The 'Koyaanisqatsi' Economy

Authored by Raul Ilargi Meijer via The Automatic Earth blog,

The film Koyaanisqatsi was released in 1982. The title means ‘life out of balance’ in the language of the Hopi, a Native American tribe who live(d) mainly in what is now north-east Arizona. It is directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. There are no actors, and no dialogue. Philip Glass’s music underlies a series of film fragments that contrast the beauty of American nature with the noise and pollution mankind has added to it. Wikipedia:

The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Reggio explained the lack of dialogue by stating “it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.”

Due to its initial success, Reggio and Glass made two sequels to the film, Powaqqatsi (1988), meaning “parasitic way of life” or “life in transition”, and Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war”, “civilized violence” and “a life of killing each other”. If you haven’t seen them, they come highly recommended.

Koyaanisqatsi is an fitting term to describe not only our world in general, but also our economies. They are severely out of balance, and getting more so every day. But economies, like nature, need at least a minimum in balance. If that disappears, this lack of balance will tip them over. It is somewhat strange that this is not being recognized, and not even discussed.

It’s as if people think that when almost all wealth goes to a select very few, an economy can still continue to function. It can’t. The rich getting continually richer means the poor getting poorer (as overall growth is slow or non-existent), until the latter reach a point where they can no longer afford even basic necessities. That’s when parts of an economy will start dying, in the same vein that parts of a living body, an organism, die off when the supply of blood, nutrients and oxygen is cut off.

For an economy to function, it needs money to flow through it the same way a body needs blood to flow. If all the money gets increasingly concentrated in just a small area, the economy stagnates. We measure the flow of money as velocity:


If that graph would describe a human body, it would be in an ambulance on the way to ER. The only times velocity of money have been as low as today was during a Great Depression and a World War.

The ever richer rich cannot spend enough to keep things moving. They can buy stocks and bonds and houses, but they can’t buy all the groceries and clothing that the poor and middle class no longer can. But it’s those things that keep the economy humming along.

An economy as unbalanced as the one we presently have is bound to perish. The rich are killing their own economies by trying to get richer all the time. And they have no idea that’s what happens. It’s sort of baked into their understanding of what capitalism is. Or neo-liberalism if you want.

We should look upon, and handle, our economies and societies as living, and vibrant, systems, but we’re miles away from any such understanding. Our education systems are gross failures when it comes to this, and our media, owned by the rich, support anything that will make them richer. Even though that is suicidal for everyone involved. We are a tragic species in many more ways than one.

This has nothing to do with political views, with socialism or communism or any ism, it’s a simple empirical observation. It’s not about ‘everyone deserves their fair share’, but about if they don’t get their share, no economy will be left to hand out any shares even to the rich. If the rich want to get richer, they will need a functioning economy to get there.

In other words, someone will have to call a halt, or at least a pause, to the pace at which they’re getting richer, or their quest for riches will become self-defeating. Literally every single human being can grasp this, but hardly anyone even considers it. At their peril.

Here’s just a small example from CNBC, there are thousands just like it:

The Top 1% Of Americans Now Control 38% Of The Wealth

America’s top 1% now control 38.6% of the nation’s wealth, a historic high, according to a new Federal Reserve Report. The Federal Reserve’s Surveys of Consumer Finance shows that Americans throughout the income and wealth ladder posted gains between 2013 and 2016. But the wealthy gained the most, driven largely by gains in the stock market and asset values. The top 1% saw their share of wealth rise to 38.6% in 2016 from 36.3% in 2013.


The next highest 9% of families fell slightly, and the share of wealth held by the bottom 90% of Americans has been falling steadily for 25 years, hitting 22.8% in 2016 from 33.2% in 1989. The top income earners also saw the biggest gains. The top 1% saw their share of income rise to a new high of 23.8% from 20.3% in 2013. The income shares of the bottom 90% fell to 49.7% in 2016.

