Life on the Edge

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the world into uncharted territory, with challenges that we have never seen before, but also fresh opportunities.

Originally Published on The Progressive, June 2, 2020

In truth, the COVID-19 crisis is just one of many we face—as a nation, and as a planet. In mid-May, as this article went to press, the coronavirus was killing more than 3,000 people worldwide each day, sometimes nearly twice as many. Meanwhile, climate disruption is also exacting a ghastly toll, killing about 150,000 people each year.

We need to stop these crises in their tracks.

But solutions to any problem require first grasping its roots. So, just how did we get to this frightening place?

Fifty years ago, the experts were telling us that a scarcity of food was the cause of global hunger—destined only to get worse. But my untrained eyes allowed me to see the obvious: From plenty, humans were actively creating the experience of scarcity. This “aha” moment led to my first book, Diet for a Small Planet.

The shock of being right awakened me. Suddenly, I realized that human beings are uniquely “creatures of the mind.” Our belief systems, carried in stories that we absorb through a cultural ether, determine whether we thrive—and today, whether we survive.

These wider stories, unique to each culture, offer essential meaning and direction. They define who we are and what’s possible. As the proverb attributed both to Plato and to the Hopi people says, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

Thus, in this moment of historic crisis, let’s first identify our culture’s dominant story—and who’s telling it—that has driven us to the edge.

The story begins in 1971.

We’d just experienced a postwar era in which Americans in every income quintile doubled their real family income, with the poorest gaining the most. In the previous decade alone, the civil rights movement had scored huge victories, and the federal War on Poverty had cut America’s poverty rate by 42 percent. In 1970, the first Earth Day turned out one in ten Americans in an impassioned cry for environmental health.

Encouraged that greater fairness and environmental responsibility were possible, these social movements demanded more—more voice, more equity, and more action. But their aspirations struck fear in the hearts of others—especially America’s business elite.

Encouraged that greater fairness and environmental responsibility were possible, these social movements demanded more—more voice, more equity, and more action. But their aspirations struck fear in the hearts of others—especially America’s business elite.

So, in 1971, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce commissioned attorney Lewis Powell—at the time serving on eleven corporate boards—to prepare a game plan: the now infamous “Powell Memo.” His thirty-four-page playbook didn’t pull any punches. With great urgency, he warned that our “free enterprise system” is “under broad attack.” It is in “deep trouble and the hour is late.”

Powell, who would soon after be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, singles out one particular enemy of freedom: Ralph Nader, who’d recently had the audacity to challenge unsafe practices in the auto industry.

In response, Powell called on the business elite to spread a new message: That the very survival of freedom embodied in the “free enterprise system” is threatened by those who seek to extend the power of government, and so businesses must fight back with unprecedented investment and coordination. From grade school to grad school, as well as through think tanks and the media, the anti-government message had to go forth.

This “story” was straightforward: Freedom isn’t freedom of opportunity—as social movements had been insisting—but rather freedom from government interference. Government action to promote the general welfare—as in rules protecting clean air or voting rights or fair labor practices—denies freedom.

It is also a worldview that assumes a rather tawdry view of human nature: Pulling away the fluff, all we can truly count on is that humans are self-interested, competitive, and materialistic. A few years after Powell’s memo, science reinforced this meme when biologist Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, which one survey later deemed the most influential science book of all time.

Such reductionist views encouraged calls to let the “free market” decide whose needs get met, since it’s driven by the only motive we can truly count on: self-interest. A misconstrued Adam Smith soon became the godfather of this philosophy, and by the 1980s, neckties with his image were popular in the Reagan White House.

Business got the message. In the decade after Powell’s memo, the number of firms with lobbyists in Washington rose sharply. Today, for every Congressperson that Americans elect, almost two dozen Washington lobbyists pursue the (mostly business) interests of their bosses. Between 2000 and 2016, the fossil fuel industry alone invested nearly $2 billion in lobbying to kill climate change legislation, reports a 2018 academic study.

Lobbying was not enough, though.

Those determined to defeat “big government” have succeeded in getting a seat at the table as lawmakers craft legislation. In 1973, funded by business interests, the newly renamed American Legislative Exchange Council began working directly with lawmakers to produce model bills, including those loosening environmental standards. Each year across the country, dozens of these bills become laws.

