Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:
As we wrote last time, changing a culture ain’t easy, but it needs to be done. While political leaders (or anti-leaders) continue pushing the agenda of economic growth to get us back on track to making the American Dream available to everyone – if they just work hard enough and if “job creators” are freed up from government regulations and taxes to invest in workers, and blah, blah, blah – the world presents us with a different reality. The global economy has changed, and the sources of wealth generation have changed. And most of us are being left out of that picture, human detritus dumped on the margins of the economy.
The debate around Mitt Romney’s source of wealth is relevant – most of it comes from investment, not from real work. It’s money making money. And investment income faces low tax rates, thanks in large part to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, just 15% on capital gains. This puts an enormous driver of unfairness into our entire economic system as only the wealthy even have the money to invest at the scale that generates true wealth, the kind that makes millionaires and billionaires.
I want to cite a couple of articles to offer another picture of what is happening to our world of wealth and employment. I have written previously that our unemployment problem is not just a result of the Sept. ’08 financial crash and the Great Recession (which had actually begun before the crash), but result of a structural shift in the global economy, a permanent one.
The labor market available to corporations has grown exponentially in recent decades, a result of population growth, of China’s giant economy entering global markets, of free trade agreements that have moved capital around the world freely but kept labor in place, adding to a downward pressure on wages and working conditions because of a growing cheap labor pool, and rising expectations for standards of living (i.e., material consumption) around the world. For decades, with the globalization of the labor market, US workers whose wages and benefits had lifted them into a massive middle class following World War II were now competing with workers from Latin America to Asia and beyond. How does a worker making $25-$35 an hour for assembly line work compete with a worker making 50 cents an hour in Thailand or El Salvador? They don’t, especially in the era in which fuel costs for global transport were relatively cheap compared with today.
Inexorably, over the course of 2-3 decades, corporations have succeeded in using the pressure of this wage competition to bust private sector union contracts in the US, to erode labor rights, and to drive wages and benefits down the toilet in return for keeping some jobs here.
Check out this article from last November’s NY Times: The Age of the Superfluous Worker
This is a pretty bleak picture of the future, and the ideas proffered in the end for addressing that picture are, let’s be real, impossible to even talk about in the current politics of this country. So expect the “unbelievably angry country, with intense and continuing conflict between the have-jobs and have-nones” to be our future – unless we can do something else “from below,” and fast. [For another great example of how the global labor market has shifted and the impact on the US middle class, check out this brilliant deconstruction of Apple and where and how it now manufactures its iPhones, iPads, etc.]
Yet even more is going on. As manufacturing has gone more and more high tech, as robotics do more and more manufacturing, eliminating or replacing actual workers, and as the remaining low-skilled work ends up in enormous factory complexes with young underpaid exploited workers in China and elsewhere, the kinds of manufacturing jobs that once created the US middle class are simply disappearing.
We don’t need all these workers anymore. They are becoming surplus. And this is not only about things like assembling an iPhone. A lot of high-tech computer work is ending up in big shops in India, for example, where making $10,000 a year is a great salary.
Of course, the poor are always those hit first and worst at a time of economic collapse or upheaval. In my local paper today, we have a stunningly stark and depressing exposé of the impact the loss of manufacturing has had on African-American workers in my city of Milwaukee, a situation aided and abetted by the local culture’s long and still deeply entrenched history of racism.
We have a local crisis here of huge proportions. I really hope you will read this article for what it reveals about the impacts of this great economic shift on the other soci0-economic-cultural challenges of this community. Abandonment of human beings of this proportion impacts everything else – quality of life in neighborhoods, family health and well-being, care of the environment, prospects for addressing the enormous challenges posed by our mounting ecological threats.
And yet all of these outcomes are direct consequences of the cultures rockbed values. Sadly, those values include a focus on individual gain and competition, resentment towards those who fall through the cracks of the competition and need public services, the ‘hustler’ mentality described in Morris Berman’s book cited the other day (Why America Failed), a nation of hustlers and often outright swindlers trying to make a buck often at the expense of someone else – like Apple competing for your business with lower production costs to make their toys more affordable, sending assembly jobs to Foxconn where labor is cheap, available 12 hours a day at a wage of $17 per day, and workers can be counted on to be submissive.
We don’t intend as a political culture right now to provide a decent education and opportunity for the African-American men of Milwaukee. Why would we want to invest in their future when the economy holds no place for them to pursue their dreams? For them we have hopelessness and a prison bed.
Spirituality and ecology – that’s what this project is about. What I want to say today is this: there has been too wide a gap between the environmental movement and economic injustice, between seeking ecological wholeness and the growing misery of millions upon millions of human beings because of the logic of our corporate economy. I no longer even believe we can save the precious ecosystems of the earth if we don’t address things like racism, ethnic resentment, and other forms of cultural discrimination. And we sure can’t do it with a culture formed by the values and meaning frameworks of this global economy.
Fortunately the gap between environmentalism and social justice has been closing in recent years. Much of that is happening at the local level. Here in Milwaukee, groups like Growing Power, which is trying to bring healthy food into the food deserts of the inner city, or Alice’s Garden, or Urban Ecology Center, have made the link and they are doing brilliant work.
And so I go back to the headline: in order to change the culture, we have to shift values at the most fundamental level, and then begin to live them.
We have to witness the new principles of our lives by becoming them – unselfish, less self-seeking, less worried about our own security by binding our sense of safety and well-being to the safety and well-being of others, renouncing the values of a consumer culture by returning to lives of greater simplicity, more human contact and intimacy (not mediated through hi-tech toys), and spiritualities not mediated by hierarchies, dogma, and big institutions, but rooted, rested, within the web of creation itself.
When we nest there, we come to realize what actually supports us, what gives us life, and what gives life meaning. Those are the things that are being threatened, that are being unraveled, shredded, by a culture of exploitation, greed, and selfish competition.
To change the culture, we start right where we are, in our relationships, our daily choices, in where we put our energy and our priorities. If the culture is going to continue to unravel, what do we want in its place? What do we want to create so that when it falls apart, there is something there from which to create life anew – a better life than this one? When it falls apart, what then will hold us, and what will that look like? That’s the work of New Creation – and it has become essential.