned values represented by price. Whether or not economics is—or should be—a genuine science is a topic for another article, but it is interesting to consider a framework that does not exclude science, yet is transcultural, and leans toward the qualitative. I’m talking about the classical elements.

This exploration began when I was preparing to lead a discussion on genuine economic security. I started with the rather commonplace insight that having enough money isn’t actually what gives us economic security. To live, we need air to breathe and a source of water and food. We need to be warm enough and cool enough to be healthy. And we need a place to live our lives. All these things relate to the four traditional elements of air, water, earth, and fire. Note that these elements correspond directly to the three phases of matter in modern physical science: the gaseous, liquid, and solid phase; fire, of course, corresponds to energy.

The elemental theories of traditional cultures (including Western cultures like the Greeks and Babylonians, as well as Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese systems) form the roots of science, but they surpass it in the sense that they transcend the divide between mundane and spiritual ways of looking at the world.

Traditional systems of Eastern philosophy add several other elements in various combinations, which again have clear correspondences (but not equivalence) to physical science. For example, the Chinese system consists of five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Now, it is important to see that all these systems have their own philosophical underpinnings. 

In the Chinese system, for example, elements are seen as “changing states of being,” which all stand in direct relation to each other. They are said to exist in a sequence of transmutation or transformation that is beyond my expertise to discuss. Perhaps some of our local practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine will join in and deepen this conversation. Hindu and Buddhist systems talk about the element of space, and of consciousness. Since this is a rather free-wheeling discussion about how the traditional elements could relate to economics, I think it is relevant to include them all (earth, water, air, fire, wood, metal, space, and consciousness), while keeping in mind and respecting that all the traditional systems that we’re referencing have their own integrity and ultimate view of things. It is quite easy to see how these elements provide a comprehensive way of looking at the economy.

Including consciousness (and we could also call this mind or spirit) to the list of elements seems to be particularly important. For one thing, we can see a direct route to economic sanity and wellbeing in mental qualities such as generosity, ethics, tolerance, diligence, appropriate focus, and wisdom. Perhaps even more fundamentally, by realizing that the mind is a fundamental constituent of the natural world, we will cease to externalize that world. We will develop an appropriate level of responsibility and respect for it. All this leads toward productive means of livelihood, rather than extractive and destructive means.

Including the element of mind allows us to come to grips with the conceptual systems and deeper attitudes that economics—and society generally—throws at us, but also forces us to look directly at our own minds. For example, materialism is not just something that our culture inculcates and reinforces in us (though it certainly does that). Materialism is at one level a response to basic human needs and priorities, but it is a response that our own basic confusion turns into obsession and entrapment. The way past materialism may in part be based on recognizing how society (literally) sells it to us, but to complete the picture we need to see what eager buyers we are! 

This beginning exploration of the elements in relation to economics is just a toehold—or a stub, as they say on Wikipedia, but I hope it gets you thinking about your world, your livelihood, and the future we are creating together.