Living in this World

Monday, September 27, 2010

#93 Imagining a New Thing

"It is easier to imagine the end of life on earth than a new economic
system; this is a lethal failure of the imagination, and an indication of
how much the system has us in thrall."

I am still stunned by the truth, and horror, of that first phrase. Our
growth-driven economic system is leading us toward environmental
destruction, yet we’ll go along with this nightmare, simply for lack of
imagination. It gives me a new perspective on the people who believe in
rapture and the end days. If you are a good person trying to do the right
thing, yet everything around you seems to be falling apart, it may be easier
to imagine the end than change here on earth. And if you are around
passionate people with vivid imaginations who paint a compelling picture of
how the rapture will play out, it becomes that much easier to believe.

Yet people have been prophesying imminent apocalypse in vain for well over
2000 years, and I’m much more interested in life here on earth. So I’d
rather imagine a new economic system instead, and paint a different picture
that’s equally passionate and compelling.

Luckily it’s not that hard. There are lots of people all over the
world--including economists--who are busily engaged in imagining a new
thing, and there is a growing consensus about many of its elements: a
reorientation from a focus on producing money to a focus on producing goods
that people need; measuring our economic health not by the sum of all
economic activity, good, bad or indifferent, but by how well people are
doing; moving from growth in consumption and scale to growth in knowledge,
technical ability and flexible intelligence; production methods that move
beyond waste, so that by-products of one process become valued inputs
somewhere else; a regulatory and tax system that works toward equity; an
emphasis on the value of community and caring, and local ability to produce
wealth and meet human needs.

Yes, yes, you may say, that all sounds very good, but it will never happen.
I would quote, in return, the wise person who said that despair is an insult
to the future. And, anyhow, where does despair get us besides what our
current society has to offer--endless consumption and entertainment, or
individualized pursuit of a private good life, or embracing the rapture? At
least the work of imagining, both what could be and how it might come to
pass, provides some meaning.

It isn’t work that’s easy. The institutions and powers that seem to have
society in thrall, moving us inevitably toward destruction, are immense.
Wall Street blatantly protects its power and greed. Politics is
increasingly devoid of civility or cooperation. The solutions the system
creates for the problems it has produced just seem to breed bigger
problems--all at the expense of the environment. If this is all we focus on
when we look out, the end days could easily be right over the horizon.

I’m helped here by a concept I came across from theologian Walter Wink, that
every human institution has a divine vocation. They may have strayed from
that vocation, but it is still there to be found. Politics has a vocation
of providing a structure that allows people to live together. Economics has
a vocation of creating a way for people to meet their needs. It is our job
to call our institutions back to their divine vocation. If we can choose
this role, of imagining what our institutions are really there to do, and
calling them home, we will find ourselves in a new place of power and

The times call out for us to imagine the future as if our life, as if life
on earth, depended on it. But we can choose a different, even more
compelling, motivation. We can engage in this work because imagining a new
thing is at the very heart of what it means to be human.


In the corner of the compost
is a stranger.
Home from travels away
I find the exotic waiting
in my tiny yard.

The compost has never
been strange before--
egg shells
vegetable waste
weeds and leaves
the occasional sprouting potato
all common,
familiar as my hand.

Yet this tall foreigner
has boldly taken residence
Long pointed leaves
dark and shiny
the new ones translucent
almost red--
of royal blood perhaps?
I’m not sure how to behave
in its presence.

I get a pot
prepare it to receive the visitor
and carefully
begin to dig.

As I work through layers of waste
I find the seed
key to this mystery--

I am hosting
a mango.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The opening of four short films, done by community groups with the help of a
community media organization--focusing on a grocery store coop in a poor
city without a supermarket, a vibrant neighborhood self-help group, women
working together to get their children out of foster care, and teens working
to keep juveniles out of adult prisons--followed by heartfelt and
mutually-appreciative discussion among the filmmakers and audience.

A federal grant to create a big research hub focused on sustainable
building, energy use and rehabbing technology at a long-unused naval
shipyard--the ultimate conversion from military to peaceful production.

Indigenous environmental wins, gathering allies across the world through
electronic communication--including a tribal group in India protecting their
land from a bauxite mine.

The recognition by 300 international scientists that efforts to protect the
ozone layer have been a success, with a significant decrease in the ozone
layer depletion in the past years.