We are fortunate to live at a time when we have access to information that shakes us awake to the absolute need – and the fabulous opportunities – to change the course of human history. We can look back, analyze the mistakes we’ve made, and blaze trails into new approaches for surviving on this magnificent, yet fragile, planet.
For at least 3,000 of the 200,000 years that humans, as we know ourselves, have existed (1), we’ve developed civilizations based on the exploitation of other people and nature. We’ve moved from hunters-gathers, through the agrarian and industrial revolutions, and into the current technology/information age. Yet, for these past three millennia we’ve continued to build our socio-economic-political structures around hierarchies.
What we have today is the direct descendant of the classical empires (e.g. China, Persia, Greece, Rome), medieval fiefdoms, European colonizers of Africa, America, Asia, and the Middle East, slave-owning plantation systems, and 19th century factories where women and children worked under horrible conditions. People employed today by short-term profit-driven corporations may live less squalid lives than the slaves, serfs, and indentured workers of former times, but they too are subject to the greed-driven, often brutal policies, of their corporate masters. They are bought and sold in labor markets, sent off to fight wars that profit Big Business, and paid wages that are hundreds of times lower than those of their bosses. (2) Billions of people around the world labor long, hard hours, often under insufferable conditions, for wages that are insufficient to support their families and their own retirements. Meanwhile, fortunes that boggle the imagination are piled into the treasure chests of a handful of billionaires, the latest edition of global potentates.
We can marvel at the greed of kings who banqueted in splendid castles while their subjects toiled and starved in the ghettoes outside. We may ask ourselves how those kings could justify such opulence in the midst of so much misery. And yet, all we need do is drive past the grandiose mansions, mega-yachts that are longer than football fields, or private luxury jets of the current barons to ask ourselves similar questions.
What do the Koch brothers do with their $100 billion – other than hire economic hit men to make sure they pay no taxes while enjoying the infrastructure and services financed by US tax-payers? How many environments and lives have been destroyed by the oil refineries, pipelines, cattle ranches, chemical, plastics, fertilizer, and other businesses owned by Koch Industries? (3) What percentage of Jeff Bezos’s $160 billion has been earned by the ruthless tactics of Amazon – tactics that have wiped out competitors, including thousands of mom and pop businesses around the world? How closely tied is Mark Zuckerberg’s $55 billion to Facebook’s relationship with Russian trolls, Cambridge Analytica, and the harvesting of personal data of millions of people without their consent? (4) How does America’s richest family live with itself when it knows that US taxpayers buy food stamps and Medicaid for half its employees, adding approximately $6 billion a year to the coffers of the Walmart kingdom? (5)
Yet, the good news is that we are fortunate to know these things, to be able to ask these and so many more questions. We have access to information that inspires, encourages and motivates us to change. We are not shackled in chains of silence. We have the ability to turn things around, to transform a system that is failing into one that will support us and our children and grandchildren.
The long march of hierarchical history has led us to this moment of awareness, a true age of enlightenment. The earth herself speaks to us, warning that if we don’t change, the consequences will be catastrophic, and already are catastrophic for billions of our brothers and sisters who somehow survive where wars, climate crisis, and failed economies have created seemingly unlivable conditions. The melting glaciers and polar ice, the rising oceans, the species extinctions, the hurricanes, fires, floods, tornadoes, and droughts, the desperation of people around the planet, the political discord – all of these are symptoms of a global social-economic-political system that is consuming itself into extinction. A Death Economy.
As I travel around the world, meeting people who range from subsistence farmers to world leaders, I find two opposing forces: 1) An amazing awakening, a true consciousness revolution, an understanding that we are the navigators of a beautiful and fragile space station and we are steering her toward disaster; and 2) As in any revolution, a push-back by the people at the top of the hierarchy and those who follow their leadership because they fear change or buy into the ideas that they have no power and “that’s just the way it is.”