So it’s no surprise that an academic study published in 2014 found that America’s economic elites had strong influence on which public policies passed, while the influence of the majority of Americans was “near zero.”

Our market—termed “free” but driven by the single-minded logic of delivering the highest return to existing wealth—has led to economic inequality more extreme than that of more than a hundred other countries, and the current pandemic is worsening the divide. No one should be surprised that COVID-19’s toll is disproportionately decimating the lives of low-income Americans, especially people of color.

So much for how we got to the edge.

Now is the moment to prove that “crisis offers opportunity” isn’t an empty cliche. Both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and already-occurring climate disruptions may be cracking a key pillar of the old story—the notion that the market left to itself can best serve life—and clearing the way for a new one. Surely, the months we have already spent facing a common, invisible enemy are leading to a deeper awareness of our connected fates. The great losses heighten our awareness of the need for government as our shared tool in protecting life.

So, the big question: Can we begin to imagine truly overcoming COVID-19, preparing for future pandemics, and effectively taking on the even bigger challenge of preventing the climate catastrophe?

Possibly . . . if we dig deep enough.

One understandable response to these crises is simply to fight with renewed vigor the “mal- efactors of great wealth” that Teddy Roosevelt warned us about. But I believe this approach can’t work on its own. We must also quickly shape a new and life-serving story.

Let’s start anew with the question: Who are we?

Contrary to a misreading of Darwin’s theory about “survival of the fittest,” humans rose as the dominant species due in large measure to our uniquely strong social capacities—for cooperation, empathy, and a sense of fairness. Darwin himself wrote that in tribal societies “actions are regarded . . . as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe.”

Even Adam Smith, whose work is often reduced to the “invisible hand” of self-interest, wrote that humans feel “tied, bound, and obliged to the observation of justice.” And now we experience these prosocial capacities daily, as seen in the self-sacrifice of health workers and in the wider heart-opening to others that the current pandemic reveals.

From there, the harder challenge is to identify and create the specific economic and political conditions that bring out the best in us and keep the worst in check. History suggests at least three: the wide dispersion of power, transparency in public affairs, and a culture of mutual accountability. By “mutual accountability,” I mean acknowledging that we all share responsibility for today’s crises, even if only by our inaction.

On the first condition—dispersion of power—I flash back to a moment when I publicly challenged the dominant story. In the 1980s, I was invited to the University of California, Berkeley, to debate Milton Friedman, the prime promoter of “free-market” capitalism. “Dr. Friedman,” I said, “if freedom to choose in the marketplace defines freedom, then it grows only as our government sets rules to ensure the ever-wider distribution of buying power.”

Needless to say, he didn’t buy it.

Indeed, for humans, it’s hard to let go of one way of making sense of our world without a new one clearly in sight. So, how do we create positive economic and social conditions before it’s too late?

First we can take tips from how the dominant, destructive story was built via innumerable “little stories” that tell us government always fails and business is always the “juice” of progress. Similarly, let’s focus on identifying and sharing examples of a more compelling, life-serving story—fed less by fear and more by hope.

We can spread what I love to call “stories of possibility.”

For example, a remarkable upsurge of climate-solution action is underway in cities and states all across America, including red states. Citizens are working with governments to change laws and spawn climate-safe energy, transportation, farming, and more.

Texas, known for Big Oil and big egos, has become an international leader in renewable energy. If Texas were a country, it would be the world’s fifth largest producer of wind energy.

More than 2,700 U.S. cities, states, businesses, and others in the “We Are Still In” coalition have declared their commitment to the Paris climate agreement, despite Donald Trump’s pullout.

Thus, many are taking bold action. And we can change the system’s rules to enable these stories to multiply exponentially.

One such change toward creating a new climate and economic story is simply to stop rewarding harm with our public dollars. Globally, in 2017, nations spent more than $5 trillion subsidizing fossil fuels, including indirect costs like higher health care and climate mitigation. In the United States, these costs have exceeded our defense budget.

We can stop. We have to.

