In Hawai‘i they say “‘O ka ha o ka ‘āina ke ola o ka po‘e”—the breath of the land is the life of the people.
Growing up on O‘ahu, I spent years collecting stories and perspectives in diverse Pacific tongues. Over potluck lunches I listened to Filipino and Samoan elders eschewing the labels of “poor” and “needy” despite statistics that claimed otherwise. Harvesting ‘olena as the Haupe‘epe‘e wind swirled down from Kilohana, I learned about a wealth that reflects and amplifies the richness of people, relationships, our shared land and our future generations. I began to see the opportunity that exists in shifting our focus from isolation to connection, from poverty to waiwai.
The Hawaiian word for wealth, waiwai, literally means “water water.” Cultivating a mindset of abundance, this wealth was never stagnant but instead flowed across communities through complex modes of reciprocity. This notion of waiwai underscores the interconnection between man and environment that is central to Hawaiian culture. Indeed, the word ‘āina, translated as “land,” encompasses not only the earth and the sea, but the concept of a people linked inextricably to their place.
Just as the earth is the source of that which sustains our bodies, community nourishes our spirits and indeed prolongs life. Disconnected from the two, we experience the degradation of our oceans and forests, the rise of preventable diseases, and increasing conflict and displacement.
Yet our gaps and resources seem well aligned: people’s basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, education and health require much labour, while unemployment has left many people idle—with great time, skill, strength and desire to produce and contribute. What is it that is stopping these two from coming together?
Rooted in a narrative of scarcity, our modern economic system reinforces a definition of wealth that posits humanity as separate from our environment and isolated in time. Undervaluing both natural and relational forms of capital, our driving indicator of success, GDP, “measur[es] everything… except that which makes life worthwhile” (Robert Kennedy, 1985). Future generations bear the cost of firms’ externalities, while our systems of leverage drive an insatiable need to convert natural and human resources into money.
Universally translatable, money has enabled a system of global exchange unparalleled in its ability to coordinate human activity and connect people across vast, if anonymous, supply chains. Within capitalist economies, money has spurred innovation and creativity, flowing toward efficient solutions for myriad problems.
At the same time, however, modern money has enabled the decoupling of value-production from the things we need to live. With the growth of what Geoff Mulgan (2013) calls “representational value,” we see GDP comprised largely of money made from money, and decreased investment in the goods and services needed to ensure a basic standard of living for the world’s population.
Unlike earlier forms of money that were meaningless if not shared, today’s money does not decay. Instead it is accumulated in increasingly narrow and deep pockets of society.
Automating and depersonalizing our decision making around resource allocation, our monetary system has, ironically, diminished access to that which it makes easy to exchange. The more of our natural, social and cultural resources that are brought into the realm of the monetized and the more we can access through money, the less we can access without it.
What, then, can we do when wealth stops flowing? The answer at Ho‘oulu ‘Āina, where I learned so much, was to turn our hands to the soil—e ho‘ohuli ka lima i lalo. “We come together to plant, healing land, water, and people in our togetherness.” I believe this answer to be no less relevant here in Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud.
Embracing a narrative of abundance, we can align our livelihoods with our physical and psychological nourishment, and our work with our membership in community. Through social enterprise and the nurturing of local economies we can embed the production of value—redefined beyond money—into the creation of goods and services, revitalizing our environmental, social and cultural capital. Through impact investing, returns on investment can take the form of amplified richness—the preservation of rainforests or ancestral languages; the percentage of families with adequate food, shelter and education; the percentage of communities serving as stewards of their land; the sense of hope among children who see their own worth. Aiming not for exponential growth but instead for replenishment, we can build a future in which we all can have enough.
At the intersection of ancestral wisdom and modern methodologies we have a plethora of choice. We can turn to the earth as source, as kin, in a relearning of indigenous values. Alternatively we can take up Eckart Wintzen’s argument and apply the best of business practice to our management of the earth, embracing our role as shareholders. Committing ourselves to ensuring our planet’s continuation, we would live off its interest, rather than squandering its capital. Through either lens, in either language, the conclusion is the same: we must shift our economic systems toward collective stewardship.
Eisenstein, C 2011. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition. Available from: <http://sacred-economics.com/read-online/>. [10 September 2015.]
House, J.S., Landis, K.R., Umberson, D., 1988, ‘Social relationships and health,’ Science, vol. 241, pp. 540-544. HoltLunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB, 2010, ‘Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review’, PLoS Medicine, vol. 7.
Mulgan, G 2013, The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Wintzen, E 1994, “Re-engineering the Planet: Three Steps to a Sustainable Free Market Economy.” Available from: <http://www.ex-tax.com/knowledge-centre/taxes/wintzen-re-engineering-planet-three-stepssustainable-free-m>. [26 Jan. 2015.]