Despite those who would maintain the status quo, despite the new wave of nationalism and xenophobia, and despite so much “bad” news, I find that more and more of us are listening to the many warnings. We are not sure where to go for solutions. There are those who turn to the conservative policies of authoritarians. Others to the more liberal policies of democratic socialism. But whether we live in the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or one of the island nations, we are coming to understand that the historical pattern can’t continue. Recognizing that the current systems aren’t serving our long-term interests is the first step on the path to change.
I was born in 1945, at the end of WWII, in New Hampshire. My dad lay in a Navy hospital bed in Texas until I was a year old – when I finally met him. I grew up steeped in patriotism. I knew that my country heroically helped stop Nazi and Japanese imperialism and successfully spear-headed the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe. I admired both Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democratic President John Kennedy. America to me was the greatest country in the world and a model for others to follow. Now I, like so many of us, have to ask the question:
Is a country great if:
Three individuals in that country have as much wealth as half the rest of the population? (1)
Forty million people in that country live at or below the official poverty rate? (2)
The country claims to be a democracy but nobody can run for national public office without raising a fortune from rich people and/or corporations?
Its medical health care systems rank last in the world among countries with similar GDPs per capita? (3)
More than 50% of its discretionary budget goes to the military – much of it for outdated weapons in an age of cybernetics – and it spends about 10 times as much money on the military as its primary rival, Russia (4)?
Its leaders continually lie to its citizens about extremely important issues (e.g. weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, climate change, immigration, the personalities and policies of leaders in other countries, etc.)?
It separates children from their parents in prison camps, builds walls to keep out immigrants, and condemns those immigrants as criminals, instead of helping countries develop vibrant economies by reversing trade and corporate policies that have contributed to the economic decline, violence and desperation?
Sixty of its biggest companies did not pay federal taxes in 2018 despite making billions of dollars in profits (these include Amazon, Netflix, General Motors, IBM, Chevron, Eli Lilly, Delta, Occidental Petroleum, Honeywell, Prudential, Halliburton, Whirlpool and Goodyear)? (5) and . . .
On and on. The questions seem to loom larger every day, and the answers lead to the conclusion that the path of the US after World War II has taken an abrupt turn backwards. This nation, like most of Europe, may be seen as a refuge from the poverty, desperation and brutality of impoverished countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, but the US is no longer respected as a model of greatness. Beyond that, the world no longer idealizes the US as a democracy. The influence of money – legalized corruption – in the election process has emerged from the closet for all to see.
In today’s atmosphere, it is tough to speak out like this, to admit that our post WWII experiment has failed. Many of our politicians accuse people who say such things or ask questions like those above of being unpatriotic. However, any student of history knows that the opposite is true. A real patriot has the responsibility – the mandate – to ask the tough questions. Only by asking them, being willing to honestly hear the answers and using those answers to formulate plans and policies for change, can we return to the path to greatness.
When I speak of such matters at public forums, I sometimes hear responses like “the US may not be perfect, but it’s the best there is” or “we’re a lot better than Russia and China.” Such responses are a cop out. They do nothing to improve the situation. Ultimately, they are self-defeating. None of this is about comparisons. It is about the US. It is about greatness. It is about answering the question: What will make America great?
If we truly want to be a great nation then we must stop denying our shortcomings, cease to blame the Russians, Chinese, immigrants, and any “others” who conveniently enter our sights, and we must buckle down to the job of serving as a model for the world. We must get back onto the path of environmental sustainability, social justice, compassion, and economic wellbeing for all; we must carry the torch down that path. Only by leading the way will we make America great.
I love good news. And these days it can often be found in talks and publications. Among the optimistic statistics cited in the popular book Factfullness are the following. Let’s call them Set A: (1)
In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has almost halved;
The majority of people live in middle-income countries;
80% of the global population have some access to electricity;
The share of people with water from a protected source has increased from 58% in 1980 to 88% in 2015; and
The percentage of undernourished people has decreased from 28% in 1970 to 11% in 2015.