Now, you may think: 38%, how bad is that?, and you may be forgiven for thinking that way. After all, you’re in a majority there. To understand the severity of what’s happening, you need to look at the trends:

This one from the New York Times, annotated by Charles Hugh Smith, is very revealing too. What happens is that just as we find ourselves in a stagnating/shrinking economy, the rich get richer fast. They can do that because central banks are releasing trillions of dollars in QE, but also because the system is geared towards eviscerating the poor, and increasingly the middle class as well:

And this is amplified by the ultra-low rates policies central banks have been pushing over the past decade. They allow for the ever poorer to keep up appearances of wealth by plunging into debt ever deeper, but they don’t allow for their living conditions, their jobs, their savings, their pensions, to recover. They do the exact opposite. As this graph from Mike Lebowitz, one of many to show the same trendline, goes to show:

This is not an American phenomenon, though it’s more pronounced stateside. And Trump’s tax reform plans promise to only make it worse. It looks like Bernie Sanders might be the only politician in the US to stop it, but what are the odds of that? We live in a system that is warranting economic suicide for everyone including its own proponents, and we’re blindly following it like so many lemmings.

The Koyaanisqatsi film doesn’t have a happy Hollywood ending, and it makes no pretense of it. Our Koyaanisqatsi economy will not end with ‘they lived happily ever after’ either. The protagonists wouldn’t know how to achieve that. They don’t understand what makes an economy run, and keeps it running.

And they don’t want to understand, because they think it’ll make them less rich. Nobody gives balance a second’s thought. Presumably because they think the system, like nature, will eventually balance itself. And they’re right in that. They just haven’t considered what that balancing act might mean for them personally.

if you’re rich, good on you. But don’t forget what made it possible for you to gather your riches, or you’ll lose them, and probably a lot more too.


thatthingcanfly J S Bach Sat, 09/30/2017 - 08:03 Permalink

Saw it in '93 at Arkansas Governor's School. The liberal nuts who staffed some (most) of the instructor positions were all talking about the movie's spiritual significance and other bullshit. I wanted to be a Navy pilot, and all I remembered from it was the cool video shots from various fighter/bombers making terrain-following runs down valleys, etc., turning gas into noise, which I found cool as fuck.  LoL. Their "message" was totally lost on me.Then I went to Annapolis, and, eventually, became a Navy helicopter pilot.LoL. 

In reply to by J S Bach

general ambivalent 38BWD22 Fri, 09/29/2017 - 14:33 Permalink

I think he is pretty good, some of his stuff is just annoying though. It's incredible how much film influences music to the point that a composer exists in the shadows and will be ignored if they don't get screen time. His best work is relatively unknown: people look back on that era of music I think John Adams will be seen as the iconic figure, or at least this composition:

In reply to by 38BWD22

Paul Kersey I woke up Fri, 09/29/2017 - 12:57 Permalink

The money for that home came from his wife's inheritance. Before that inheritance, Sanders had a net worth of $160,000. He was, by far, the poorest Presidential candidate. I'm sure you can find a more truthful way to trash Sanders.

The economic system we have in this country is a form of winner-take-all capitalism. It's next to impossible to be a successful capitalist without access to capital. While the author of this article believes everyone, even the 1%, is committing suicide under this system, he couldn't be more wrong. When the economy does crash, the wealth extracting, financial engineers will have already sold the market well short, stashed their winnings in offshore banks, and will be ready, willing and able to grab assets, worldwide, for pennies on the dollar. The winner-take-all economy's default system is feudalism, aka neofeudalism.

In reply to by I woke up

Paul Kersey I woke up Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:24 Permalink

So what do you call a system of government that privatizes profits and socializes losses? That would be our present system that is run by taxpayer bailed out banksters.

I'm against Sanders' brand of socialism, because he wants to tax wealth. However, the present system taxes labor and leaves wealth almost entirely alone. It works for me, but it probably doesn't work for 80% of Americans. Sanders would never get my vote, because I don't want my ox gored. Other folks, however, might want to see a bit more equilibrium in this country. That's what Sanders wants, too, but he's not bright enough to pull it off.

In reply to by I woke up

I woke up Paul Kersey Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:56 Permalink

There is no fixing this ship, it's way too far down the path.  I don't agree with what is currently going on but saying BS is the answer is just as bad. This thing sinks first, just make sure you have something to float on.  Judging by the lack of velocity of money,others feel the same way too, hedging for dark times ahead

In reply to by Paul Kersey

Mustafa Kemal I woke up Fri, 09/29/2017 - 14:24 Permalink

"From his $600k 3rd home"Dude, did you look at his tax returns and compare them with the rest of the senate?Anyway, although my inheritance was a very full size tool box equipped mostly with craftsman tools, I do know a few middle class people who also inherited something like a $600k home from their wife's side of the family. That doesnt make them crooks. In fact my ex wife inherited a $700k  home as part of a divorce settlement.  

