The current political chaos in the United States is a product of the failure of our economic system to fulfill the promise of the American dream: That each new generation will enjoy abundance beyond that of their parents. What most people experience instead is increasing insecurity and declining opportunity.
People know something is badly wrong. Uncertain as to what or why, they are desperate for answers. Who is responsible? What can we do?
Our current situation is ripe for the blame game. Blame immigrants. Blame Obama. Or blame scofflaw bankers.
Years ago when I was a business school student, our professors taught us that a recurring problem is a symptom of a system failure. Don’t focus on treating the symptom, they told us, step back and look upstream to identify the source. A lack of jobs, desperate immigrants, and even scofflaw bankers are symptoms of a much deeper problem.
We depend for our living on an economic system that is on a path to producing the sixth mass extinction, reducing billions of humans to a desperate struggle for survival, and driving the collapse of any semblance of a civilized social order. The very survival of the human species may be in question.
Those who are privileged to have a voice in the current system are reluctant to face the reality because the implications are terrifying. One of those implications is the necessity of relinquishing our privilege in favor of greater equality and true democracy.
Fortunately, as an interconnected global species, we have the means to resolve the crisis and move on to a better life for all. As a first step, we must acknowledge the true nature of the problem. And we must always resist the call of demagogues who attempt to turn us against one another.
The current failed system is a collective human creation based on human choices made over thousands of years in response to the unfolding circumstances of history. In the big picture, these choices reflect three foundational assumptions:
1. It is our human right to dominate nature.
2. Money is wealth and therefore a suitable object of sacred veneration.
3. Social order depends on institutions that centralize power in the hands of the few to rule over the rest of us so long as these institutions are subject to the discipline of the market and/or a system of popular elections.
If we step back and examine these assumptions, most of us immediately recognize profound fallacies:
1. Our human existence depends on the health of nature and the systems by which Earth’s community of life self-organizes to maintain the conditions essential to the existence of all life.
2. Real wealth is living wealth—those things with real intrinsic value, beginning with the land we depend on to grow our food and the water we depend on to quench our thirst. Money is useful in facilitating the exchange of things of real value but has no intrinsic value in itself
3. Life exists only in living communities that self-organize in response to diverse and ever-changing local conditions to create and maintain the conditions essential to their own existence. There is no equivalent in nature of the centralized command-and-control structures we humans currently favor. That is because they block the community’s ability to self-organize in response to the ever-changing local needs and circumstances characteristic of any living system.
In the midst of daily life, we rarely step back to confront these contradictions. And even if we do, most of us see no prospect that, as a small group of Earth’s more than 7 billion people, anything we can do might make a consequential difference. A normal first response is to assume that there surely are people who are smarter, better educated, and better positioned than I am who would have noticed and done something about it if there were really a problem.
This moment in history is special because it is now obvious that humans face terminally serious problems of global magnitude. Yet our dominant institutions are not solving the problems and, in fact, seem incapable in many instances of even acknowledging them. The current political backlash is one consequence. Another is a rush of local bottom-up initiatives aimed at reclaiming economic and political power.
My goal in this Living Earth Economy column series is to explore the nexus of these forces, the implications, and the possibilities they create. I draw on the lessons of my personal experience studying and working in establishment institutions starting from my enrollment at Stanford University in 1955 and on to my departure from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a regional adviser for Asia in 1988. The details of my personal story are available on my website.
From that vantage, I was a frontline witness to the global consequences of U.S. policies during the early years of a dramatic global push by the United States and corporate interests to establish U.S. global corporate dominance.
Following World War II, the United States embraced gross domestic product (GDP) as its primary indicator of economic progress, encouraged the world to follow our lead, and advanced global policies that supported the recolonization of the former colonial territories under the guise of economic globalization. I subsequently witnessed the extension of that colonization process to the former colonizer countries through global economic agreements like NAFTA. Those later developments, however, I viewed through the lens of my engagement in alliances that led the opposition to the consolidation of global corporate rule from 1988 until now.
We were reducing Earth’s capacity to support life.
Exploiting the power of fossil fuels, the corporate establishment aggressively pursued growth in GDP and corporate profits while denying the environmental and social costs. Yet we were reducing Earth’s capacity to support life as we destabilized the climate, cut forests, decimated fisheries, strip-mined mountains, and contaminated soils and waters. By 1970, the human burden on Earth’s biosphere exceeded what Earth could sustain and it has continued to grow in tandem with the growth of population and GDP.
We humans now consume at a rate 1.6 times what Earth can sustain. Wealth has become so concentrated that the world’s 62 richest billionaires now own as much as the poorest half of humanity—3.5 billion people who struggle to survive on incomes of $2.50 or less per day.
Economists who ignore these gross distortions seem to have forgotten that the word “economics” is derived from the Greek “oikonomia,” meaning “the management of household affairs.” Earth is our household and we must learn to live as responsible contributing members.
We must abandon our use of the fossil fuels that are changing our climate and bringing on mass extinction. We must cut our material consumption—especially in high-income countries—by more than a third so that Earth’s bounty will be available to all living things forever. We must radically reallocate wealth—real wealth, and not mere money—so that everyone can live a healthy and fulfilling life.
This will require a cultural transition from seeking happiness in material excess to seeking happiness in material sufficiency and spiritual abundance. It will require an institutional transition from corporate rule to deep democracy.
Our knowledge and communications technologies give us the means to turn away from our destructive war against nature, our worship of money, and our dependence on institutions that separate us from one another and nature. Humanity has been acting like a willful child, demanding everything and leaving messes everywhere. It is time for our species to take the step to maturity, to acknowledge that care and cooperation are key to happiness—and even survival. Only then can we achieve the positive potential innate in all of us.