The past several years have revealed the dangerously debased nature of a global economy governed by a purely monetary definition of wealth. But the current economic crisis is just the latest and most dramatic in a series of events that have gradually led people everywhere to a common sense of a deep, fundamental disintegration, in nearly every aspect of life. It is not only the field of economics that has been shaken to its foundations, but the health of the natural world on which we depend, the conditions and aims of our work, the strength of our social relationships and communities, and the vitality of our cultural heritage. We seem to have lost sight of the meaning of real wealth—that is, the essential well-being of the earth’s creation and human civilization.
Yet the impoverished notion of wealth on which the ruling philosophy of laissez-faire- depends has deeply troubled many great thinkers. Among these, few have more powerfully and penetratingly criticized its flawed basis than John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin envisioned a human economy that would value community over self-interest and competition. Challenging the very language of economics, Ruskin attacked the insufficiency of nineteenth-century notions of ‘value’ and ‘wealth,’ insisting instead that “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE.” For Ruskin, as for us today, the great challenge was to teach people and nations “to desire and labour for the things that lead to life.” As an antidote to the gospel of greed, Ruskin taught “the first law of the universe”—the law of help—which governs all healthy biological and social systems. Simultaneously progressive and conservative, his ideas stand outside the inadequate paradigms of political debate today.
Ruskin influenced figures such as William Morris, Emerson, Tolstoy, Proust and Gandhi. Yet his voice is sadly absent today. It is time for Ruskin’s wisdom, still compellingly prescient after the passage of 150 years, to be reintroduced into modern debates about the way we live. Who was John Ruskin? How can his ideas be applied to the way we frame and address our great crises today? We will explore these questions in a one-day symposium aimed at introducing the concerned public to Ruskin’s ideas. In the face of daunting challenges and widespread despair, Ruskin’s deep concern for true civilization, the well-being of the earth and humanity, and a life restored to its basis in real wealth, offers us both profound insight and hope for a more wholesome and happy future. Berkeley author Gray Brechin (UC Berkeley’s Living New Deal; author, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin), and Ruskin scholars James L. Spates (Guild of St. George; Professor of Sociology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY) and Sara Atwood (Guild of St. George; author, Ruskin’s Educational Ideals) will speak about Ruskin’s lasting contribution to our understanding of modern civilization.