These statistics are encouraging. Here’s a few different ones – Set B:
Since 1990, the world has lost more than 500,000 square miles of forests that absorb CO2 and heat-trapping greenhouse gases, provide habitat for animal species, and are the basis for discovering many plant-based medicines: (2)
By conservative estimates, more than 200 species go extinct every year; (3)
Glaciers in the Arctic, Antarctic, and on mountains around the planet are rapidly melting; one example: If current trends continue, 2/3 of Himalayan glaciers that provide water for billions of people in Asia will disappear by the end of this century; (4)
Increased electrical production has caused serious environmental problems including acid rain and particulate pollution, greenhouse gases, damned rivers, climate warming, and devastated forests (5) and
A sixth of the world’s population — nearly 1 billion people — live in slums; that number will double by 2030 if developed nations continue with current policies.
Unfortunately, the mind-sets, policies and actions that gave us the good news in Set A also resulted in the bad news in Set B. The development programs that have reduced poverty, malnutrition, etc. have been part of a global Death Economy that is ravaging the earth and destroying the resources upon which it depends. It is a system that is consuming itself into extinction. As I write in my upcoming book, Touching the Jaguar:
We live in a world that has witnessed astonishing improvements, including impressive reductions in infant mortality, poverty, epidemic, and hunger rates and remarkable increases in education, healthcare, longevity, potable water, sanitation, and electrical facilities. And, at the same time, we are threatened like never before by global crises, including climate change, nuclear holocaust, and forms of terrorism and cyberterrorism that often are generated by the widening gap between the very rich and powerful and those who feel totally disenfranchised? How do we respond to those threats?
That question of how we respond to the threats may be the most important question facing our species at this critical moment in our history. It begs us to understand that continuing along the current path of economic development will not work. While that path may augment the lists of good news in Set A in the short-run, it will also increase the bad news in Set B and lead us to a catastrophic end. The post-WWII economic model has fostered a great many benefits; at the same time, it has created global systems that are unsustainable and, in many cases, socially unjust. It is time to change. To paraphrase an applicable adage: Old tools will not fix new technologies.
As anyone who follows my blogs knows, I’m optimistic. I believe that perceptions about what it means to be human on this planet are changing rapidly and that the new perceptions are driving changes in values and actions that move us toward a Life Economy – one that pays businesses and people to clean up pollution, regenerate destroyed environments, recycle and develop new life-sustaining technologies.
Recent demonstrations by young people in many countries, inspired by the speeches of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, have made it clear that coming generations desire something better than what they are inheriting now. They are pleading – demanding – that we change the perceptions and policies which resulted in both Set A and Set B.
There is a growing consciousness among the young – and increasingly among more and more of the rest of us – that we must build life-styles, infrastructure, and socio-political systems that pass on to future generations economies and that are themselves renewable resources and social institutions that are equitable for all. We must give our offspring a world that is better than the one we inherited.
I love to hear good news. I also want to know that such good news does not lull us into the trance of believing that old policies and programs – the ones that led us down the path to Set B – are right for the future. It is time to recognize that a species that can communicate across the globe instantaneously and send space probes to the far frontiers of our solar system is intelligent and creative enough to expand the good news of Set A and end the bad news of Set B.
(1) Rosling, Hans with Rosling, Ola and Ronnland, Anna Rosling. Factfullness, NY, Flatiron Books, 2018
I returned to my favorite bar in Mexico City. It was mid-afternoon and, other than a couple making out at a corner table, I was the only patron. Trying to forget about all the horrible news in the world, I glanced up at the futbol game (“soccer” in the US) that was showing on the TV above the mirror. And ordered a beer.
Darned if my old friend wasn’t there again, staring back at me through the mirror. “Hola Juan,” I said. “How’s life?”
The waiter shoved a foamy mug at me.
Juan and I toasted each other in the mirror. “If it weren’t for the idiotic countries, life would be great,” he said.
Oh, oh! It appeared that he was dragging me into politics – the very thing I wanted to avoid. But, not desiring to be the rude gringo, I responded, “Which countries, Juan? What do you mean?”
“He frowned. “You’re kidding, right, John? Most of them, but right now especially Venezuela and the one imitating it.”
“Imitating Venezuela? What country would be that stupid?”
He gave me a knowing smile, a conspiratorial grin. “Sure,” he said. “Act dumb.” He took a sip of beer. “Yours, of course.”
