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The Economy of Poetics

By Victor Postnikov

“Let the beauty we love be what we do” — Rumi
“The poet knows of no ‘waste’… Ecopoetics is the way of thinking economically” — Hwa Yol Jung
“The environmental crisis is the crisis of aesthetics” — James Hillman

This is the right time for poets and artists to engage in economics. We can’t allow the greedy and self-important “experts” and “economists” to push the world to the brink of catastrophe. Much already been written and said about the impending collapse, so I won’t repeat it. The idea is that the systemic collapse could be prevented, or, at least, alleviated, by invoking the inner artist in everyone and directing that artistic creativity towards dismantling the Mega-Machine.

In order to survive we must decentralize the economy as soon as possible by reducing production to individual craftsmanship. I understand the objections and the potential losses involved, even the possibility of fierce opposition, but the gains would be superlative. I have previously appealed to scientists and engineers for their expertise in dismantling the modern infrastructure and lowering the risk of collapse.1 Probably, I was naïve. Ultimately, I believe that people will see it as the only strategy.

The idea of an economy of poetics is simple and borrows much from what has been called alternative economics. (See 2, 3 et. al.) By “poetics” I mean an extended notion of poetry that includes any artistic work. The etymology of the term poetry comes from the Greek poiesis which means making or creating. Semantically, it is close to the term oikos (root ecos, as in ecology) which means household. A household (the ecosystem) involves creativity, and, like good poetry, any home should be beautiful and harmonious.

Core premise

The core premise of the economy of poetics is the assumption that the artist, more than anyone else, directs aesthetic satisfaction into his or her work, and thus is able to create a genuinely sustainable economy. “Poetry,” says Heidegger, “is what causes dwelling to be dwelling. Poetry is what really lets us dwell. But through what do we attain to a dwelling place? Through building. Poetic creation, which lets us dwell, is a kind of building.”4

An elder of the Findhorn Eco-village, artist and permaculture teacher, Craig Gibsone once said, “There is no sustainability if it’s not fun.” Thus, I came to the conclusion that poets and artists may be the real driving force in the transition to a new economy, albeit along with many other fellow travellers. Gradually, the rest of the population, or enough of it, will be drawn into the movement—because inherently, everyone is an artist.

The basis of the economy of poetics is that everyone has to invoke an inner artist to begin the dismantling of the wasteful globalized economy and its infrastructure and its transformation into everyone’s personal work of art. Even engineers must undergo a change of heart and provide assistance. We have already accumulated more than enough material and tools for to begin a perestroika of ‘the environment,’ which to me includes both the inner and outer spaces of our immediate personal environments.

As soon as the idea of artistic transformation settles in each of us, the desire immediately ceases of wanting to buy things produced by unknown others, mostly using machines. Even the thought of this will become repulsive. Barter will necessarily continue among friends: this is a key aspect of community. We will then begin to create new things out of obsolete, useless, or harmful objects, according to each person’s artistic taste. With practice, each person will attain the skills and knowledge needed to become self-sufficient and unique. Besides acquiring both individual expertise and the material result, we will win personal aesthetic satisfaction.

We will then become artists and masters—not consumers.

Universality of skills

William R. Catton, author of the famous book Overshoot, in his latest book Bottleneck, argues that the differentiation of skills: “seriously diminished self-sufficiency of individuals and local groups… alienated us from one another, and enabled societies to outgrow the planet’s life-support systems”5.

As soon as we take the economy literally into our own hands, our economic life will change. People will create what they cherish, or are most able to do, be it painting, sculpture, furniture-making or baking bread, growing vegetables or building eco-houses. There would be no more need to import things or buy fashionable clothes or products from abroad that ultimately we don’t need, machine-produced by unknown people, and no more need to watch TV. Instead, we will learn to play music in the company of our friends. Industrial production would be drastically reduced, and as the economy shifts to local and individual production, the worst effects of the impending economic and ecological collapse will be averted.

History has already witnessed such attempts to organize artistic communities. Joy Thacker writes in Artistic Visionaries6: “Art schools seem to have been hotbeds of radicalism down the years, throwing up individuals who would not only try to change the face of art, but also the face of the world.” William Morris (1834-1898), perhaps best known now for his wallpaper designs, was most highly regarded publicly as a poet, but his breadth of interest and imagination led him to work in many fields and he had many followers in the Arts and Crafts Movement.7

Revolt against mediocrity

The lives and ideas of these pioneers fascinate the mind. They echo in the writings of Oscar Wilde8, and in the works of other past and present artistic visionaries. We badly need a revolt against the mediocrity and aggressiveness of the Industrial Machine, not only on aesthetic grounds but as a radical means to save humans and Nature from destruction. The ideology of social differentiation and ‘top-down’ expert education must be replaced by a universality of skills and a general artistic education. Real education begins when a person starts working creatively with his or her own hands.

The similar philosophy of self-sustaining economics and simple living has been championed by the great Russian writer and thinker Leo Tolstoy. He was particularly wary of the immoral science that destroyed life and nature. The venal liaison between science, technology, and corporations has long been a concern of radical thinkers, but today it has acquired particular acuity. A re-thinking of science is needed. There were brave attempts to liberate science from the fetters of orthodoxy, anthropocentrism, and free market thinking, to bring it closer to ecology and poetry.9 However, too many scientists are still intoxicated by formulas and mathematical models than scared by the frightful consequences of their work.

We must learn from others, even though our creativity may be restricted by the freedom of others. Artists must find their common language, because they value and understand the work of Art. Nature is their greatest teacher. Only then can we, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “realise the perfection to our own incomparable gain, and to incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world.” And, probably, divert much of the impending catastrophe.


  1. Dismantling the Infrastructure: A Scientific Approach, by V.I. Postnikov, Culture Change, Dec. 28, 2009. ↩

  2. Buddhist Economics by E.F. Schumacher, Ch.3 in This I Believe and Other Essays, The Green Books, 1997-2004. ↩

  3. Faustian Economy, by Wendell Berry, Harper’s Magazine, May 2008. ↩

  4. Poetically Man Dwells… Martin Heidegger, The Green Studies Reader. Ed. By Laurence Coupe, Routledge, 2000. p.89. ↩

  5. Bottleneck, by William Catton, Xlibris Corporation, 2009. ↩

  6. Utopia Britannica (British Utopian Experiments 1325-1945), ed. Chris Coates, Diggers & Dreamers, 2001 pp.124. ↩

  7. Utopia Britannica (British Utopian Experiments 1325-1945), ed. Chris Coates, Diggers & Dreamers, 2001 pp. 130-131. ↩

  8. The Soul of Man Under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde, in Oscar Wilde: De Profundis and Other Writings, The Penguin English Library, 1977. ↩

  9. Science and Poetry, by Mary Midgley, Routledge, 2001. ↩

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Culture Change on February 6, 2011. It appears here by permission of the author and incorporates some minor editing changes.

About the author

Viktor Ivanovitch Postnikov

Victor Postnikov is a former research scientist and educator who gave up his scientific career after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A poet, writer, and translator, he resides in Kiev, Ukraine where he edits the Russian edition of Dandelion Times. Victor can be reached at vpostnikov@yahoo.com.

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1 programmabilities { 12.14.11 at 9:00 pm }

Good article. One critique: Look at Easter Island. They had no machines and no centralized corporations. Yet the island became a treeless wasteland. The problem is population control.

2 Stuart Hertzog { 12.14.11 at 11:09 pm }

Possibly, programmabilities, although there appeared to be a high degree of centralized control by the local rulers, who apparently were competing in building their famous statues. According to one theory, this undermined the regional ecological base so much that the entire civilisation died out.