In reply to by I woke up

DEMIZEN Fri, 09/29/2017 - 12:49 Permalink

so new age. dudes with pony tails watched that back in the days. i remember i had to smoke a very lot to "get it" i could apply this experience as a new market guessing strategy i are buns a new pony tail thing?

general ambivalent DEMIZEN Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:04 Permalink

Yes, an incredibly pessimistic individual. Interesting that the Situationists had a similar perspective and their leader killed himself as well, shot himself in the heart I think.Another influence was Herzog, his film "Fata Morgana" is very dark as well, but in a much different way (unfortunately, I don't think it's fully available online): this was another Lipsett film made at the same time. Clearly it was too dark for most people, but it's an interesting contrast:

In reply to by DEMIZEN

Conax Fri, 09/29/2017 - 12:37 Permalink

'Koyaanisqatsi' EconomyCall it what you will, but don't expect me to remember how to spell it.There's a reason why the Indians speak English now.

Utopia Planitia Conax Fri, 09/29/2017 - 12:50 Permalink

Just remember that the English-ed version of the Native words are spelled phonetically. There was an attempt to capture the sounds the Natives made with the English alphabet. Not a precise science.  The Natives did not have a written language per se, everything was passed down through oral history.  Hence you have wide lattitude to pronounce the strings of letters pretty much as you choose. If you know Natives (as I do) you can ask for advice on pronounciation. But it is more fun to interpret the spellings as you please. Especially if there is a deranged snowflake nearby....

In reply to by Conax

brushhog Fri, 09/29/2017 - 12:42 Permalink

The thing about living in balance...whether in regards to the economy or anything that you cant really make it happen. Its like trying to consciously breath, youll never get it right...youll either take in too much and get light headed or you wont take in enough and get out of breath. It happens as the Chinese say "Wu Wei" ...without effort.

Utopia Planitia yogibear Fri, 09/29/2017 - 12:59 Permalink

Looks like Andy Zee wants to be the new BS (Bernie Sanders).  Telling followers it is justified there be voilence and destruction, but you can be sure he will be on the sidelines and not smashing or beating himself.  No, let the useful idiots get in the thick of things while you sit it out and pontificate.  He sounds so much like Bernie I almost forgot to vomit.

In reply to by yogibear

Deep Snorkeler Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:05 Permalink

Velocity of Money Charthas scared me out of my mind for years.This is a terrible indicator of structural disease:1. people hoard money because they are scared2. corporations will not invest because there is nopromising new technology/ideas3. the last consumer died in 1998.4. internel ads, TV infomercials, spamand mailers are very ineffective 

khakuda Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:16 Permalink

Central banks, including the Fed, are actually destroying the fabric of society.  Society's need some level of fairness and equity or they don't work.It should bother them that asset prices never go down and that inflaiton is rampant in assets, housing, healthcare and education.Instead, they actively encourage it and actually have the nerve to tell people there is not enough inflation.  Uh, there is plenty if you wake up and look around.I had one guy fuming and disagreeing with me, screaming that low iinterest rates were the only thing that allowed him to own a house.  I said, "No, low interest rates actually increased the cost of the house.   And, by the way, you don't own the house, the bank does."

gdpetti khakuda Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:24 Permalink

The only thing that 'bothers' them is that they might have to be the one holding the bag when the music stops.... they know what they are doing is destroying/ hallowing out the economy and the very fabic of society... this is why our Founding Fathers warned us against them... but time and greed washes away the memories of the past when the books are burned and left in ashes... and that is what our future holds. Not to worry, they've been prepping China to take the helm.The problem is that none of them seem to be well enough informed on the simple fact that their mission is the destuction of the OWO on a global scale, so the NWO can be brought out of the closet... and the NWO doesn't need the OWO and all of its institutions, nor personnel... that is what really 'bothers' them... they are starting to feel the heat. The smart ones retire and get out of Dodge before the real gunfight begins.