And we can go further to create life-serving rules. Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, is among those calling for lawsuits requiring industries to compensate us for their damage. If Joe Biden, with a lukewarm record on climate, becomes our next President, it will take a great deal of citizen pressure to ensure he follows through on his commitment to pass new emissions limits with, as he said, “an enforcement mechanism . . . based on the principles that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting.”

At the same time, a global citizens’ movement to take big polluters out of policy making is growing, with Boston-based Corporate Accountability a U.S. leader. And, today’s historic pandemic-induced oil industry crisis could open us to a bigger system solution. As The New Republic reports, Carla Skandier of the Democracy Collaborative proposes our “government takes a majority stake in privately owned fossil fuel firms, winding down production along a science-based timeline and giving workers a dignified off-ramp into other well-paid work.”

Sound too “socialist”? Note that publicly owned electric utilities already serve about fifty million Americans, from Nashville to Seattle, and at a lower cost than investor-owned companies.

The good news is that for the first time a majority of Americans agree climate-change action should be a top national priority. The proposed Green New Deal—mocked by Republicans as too broad and unaffordable—embodies the connectedness at the heart of the emergent story. It holds the promise of America addressing the climate crisis, while simultaneously tackling mass poverty.

Maine offers a glimpse of the new story taking shape.

Relying on Maine’s “Clean Elections” system of public financing, a young environmental activist named Chloe Maxmin in 2018 defeated a Republican businessman to become the first Democrat ever elected in her state House district. Afterward she led passage of a Green New Deal bill by a vote of 84 to 55. It calls for new, clean jobs with apprenticeships and supports schools during the transition from fossil fuels.

“Once you get through differing opinions on policy issues, below that,” Maxmin tells me, “we all share an incredibly deep frustration with our government.” Working at the state level, Maxmin finds “opportunity to rebuild our faith in each other and politics.”

Perhaps, decades from now, we’ll see that the new story of such connectedness and mutual responsibility arose first from risk takers in cities and states.

Already, polls show, most Americans favor the promises of a Green New Deal but worry over the price tag. So a prime task toward system solutions is to help Americans appreciate the vast sums currently being lost through corporate tax-escape hatches.

It’s also possible the trillions being poured into COVID-19-related relief may alter perceptions about what America can “afford.”

Certainly, the pandemic is awakening Americans to our nation’s preexisting dysfunctionality, thus strengthening our will to create new rules for a fair economy accountable to the people.

But system solutions become possible only as we build a deep foundation: democracy in America. Here again, a reframing is called for. We bury the notion of democracy as a finished structure in which our role as citizens is, well, dull duty: the blah spinach we force down to get to what we really want—our dessert of personal liberties. Instead, we embrace democracy as many in numerous generations have experienced it—as a thrilling journey.

What I’m discovering is far from dull duty.

Instead I experience an awakening, as Americans passionate about a cause—say, labor, racial justice, or the environment—grasp that without democracy they can’t get far on “their” issue. So together they’re birthing a vibrant “movement of movements,” reflected in the Democracy Initiative. In seven years, it’s brought together seventy-two organizations representing forty-five million Americans, advancing reforms that reduce Big Money’s power over our democracy and ensure every voice is heard. Together, Americans never before engaged are realizing their power, enriching their lives with meaning and connection.

In this moment, with life itself at stake, what’s all important is manifesting a “new story” capable of powering rebirth.

We can leave behind what I like to call ScarcityMind—that sees only scarcity and separateness—and embrace what ecology teaches us: Life is connectedness, change, and thus ongoing co-creation. In this story, there are no parts, only participants. I call it EcoMind, and within it, even the notion of hope changes.

To some, hope is for wimps—naïve, and even dangerous in this moment, as it diminishes a sense of urgency. But from an understanding of life as continuous change, with all in connection to all else, we realize it is simply not possible to know what’s possible. How freeing.

Throughout history, humans have proven that to rise to a mighty challenge we don’t need certainty of success, or even high probability. To act boldly, we need only to sense the possibility that our action might make a difference, no matter how small. So, I’m neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I declare myself a dyed-in-the-wool possibilist.

Plus, there’s evidence that hope reorganizes our brains toward solutions. So, as we stand at the edge in this do-or-die moment, why not seize hope’s power?

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the Institute of writers, speakers, & activists Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé

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