Book Review: Charles Eisenstein’s “Sacred Economics”

by Miles Raymer


Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics is a radical book penned with a lot of passion and the best of intentions. This treatise on alternative economics serves up some very worthy ideas that are compromised by a handful of the author’s less rigorous tendencies and intellectually insupportable positions. As a whole, the book had a decidedly divisive effect on my psyche.

Even for someone reticent to call anything “sacred,” there is a lot to love about Sacred Economics. Eisenstein is one of many early 21st-century thinkers trying to respond to the negative effects of climate change and globalization, and at many points throughout the book he is spot on with his critiques and possible solutions. He rightly argues that we need a new kind of materialism, one more reflective of our embeddedness in and dependence on Earth’s ecosystems. Attempting to show how the modern world has failed to meet certain human needs even as it has blown others way out of proportion, Eisenstein laments the widespread monetization of human goods and relationships, convincingly linking this phenomenon to the myth of infinite economic growth. He envisions a new future of revitalized gift culture, one that emphasizes degrowth, corporate internalization of environmental costs, peer-to-peer distribution networks, legal protection for “the commons,” and a resurgence of communities that can provide a plurality of meaningful ways for people to spend their precious time on Earth.

In an economy that deserves to be called “sacred,” work will no longer be an injury to one’s time or life; it will no longer be a matter of pain and suffering. A sacred economy recognizes that human beings desire to work: they desire to apply their life energy toward the expression of their gifts. (402)

A key component of this vision is decaying currency, an economic concept I am not capable of critiquing properly. Eisenstein claims that usury (interest) is a foundational problem in our financial system because it ensures that those with the most money will always have the most earning potential and that those who need loans will be condemned to forever pay back more than they borrow.

Is it possible to treat money as a commons in the same way as the land or the atmosphere? Is it possible to reverse the mechanism of interest, which, like the expropriation of the commons, allows those who own it to profit by its mere ownership? (201)

In an interest-based economy, people are rewarded for hoarding; with the advent of decaying currency, the emphasis will be on giving. A currency that loses value when not in circulation, Eisenstein argues, would stimulate flow of capital and put more money, goods and services into the hands of the most needy. He also champions the rise of variegated local and regional currencies that might eventually replace international ones. These currencies could be backed by natural resources rather than trust in governmental bodies, thus encouraging societies to enrich their ecosystems, which would lead to greater wealth for all. These propositions seem promising in a lot of ways, but I’d want to hear a rebuttal from an educated dissenter before jumping on board.

While Eisenstein excels at the art of sincere and heartfelt cultural critique, he also lacks restraint and intellectual rigor; the unfortunate result is that many of his best ideas become needlessly mixed up in redundant rants and occasional descents into pseudoscientific thinking. The biggest and most obvious problem with Sacred Economics is that it is at least two hundred pages too long. I’ve rarely read a book that repeats itself so often, and never one in which the author quotes one of his own previous works (The Ascent of Humanity, in this case) with such frustrating frequency. Someone urging people toward a new way of thinking about their place in the world, economic or otherwise, should value the time of his readers enough to edit his work down to its most accessible, pointed, and concise form.

Another problem is that Eisenstein is surprisingly sanguine about how easy it will be to transition to this radically new gift-based economy.

Environmentalists often state that we can ill afford to maintain our resource-intensive lifestyles, implying that we would like to if only we could afford it. I disagree. I think we will move toward a more ecological way of life by positive choice. Instead of saying, “Too bad we have to leave our gigantic suburban homes behind because they use too much energy,” we will no longer want those homes because we will recognize and respond to our need for personal, connected, sacred dwellings in tight communities. The same goes for the rest of the modern consumer lifestyle…By choice, that is where we will direct our energy. (426)

This is a lovely sentiment, and no doubt descriptive of a small (and growing) number of people alive right now. But it is far from a majority (or even significant minority) opinion. Institutional and personal habits of frivolous materialism, privatization, and socioeconomic rewards for those willing to embrace infinite growth are profoundly entrenched in Western society and proliferating rapidly in other parts of the world; it seems almost laughable that we could arrive at anything close to Eisenstein’s vision without serious violence, environmental catastrophe, or (most likely) a deadly combination of both. I sincerely hope I’m wrong about this, and for a lucky few early adopters that might be the case, but I think our transition toward more sustainable, responsible human communities will be driven primarily by necessity and force rather than choice. Eisenstein’s lack of urgency here undercuts his overall message, allowing the reader to feel like the gifting economy will “just happen” because people will decide to “do the right thing.”

