I didn’t understand finance until I quit the City and joined XR
At the age of 56, I know more about money and wealth than I ever did as a banker. Here’s what I’ve learned
For almost 30 years, I worked on the trading floors of banks around the world – mainly in London, but also Hong Kong, Tokyo, Madrid and Bangkok. Being well paid can in itself convince you and your colleagues that your work is important and socially useful. We were creating the money the world needed to trade. We were primary wealth creators.
I’m convinced that most City professionals (including myself) never fully understand the role money plays in the economy, least of all whether it’s good, bad or neutral. Convinced of our own importance, we are all too busy to actually analyse these financial fairy tales or question these myths of social utility.
As I started to become concerned about the climate and ecological crises that seemed possibly existential, my work felt more and more disconnected from the things that mattered. Lifestyle changes were important, but woefully inadequate. And the more I focused on what was happening, the more I sensed that the problems went much deeper.
My last job was with a progressive pension fund that scored highly on climate governance. Still, to me, pensions seemed to be the privilege of the middle-aged ‘haves’. I wondered why so much of the wealth appeared to be held by relatively few and denied to so many.
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I came to doubt the security of the pensions that young people were being encouraged to save into, particularly if governments failed to take the climate action urgently demanded by the scientists. What would be the value of your pension if climate breakdown decimated the global food system or flooded your home? It seemed that the primary beneficiary of my work was myself, receiving a salary now for creating dubious future value.
In 2018, I read professor Jem Bendell’s ”Deep Adaptation” paper, in which he criticises professionals, especially those working in sustainability or for environmental NGOs, for their timidity, accusing them of peddling false hope. It resonated with me, making me realise that however ‘ethical’ the financial provider I worked for, it seemed hollow and not ‘living my truth’.
That's why, in 2019, at the age of 52, I quit my job and used the savings my time in the City had afforded me to volunteer with the activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) to do what I could to avert the disaster facing us.
Money is a unit of power
As a climate activist, I now had time to learn more about the many links between finance and climate change. It turns out that the banks really do create money. But that money has only been temporarily borrowed into existence by people, businesses or government, and the system depends on it being repaid and replaced with new loans.
The more debt my chums in the City issued, the more goods and services had to be produced and consumed in order to repay that debt with interest. Meanwhile, the rich were stashing that value in tax havens, preventing the borrowers from ever earning it back, meaning that ever more money had to be borrowed to replace what was being saved. I learned that the very design of this system makes it ever more wasteful, unfair and unstable.
I used to be suspicious of environmentalists who focused on inequality and advocated for wealth redistribution. I thought they sounded like socialists jumping on the climate change bandwagon – but now I get it. How can we ever tread more lightly on the Earth when the fat cats eat all the food? A systematically fairer distribution of wealth is necessary.
Now, I finally realise that the money I used to make was not really wealth, but ‘claims’ on wealth. Actual wealth is the visceral things we need to be ‘well’, such as good food, shelter, transport, health, opportunities for play, access to nature. Money is a claim – a unit of power – to bring these things into our life, thanks to the efforts of other people and the provisions of the natural world. Making money without making this true wealth serves only the money makers, not society.
There is much noble talk about how to make finance more sustainable. I agree with much of it: that banks and governments should not continue to finance fossil fuel extraction over renewable energy and increased efficiency; that international cooperation is needed to reduce the most wasteful emissions and begin the process of adapting to the effects of climate disaster; that farming practices need to be changed; that our remaining resources should be allocated wisely and fairly; that wilderness must be protected, preserved and regenerated. And so on.
But none of this ever happens because economic growth now is always deemed to be more important than any of these things. Some people hope that such growth will make those things more affordable ‘in the long run’.
Financing economic growth is a recipe for disaster
The fixation on economic growth reflects the power at the top of society. When the climate crisis pops into the political agenda, most politicians respond by aligning with the interests of fossil fuel lobbyists and venture capitalists, rather than responding to the latest science. I have little confidence in grand-sounding sustainability schemes because they are based on self-serving fairy tales.
Finance has become a set of tools used by people with money to cheat the productive people out of their produce
Even Green New Deals could become a disaster if they simply promote more economic growth, destroy more of the environment for rare metals, and bank on unproven technologies. Instead, policies for an equitable shrinking or ‘degrowth’ of rich economies need our urgent attention.
The way we currently do finance does not allow that economic change. Finance has become primarily a set of tools used by people with money to cheat the productive people out of their produce. This is extremely evident in Bendell's recent piece, about “Quantitative Sleazing”. It describes how central banks have been funnelling huge sums of new cash into the largest companies (which don’t need it), as chosen by the largest asset managers in the world.
This accentuates inequality and increases inflation, while propping up the kinds of business activity that a more sustainable society might not even want. It is precisely the opposite of the kind of monetary system that could enable an equitable form of degrowth.
I have no idea how that can be fixed without drastic changes in law – and in company boardrooms. That's why I applaud grassroots projects that strengthen communities while saving money, such as local exchange trading systems, savings pools and mutual aid networks.
What we can do
So how should my former colleagues in finance contribute their time and expertise during the unfolding drama? What I have discovered is that finding a way forward begins by admitting your lack of knowledge, and talking to people who previously seemed too radical for meaningful conversation.
One option is to support Money Rebellion (an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion), which pressures banks and governments to stop financing fossil fuel extraction. Another is to provide time and resources to any initiative promoting a more radical response to the climate emergency. I spend some of my time supporting the “Scholars’ Warning” initiative, in which hundreds of academics have spoken out about corporate capture of the climate agenda.
Whatever choices my former colleagues make, to continue working for a system that increases inequality while driving ecocide is a terrible use of talent at this time of ecological emergency. It is time to recognise that climate chaos is already here, destroying the lives of those on the front lines, and threatening to undermine civilisation itself. Every day lost to old habits will produce additional harm.
Becoming an activist meant letting go of the old fairy tales that kept me in my job. Fortunately, leaving the City of London helped me begin to learn what’s really important about finance – its impact on society and the planet. I am still learning about finance and what to do about it. But I am now clear on my intention.
I want to be part of a new kind of economy in which efficiency doesn’t mean just profit, but is a measure of how little energy and raw materials is needed to meet everyone's basic needs.
Wilderness should be valued for both its ecosystems and its intrinsic worth, rather than for the biomass that can be torn up and burnt or the crops that can be grown once it is lost. The needs of our unborn descendents should be represented alongside our own needs. Money should flow from rich to poor, and not vice versa.
Only then might our servitude to systems of destruction give way to a more connected, helpful and indeed richer way of life.
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