“You think the US is imitating Venezuela?”
He just stared at me.
“Come on Juan. You better explain.” I watched him carefully through the mirror.
“OK,” he said at last. “I’ll play your little game of naiveté, mostly just because I feel like talking about it.” He paused, took a couple gulps of beer. “You know Venezuela was one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. In fact, in the 1950s it was ranked among the top five in per capita GDP – in the world. During the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez, from 1952 to 1958, the economy soared and Pérez became, it was rumored, the richest man in Latin America.” Juan gave me that smile of his. “He also couldn’t stand criticism and brutally attacked anyone who opposed any of his policies.”
“Hmmm, like. . .”
“You got it, like today – the presidents of both Venezuela and the United States.” He raised his mug, took another gulp, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “The Venezuelan economy continued to boom for the next three decades. Into the ‘80s it had the highest rate of economic growth in Latin America. But, suddenly, things took a dark turn. The Pérez Jiménez model caught fire; a relatively few families corralled the riches and grew extremely rich, while everyone else suffered.”
“Sounds a bit familiar, Juan. I recently read that the richest 1% in the US have more wealth than the bottom 90%.”
“Exactly. See what I mean, John?
“Are you suggesting. . .
“I’m not suggesting anything, just pointing out a few facts. As you well know, the statistics are totally skewed in favor of the wealthy. For example, in the US, if that 1% is making money and most of the 90% are losing money, the GDP stats will show good overall growth. While Venezuelan statistics registered a miracle in riches, the poor got poorer and people who’d been in the middle class suddenly found themselves living in slums. It wasn’t long before the inequality was staggering.”
“And that’s what’s happening in the US?”
“You yourself quoted that 1% versus 90%. Here’s another: Seven of the world’s ten richest people are from the US. On the other end of the spectrum, more than 40 million people in the US are officially living in poverty. That’s 10 million more people than the entire Venezuelan population.”
“Sounds like the US is. . .” I couldn’t bring myself to finish verbalizing my thought.
“Like the US is imitating Venezuela? That’s the lesson. The Venezuelan people became fed up. In their desperation, they voted in Hugo Chavez who was seen as different, not part of the corrupt system.”
“Like Donald Trump.”
“Interesting analogy. Although they represent very different ideologies, both were elected because they denounced the status quo, they seemed to be strong leaders who would stand up to the detested political system, the cronyism.” He paused and stared at me in the mirror. “Chavez had charisma – at least among a fairly large, mostly uneducated group.”
“Like. . .”
“Un huh. Then he died and was replaced by Maduro.”
“No charm at all.”
“Right, and very corrupt. Struck all sorts of shady deals that made lots of money for his business interests, his family and friends. But. . .” He held up a finger. “Desperate people support leaders they view as strong, self-assured, against the entrenched politicos – even if they are dictatorial, and corrupt.”
“I see where you’re going Juan, but there’s a big difference. They say Maduro rigged the elections, stole the votes.”
He gave me a look. “According to official tallies, Hillary got about 2.9 million more popular votes than Trump. She won. Except for the Electoral College – which, as I understand it, is a rigged system, anti-democratic.” He raised his mug. “Then there’s the military.”
“The military? What do you mean?”
“Maduro sent his military to the boarder with Colombia to keep out supply trains. Trump sent his military to the Mexican border to keep out immigrants. Madura said the supply trains are a threat to national security. Trump echoed his words – immigrants threaten to overrun the US with drugs, violence, and crime.”
I stared at him staring back at me through the mirror. I just couldn’t quite buy it. “Juan, surely you know that you’re exaggerating. What’s happened to Venezuela could never happen in the US.”
“You may be right,” he said. “I sure hope so. But Venezuelans would’ve said it couldn’t happen there back as recently as the early ‘80s when their country was the poster child for Latin America.”
I knew that was true. I’d worked for the World Bank in 1980 and recalled that it had classified Venezuela as one of the four “upper-middle class countries” on the continent. I found myself adding, “Germans in the 1920s never suspected their country could do what it did over the next couple of decades.”
