An Empathy Based Sustainable Economy

Jason Stone
5 min readAug 16, 2021

Our society is facing two substantial problems that are difficult to resolve in a market where lower prices are nearly universally preferred. The long term environmental impact of goods and services produced through toxic industrial processes is unacceptable, however, the higher cost of more sustainable options can prevent them from competing in the marketplace. This problem is compounded by a diminishing need for labor due to advances in automation, potentially pushing wages lower. Higher costs and lower wages may not only mean decreased ability to produce and consume more sustainable options it may also mean a marketplace were both production and consumption are less satisfying.

Perhaps a better future is one in which the average individual has enough wealth to be able to purchase goods and services produced through more expensive means. A market of this sort may place more emphasis on consuming goods and services that are produced in ways that create high quality human relations and environmental sustainability. Unlike highly automated processes that may use non-renewable and toxic artificial materials, more expensive manual processes that use more natural sustainable resources can often be an expression of human empathy that has psychological and social qualities many may highly value.

Making these more expensive items practical for the average business to profitably create and for the average individual to consume may require a reimagining of how wealth is generated in a society. Workplace democracies, sharing the value of the earth’s natural resources, community investment funds, and voluntary communist communes may all someday help to create an increase in wealth that makes it practical for typical individuals to purchase higher cost goods and services that are produced through more manual and sustainable means. Automation could still help to keep prices lower while being included less often and more skillfully. Workplace democracies would mean more of the value of each workers labor being distributed to the worker in the form of profits that are distributed more widely than to a small number of privileged workers and investors. Workplace democracies might also enable workers to have more say over the work condition and items being produced such that they are more likely to be expressive of the individual worker in ways that relate to artisanal and craft production. Community investment funds intended to spread profits widely could be made more effective by only allowing each participant to pay in funds acquired through sharing of the value of the earth’s natural resources. These funds could operate in a tax free way and produce a substantial increase in the wealth of the average individual.

Perhaps some forms of communism (where productive resources are owned and operated by the community and where personal consumption is equal access) may also improve access to more expensive manually and sustainably produced goods and services, however, tendencies towards central planing and pressure to keep costs low so that goods and services can be guaranteed to everyone may tend to produce a reliance on inexpensive, generic, large-scale automation. Communist schemes that allow for more distributed, participatory budgeting may resolve these problems. Public Wealth Communism is one such scheme in which the participants who work receive a salary in “public wealth” currency that relatively enhances their influence in a participatory budgeting process and where each participant is given a budget of an equal number of credits for personal consumption. Each time a good or services is consumed the enterprise receives some amount of public wealth currency they can then use to pay workers and order new inputs to production. A substantial amount of purchasing power per participant could allow for the production and consumption of more manually and sustainably produced goods and services. Community members could also choose to offer their labor to other members at a discount while selling at full price to non-members. Workers could still paid full wages for sales to members and non-members. A discount of this sort on labor could be applied to all labor in the commune and be automatically adjusted with the wealth of the commune, such that the discount on the consumption of one another’s labor increases when the commune is wealthy and decreases when the wealth of the commune is diminishing. Raising costs of labor should tend to reduce the volume of sales for higher labor items and attract workers to spend more time performing higher productivity labor until the commune’s wealth has rebounded enough to allow for more time to be spent in lower productivity labor that the members may prefer. Basing a public wealth community around the renting of high cost items could mean that fewer numbers of expensive items would need to be produced in order to meet the communities needs — since members would avoid paying rental fees for items they don’t intend to use. This could allow more workers to perform manual labor that tends towards lower productivity while still meeting the communities internal needs. Communities focused in this way may tend to innovate in producing durable items that can easily be refurbished and that may even fetch a premium when rented or sold to external markets. Workers may also choose to monitor the overall wealth of the commune and budget their time between providing funding and labor for projects that produce large amounts of market exchange value per hour worked and funding and labor for projects they feel have preferable psychological and social value that may not generate as much market exchange value per hour of labor.

In addition to an economic arrangement that allows for the average participant to consume more manually and sustainably produced items created at somewhat greater cost, the educational system may need to be reimagined to focus on empathy and the creation of experiences for one another — where even objects can be considered a collection of possible experiences. Early educational experiences could introduce basic lessons in reading, writing, and math in the context of creating experiences for one another using a collection of tools and techniques that could include advanced computing systems for design and fabrication. Later stages in the educational process could include electives presented in more traditional ways. A culture that values humans creating experiences for one another may use automation less often and more skillfully. Each product and service could be viewed as an expression in an ongoing, highly contextualized cultural dialog where higher costs are justified by the subtle psychological and social value the items generate. A constantly shifting cultural context may provide a sense of purposeful work indefinitely for the participants as opposed to cultural and economic forces that tend to plateau at producing the lowest cost for whatever blunt utilitarian purpose a good or service is intended to serve. This approach would recenter relationships with the worker who produces items for social purposes that transcend optimization of profit.

Innovations in education, culture, and how goods and services are produced and distributed may be necessary to address environmental and quality of life concerns. Innovation in the current market alone may not be sufficient. A future where each individual has increased buying power as well as a culturalization and education that prepares them to contribute more manual, artisanal forms of labor may play key roles. This type of empathy based society could afford to invest in more sustainable and manual production that has improved psychological and social qualities.