THE REAL WEALTH OF NATIONS: Creating a Caring Economics

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THE REAL WEALTH OF NATIONS: Creating a Caring Economics Riane Eisler 250 pages (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007)

Reviewed by Mai Warwick

According to a seemingly trustworthy person whose name I've long since forgotten, the amount of new human knowledge that we generate in one year is equal to the sum total of all knowledge generated throughout time. Whether or not you believe the assertion would depend, I suppose, on what you call "knowledge."

These days, humanity produces incalculably large amounts of data. But, as the information technologists have taught us, data is not information. And information - whatever that really is - can rarely be equated with knowledge.

In a world of splintering specialties, where a physician may focus entirely on the pituitary gland, and anthropologists are labeled cultural, physical, social, industrial, or paleo, we have largely lost sight of knowledge, and its ultimate expression: wisdom.

I won't presume to define knowledge and wisdom. But, like the Supreme Court justice who can't define pornography, I know wisdom when I see it. I found it in abundance in the latest book by interdisciplinary scholar Riane Eisler.

The Real Wealth of Nations tackles the dismal science of economics and proves conclusively that it deserves that description. Eisler wresdes conventional "wisdom" to the ground, challenging the assumptions that have supported the practice of business and economic policy for the last two centuries, since Adam Smith's original Wealth of Nations. In contrast, | Eisler prescribes a "caring economics" that assumes the obvious: people really matter. As she argues, "the real wealth of nations consists of the contributions of people and our natural environment."

If you learned economics as I did, you may dimly recall talk of capital, which was paramount, and the widgets that lots of capital permits us to produce. We were assumed to be excited about the prospect of turning out lots of widgets. After all, making lots of widgets is the only way to make big profits, which in turn allows us to accumulate lots more capital, and later, produce more widgets. It was never clear to me where people fit into this scheme, except as 'labor," which is little more than a commodity like iron, coal, or oil.

Eisler's "caring economics" draws upon two themes that are emerging among the critics of contemporary economic theory and practice. On one hand, her approach owes a great deal to advocates of full-cost pricing - among them environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken and European business leader Stephan Schmidheiny - who recognize that natural capital is fundamental to our economic well-being and that the destruction of the environment imposes great costs on society. Like these visionaries, Eisler wants to factor such value and costs into a rational economic theory.

On the other hand, Eisler pulls from other feminist thinkers who have long argued that caregiving - or, as it is traditionally mislabeled, "women's work" - is the foundation upon which all economic activity rests. …