Finding our Sorcerer: An Interview with Ken Lyotier

This blog is part of the ‘Voices of New Economies‘ series within Cities for People – an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need – ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.
By Jane ZhangKen's face (1)

  1. In your view, what are the key elements of “new economies”?

 I really wonder if there is truly such a thing as “new economies”, or maybe just variations on old ones. New wealth is only created where there is additional human input, hopefully some of it genuinely innovative that produces some new value.   We happen to live in a material world where we spend a lot of time and energy converting some forms of material into other forms of material that we hope will be more useful to us, and have more value than what they were in their previous state.   Unfortunately, this process frequently ends up causing pollution.   Frequently the way we use materials is actually quite primitive.
For example, like some species of birds which are heavily invested biologically in dramatic colourful plumage used to attract mates, we humans do a lot of that kind of showing off too. We display our material possessions in ways that attempt to relate them to our value as individuals. I drive a big flashy car therefore I must be important. I own a mansion therefore I must be of worth as a human being. This kind of behaviour is a misuse of material.   It attempts to make material be and do something that it will never be able to be or do… Material possessions can never give us an accurate measure of a person’s character nor, apart from satisfying essential needs, or when used in creative expression to satisfy aesthetic senses, can they complete the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of being human. Perhaps some human qualities can be commodified and measured, like attaching a commonly agreed upon value to the worth of certain work, but I’m not so sure that things like human imagination can be so easily measured. In addition, time, space, and repetition of certain actions create structural boundaries that tend to limit abstract conceptions including our ability to even imagine genuinely different ways of creating value. Basically because we have a material aspect to us that is supported and sustained by material, we tend to get bound up in the material world.

  1. What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is what is seen as having value because it is usable by humans. Real wealth needs to be used in ways that recognize its impact on the real world and protects us from potential dangers caused by its use in the physical and social environment.
There are costs attached to everything we do, whether it is as a result of the plants we eat or the soil we tread upon. In addition to existing in a material world, we exist in a functional reality, and I believe we need to become more sensitive to the impact we have on our surroundings.
It might be useful to contrast real wealth with “not real” wealth. I think we sometimes confuse what are actually the tools, such as money, used in the creation of real wealth.

  1. How have your life experiences shaped the way you view economies?

I’ve lived in Vancouver my whole life, and in making my way have come to live in Vancouver’s the Downtown Eastside for many years. There are many reasons why people live on the streets here. While living on and close to the street, I picked cans and bottles, and things that I thought might have value out of the garbage. In this process of hunting and gathering, I learned something about the amount of effort it took to collect material and convert it into currency, in this case nickels and dimes. While the compensation for this work may not have always equated to my sense of what would have constituted a fair value, it did at least equate to something inasmuch as I was able to exchange the currency I gained in this effort for goods to be had for a price in the broader economy.
For us in the West, there are other supports available that help compensate for the extremely limited returns that can be realized through activities like binning. Here in Vancouver, I think of us as living in the later days of the welfare state. We still have health care, homeless shelters, public income assistance, bread lines, and drop-in centres. During the years I was binning more seriously, all of these kinds of services were available to me. Such benefits are often not available in other parts of the world. While probably no one can ever truly have a life experience that equates exactly with someone else’s experience, I think that through my time on the streets and binning in Vancouver, I did gain some degree of empathy for people in other parts of the world whose standard of living is somehow managed on a very few dollars a day.

  1. What do you think we need to prioritize as a society and as individuals? 

We need to look at the broad sweep of human history, rather than this narrow perspective represented by the short few decades punctuated by our own births and deaths.
Human neediness, especially European neediness of recent centuries initially responded to actual material needs, but our economy has moved systematically over time from efforts to meet basic needs to attempting, as mentioned earlier, to fill our spiritual and intellectual needs with material. We’ve veered dramatically off on a tangent, which has done some serious damage to our own psyches, to other critters in the neighbourhood, and to the planet as a whole. It reminds me of the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – we are still that apprentice though we don’t like to acknowledge it, we have created a flood of junk, and we desperately need the sorcerer back.
In our discovery of each other and our multitudes of various cultures, we’ve come face to face with the fact that on the surface anyway, the cultural values and beliefs of the diverse groups that go to make up the 8 billion of us who populate planet Earth, do not always seem to match. But hopefully we will be able to discover that there is a deeper unifying shared humanity slightly hidden underneath these apparent cultural divides. To make these discoveries about our common humanity requires some humility
As societies, we tend to want to find that one perfect solution, put it in a box, put our stamp of approval on it, and say, now we finally know the truth. It is all so self-contained. This tendency often gets us “stuck” and into a great deal of trouble. This life is not about packaging our solutions after all. It’s not about forcing our solutions on each other to prove how powerful and clever we are; it’s about what it means to care for one another and about the spirit that is generated in the process of this caring. I believe it will be crucial to our future, to learn to create safe places for ourselves and each other, where we can share our unique experiences of the truth together.
I’m an optimist. We humans have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to cooperate in times of need, and this encourages me. Of course, we do have many counterexamples where civilizations have gone seriously off the rails. But we really need to get it right this time because the work we need to be doing is global in scale and if we get it wrong, we don’t have another planet where we can hide. To our advantage, we do have about 5000 years of written records and millions of years of archeological evidence from which to glean and learn.
We also need to change and adapt in an equitable way, and this likely means sharing power and wealth. It also means realizing that not everyone needs the same things at the same times. Adults have different needs than children, the sick, than the healthy… we need measures that respect these kinds of variables.
There is tremendous energy in the free market economy, with its ability to generate a pace of change that far exceeds the pace at which we are willing and able to address social inequities. If we could harness that energy and put it in the service of generating progressive social change, for example, we may be able to create the change we need. To succeed, this would take an unusual amount of humility willingness, hope, commitment, moral courage, and ultimately, action that is not only predicated on a guaranteed positive outcome but is also based on principles that allow us to distinguish right from wrong.
Ken Lyotier was born in North Vancouver in 1947. He has lived and worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a socially and economically depressed area of the City, for the past 30 years. In 1990, along with other members of his community, Ken began work to improve beverage container recycling services in Vancouver. He participated in discussions, which guided the drafting of regulations to expand industry stewardship of beverage container recycling in British Columbia.
He was also the founder and Executive Director of United We Can, a non-profit bottle depot, which has operated in downtown Vancouver since 1995. Ken’s work has been well recognized and he has received numerous awards and commendations including Meritorious Service and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medals from the Governor General of Canada and an honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of British Columbia.