First I read this article by Christine Ahn about the just-finished US Social Forum in Detroit. In it, she contemplates the uneasy alliance between those working for economic justice and the peace community. Ms. Ahn's perception is that the peace community is primarily a white, middle-class presence, while the economic justice people tend to be a broader cross section of racial and ethnic groups working to achieve some sense of fairness as they have not benefited from several decades of prosperity. Yet she found that when these two groups came together, they did indeed find common ground in their shared opposition to the militaristic aspects of the US economy. The common ground could very well be summed up by the old phrase "butter, not guns." If we de-fund all our illegal wars, occupations, and reckless military escapades, and cut the "defense" budget down to a fraction of its present size, we could invest even a small portion of all that money into local communities, in things like health care, education, renewable energy, etc. This is all well and good, and indeed is critically important at this time. That is the beauty of bringing together disparate groups with similar values yet differing agendas -- larger and more fundamental truths emerge.
Then I thought about the chair I might sit at in such a gathering. I am a peacenik and have been involved in a number of peace-oriented groups over the years; and yes, I am a white, educated, middle-class American male, and I know that the perception that the peace community is mostly white has truth in it. I've also long been an advocate of economic justice, though in a less public way, mostly in my own personal opinions and not so much by my direct actions and involvement in community organizations. To make matters worse, more recently I've become, somewhat reluctantly, known as an "environmentalist." Shudder the thought. As I look at my own writings on this blog, and the way I've chosen to live my life, this label certainly might fit (thought I totally agree with Wendell Berry in rejecting that label; he prefers "conservationist" and I lean toward "ecologist.") Nevertheless, as I live off-grid in a rural intentional community, work part-time at a number of odd jobs, and spend much time and energy doing things like working in the garden and making solar ovens, labels like "green" certainly are applicable. As if to confirm all remaining stereotypes, I live and interact with mostly other white, educated, English-speaking people and tend to be wary of massive "investment" projects in job creation and urban infrastructure. I even wince a little when well established lefties I support like Michael Moore or Jim Hightower lament the disappearance of the old "middle class" and the exportation of all our good manufacturing jobs. Sure, it is a tragedy that these jobs are no longer here, but the last thing in the world we need is to bring them back! Good Lord, I can't help but listen to myself and think "am I just one of those elitist liberal environmentalists who wants to protect my precious green world by keeping a third of the world's people living in abject poverty?"
Then, as if tailor made to break my forlornness, along comes this wonderful piece by British lecturer Bob Hughes. Begin with this truth: "The modern global economy doesn't just run on fossil fuels, it runs on inequality." This is an amazingly powerful statement -- our economy literally runs on inequality, every bit as much as it runs on the exploitation of finite resources of the earth that no one has paid for. It runs, in total, on exploitation rather than cooperation, and this is my objection to participating in it. Even though I find lots of close affinity with those who call themselves "environmentalists" I don't do what I do nor feel the way I feel out of nostalgia or love for some abstract green Earth that is separate from me. No, I am part of the Earth, just as are all the other fellow beings with whom I share this planet and our future. I know it is not sexy to say so, but I am an "economist" as much as ecologist, and way more so than environmentalist. Wait a minute, to be an Economist you have to teach at a University and write papers with all sorts of charts and graphs in them that attempt to demonstrate how you or your colleagues predicted this collapse or that boom. Perhaps that is what is required to be an Economist with a capital "E" but I am an economist without all that pretense. Economy is fundamentally about the way we humans interact with one another to get our material and social needs met. It is fundamentally about human relationships, just as ecology is about the way we interact with the rest of creation to also get our material and social needs met. There are healthy ways to do economy and ecology, and there are exploitative ways. Those of us who are paying attention to the world around us, notably Mr. Bob Hughes in this article, know all too well what the latter look like. It is up to us to work on eliminating that way of relationship, and on creating new economies and ecologies that foster and reinforce healthy relationships. In other words, we all need to become economists in the best sense of the word; we all need to take responsibility for the ways that we interact with others to get our needs met and not farm that responsibility out to some group of experts somewhere.
It is a profound and ongoing tragedy that we have come to this point in the development of human civilization running on an economy that is fueled by exploitation, and are approaching the limits of what that exploitation can achieve and yet the majority of the people in this world remain more exploited than exploiter, particularly people of color and those living in less developed regions. We desperately need to come together to work on creating a new economy that doesn't exploit and instead relies on sustainable and non-harmful ways to get our needs met. We need to feel a sense of solidarity, even one-ness, with all people, future generations, and all creation, and act accordingly. As much as we may yearn for a not-too-distant past when all one needed was a good job in a local factory to have one's family's needs met, including food, shelter, safety, health care, education, and social cohesion, we need to realize that that was always a false dream; it always relied on exploitation of others and the invisible. As much as those of us who have never enjoyed that kind of life may feel a sense of injustice, we need to learn a new way of justice that is based on visible and respectful relationships with other people and the natural world. In other words, to borrow a phrase that I probably have no right to borrow, we need to keep our "eyes on the prize" of creating a new economy that works for all. Thank you, Mr. Bob Hughes, for reminding me of this.