By the end of our lifetimes, my generation will live in a world unimaginably more beautiful than the one we were born into. And it will be a world that is palpably improving year after year…Fantastical? The mind is afraid to hope for anything too good. If this description evokes anger, despair, or grief, then is has touched our common wound, the wound of separation. (445)

Eisenstein’s assurance of the inevitable amelioration of current woes within our lifetimes is both galling and naive. His repudiation of the skepticism that such claims should rightly bring out in readers is in bad taste, especially when clothed in the language of “oneness”––a common trope in the alternative medicine/New Age world. “If you can’t see the light, you’re just not opening yourself up to it. You are cut off by the illusion of your own individuality.” There is a small kernel of truth in this outlook, but too often it is a tool for legitimizing claims that just don’t hold water. There is no guarantee whatsoever that people will wake up to the reality of our direst problems before it’s too late, and to pretend otherwise is folly.

Frustrating as it is, Eisenstein’s adoption of this stance isn’t surprising in light of his readiness to embrace pseudoscientific ideas and treat them as legitimate references. For example:

As the age of ingratitude has reached its peak over the past thirty years, the sun’s radiation has apparently changed, and the strength of the heliosphere has decreased significantly. It might be my imagination, but I remember the sun being more yellow when I was a child. And from 2008 to 2010, sunspot activity diminished to unprecedented levels…Could it be that the sun, the epitome of generosity, is entering a turbulent phase mirroring the financial crisis on earth, which is after all a crisis of giving and receiving? (183, footnote)

Actually, no, it can’t be that at all. There is no evidence whatsoever that human activity exerts any influence on the sun’s radiation, and to suggest otherwise is charlatanism. This kind of idiotic transgression, even minor as it may seem compared to Eisenstein’s overall project, seriously compromises his intellectual integrity.

Today there are at least five or ten different energy technologies that seem to violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If you research the field, you will find a sordid history of confiscated research, destroyed careers, and even mysterious deaths of researchers. Whether or not there ever was, or still is, an active conspiracy to maintain energy scarcity, on some level humanity has not been ready for the gift of energy abundance, and probably won’t be ready for some decades to come, until we have entered deeply and thoroughly into the spirit of the gift. (443)

As a matter of fact, if you “research the field” of energy technologies, you will find that every claim of overcoming entropy is compete folderol, and that the real “sordid history” is that of conspiracy wonks trying to convince the world that we could all be living in utopia if the evil men in the corner office would just loosen the global thumbscrews. A real technology that could overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics would be one of the most lucrative and environmentally significant inventions of all time, making it the precise opposite of a reasonable candidate for suppression by the “powers that be.” Eisenstein’s failure to cull such tripe from Sacred Economics does him no favors, except perhaps to ingratiate him to a wacky minority of readers unwilling to familiarize themselves with even the most elementary and unbending (as far as current evidences goes) principles of physics.

The book includes many other references to pseudoscientific ideas, most notably a variety of alternative medicine practices, which Eisenstein is happy to refer to as if they were the same as any other medical practice (with the possible exception of being more in tune with the “spirit of the gift’). To be fair, Eisenstein isn’t nearly as bad as many other New Agey types, and he even drops the occasional criticism of such views. However, the host of nonsensical ideas that made it into his final draft hurt the book significantly. This is especially tragic given how often Eisenstein is right on the money, so to speak, especially when it comes to the importance of reciprocity and gratitude in flourishing human communities. I’d like to give him a pass with the woo stuff, but I just can’t.

Overall, this is a book that needs to be flensed carefully in order to harvest the interesting and useful elements without getting tied up in unnecessary repetition or downright poppycock. Not something I can recommend in its entirety, but definitely home to a few ideas I will integrate into my personal worldview.

Rating: 5/10