In reply to by khakuda

Batman11 Fri, 09/29/2017 - 13:48 Permalink

A new scientific economics was supposed to bring prosperity to all.It didn’t happen, did it?Experts in this economics, running Independent Central Banks would ensure financial stability.They presided over an era of unprecedented, financial instability.On the positive side, economists outside the mainstream have been given a global treasure trove of material to work out what is really going on.The new experts.Steve Keen - Minsky moments and affects of debt on the economyRichard Werner - Money and debt, bank credit and how it must be allocated for economic success, studying Japan around 1989Richard Koo - After the Minsky Moment, studied 1929, Japan 1989 and 2008.Michael Hudson - The history of economics, the difference between earned and unearned income The ECB really need to understand Richard Koo’s work before they do anymore damage with austerity in the Club-Med.Richard Koo – “Surviving in the Intellectually Bankrupt Monetary Policy Environment” are these Central Bankers up to?When you see the data it will be a question you start asking too.Ben Bernanke and the IMF have taken advice from Richard Koo, he leads those we follow. Richard Werner started work in Japan after their 1989 crash and he has been snowed under with material to test his theories.He’s got financial stability cracked.Richard Werner explains it in 15 mins.: Look how the new thinking makes financial crises stick out like sore thumbs, 1929 and 2008: In 2007, Ben Bernanke can see no problems ahead with the old thinking. 

JBPeebles Fri, 09/29/2017 - 14:01 Permalink

Iolma. That means hello in Hopi.There's wisdom in their ways. Native tribes have acclimatized to North America far longer than we immigrants have.Hopi are a peaceful people who can communicate a vision of what will happen. In this sense they can predict the future.Through prophecy, Hopi mystics open a door into another universe, a spiritual one, that is as real as the physical.As we pile up our physical possessions, Mother Earth sighs with pain. She is living like we are living. If we are healthy, she is healthy and happy.Rather than impose our will on others, balance requires us to tolerate and co-exist. Rather than immerse ourselves in a digital world, we must contact our spirit in the other world. Christians refer to this as the Holy Spirit. Hopi have different words but understand the goodness in the human spirit. Without love for others, we can't live a spiritual life. And Hopi see our obligation to one other including the animal kingdom and Mother Nature, who is andromorphic in Hopi belief.As humans recklessly stick their pins into our Earth, injecting with the chemicals of fracking, splitting rock, and spilling into our rivers Mother Nature cries for her children. We must keep the earth we inherited protected from greed and evil. Without protectors, humanity will in the end destroy itself.There are layers to Hopi prophecy. One associates cobwebs in the sky with chemtrails. Another tells of ribbons of asphalt reflecting the sun--our roads. Another warnsof the wrath of Mother Earth as she gets her revenge for the many wounds we've inflicted on her. Elders say the final sign will be when young people come to live with the Hopi and learn their ways.Americans will embrace voluntary tribalism if they can't continue living in ways that deplete the earth, poison the soil and rivers. Grid down, credit exhausted, whatever the calamity, a consumer lifestyle may not be there. If we can envision doom, we can also embrace hope, which is the cornerstone of the Hopi's belief in the power of balance and harmony with each other and our world.We are all equally entitled to the wonders and gifts that the Earth Mother offers her beloved children. In return, we must all contribute to responsible stewardship over the environment and protect the people and planet from the neverending greed of polluters.

Blankfuck Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:03 Permalink


Jasher Fri, 09/29/2017 - 14:44 Permalink

They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

Blankfuck Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:46 Permalink


Blankfuck Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:37 Permalink


Blankfuck Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:41 Permalink


CRM114 Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:52 Permalink

I have the first two movies on DVD. I used to show them to classes of high school students. It gave them something to think about. Most appreciated it a lot. The time lapse photography and the juxtaposed studies of different people were most thought-provoking, they said. Plus I've spent some time in North-East Arizona, so I could give them some idea about the Hopi and their way of life also.

L Bean CRM114 Fri, 09/29/2017 - 16:28 Permalink

My older stepbrother showed it to me when I was about 10, a few years after it came out. It really made an impression on me - I had been in 3rd grade when the Challenger disaster happened, we were made to bow our heads in a moment of silence during class. To see it treated in an artistic sense really made me think.

In reply to by CRM114

83_vf_1100_c Fri, 09/29/2017 - 15:59 Permalink

The Hopis had a vibrant economy and arts scene back in the 1800s but then the neighboring Eastern tribe the Changeskis attacked. Now the Hopis live vodkasquatsi, methasquatsi and casinosquatsi.