Juan nodded his head. “One thing more,” he added with that sly smile of his. “Before the last election actually happened, Trump said that if he lost, he wouldn’t accept the results. What’d you think he’ll do if he loses the upcoming one?”
I couldn’t take any more of this. I’d come to this bar to forget the news. One of the teams on the TV was celebrating. The game was over. I finished off my beer, set the mug on the bar, and slammed down the pesos I owed. “I go to get out ‘a here, Juan.” I waved at the mirror. It waved back.
I walked outside. Just down the street, another bar overflowed with people high-fiving and shouting. Their team had won. I made a mental note: Next time, go to a bar cram-full of fans glued to the TV, cheering for their team.
I walked into a bar in Mexico City. There were a few people scattered around at the tables, but the bar was empty.
I was thinking about football, now that the season had ended. I’d grown up in New Hampshire and lived in Boston back when the Patriots never won a title. Things had changed!
I ordered a beer.
I glanced at the mirror. A guy stared back at me. He raised his mug. “Here’s to the Super Bowl champions.” He smiled “My name’s Juan.”
“I’m John. Glad to meet you.” I couldn’t help adding, “I’m from New England. We’re happy about the Super Bowl.”
“Yeah. I know. Congratulations. Sixth time, right?” He lowered his mug. “Excuse the abruptness and I hope this isn’t rude, but I got to ask: Why is American football so popular in the US, unlike here in Mexico or anywhere else in the world?”
“I’ve wondered about that, Juan. I think it’s because a football team is a microcosm of the corporation.”
“Oh, you mean, John, that corporations make a lot of money off the business of football – the ads, Coke sales, Viagra, and all that other stuff they sell?”
“That’s true, but not exactly what I had in mind, Juan.”
I watched him in the mirror as he sipped his beer.
“You see,” I said, anticipating his question. “The team has a CEO – the quarterback – who gets lots of information from his advisors on the sidelines, including the coach who is sort of like the chairman of the board. Then the quarterback makes the decisions about what to do next.”
“Doesn’t he make more money than anyone else?”
“Exactly. Like the CEO.”
“And he gets the fame – if the team wins.”
He cocked his head. “I’ve noticed that the quarterback gets to touch the ball every play – and he’s the only one who does, other than an assistant who bends over and hands or throws the ball to the quarterback under his butt and between his legs.” He laughed. “A very strange position, very funny picture indeed!”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Not sure why they do it that way, except the center – the guy who hands the ball back between his legs – is like a bodyguard to the quarterback.” I paused. In the mirror, his eyes held mine. “But there are these other guys – running backs, receivers. . . The quarterback sometimes hands or throws the ball to them. He tells them where they have to go and what they have to do to get the ball, but once they have it, they can make a few decisions – fake right, run left, or fake left, run right, that sort of thing.”
“Like vice presidents.”
“Hmmm. . .” I saw his point. “Nice analogy.”
“And what about all the other players, John? Those guys who bash heads and keep hitting each other.”
“The line.” I motioned for the bartender to bring our bill. There was no one else in the mirror. Just him.
“Yes, the line. They never even touch the football, do they?”
“In general, Juan, they don’t. Although sometimes the CEO or one of those vice presidents drops the ball, and then the men on the line can grab it or fall on it.”
He scratched his head. “No other game like that, is there? In our futbol, what you call soccer – everyone gets the ball and decides what to do with it. Same with basketball, volleyball, baseball, tennis, hockey – you name it.” He stared at me through the mirror. “What about girls?”
“You mean. . .”
“Do they play American football?”
“A few do, but not professionally.” I searched my brain. “Not even in high school or college, as far as I know.”
“Wow, John. So, it is a very macho sport? Sexist.”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“Strange, especially at this time with so much talk about gender equality and sexual abuse.” He shook his head at the mirror. “American football is a unique sport.” He lifted his mug. “I think you’re right: A football team is modelled after the corporation.”
“Or perhaps,” I said as I finished my beer. “It’s the other way around.”
He shrugged in the mirror. I reached into my pocket and watched him hand my money to the bartender. We walked away from the bar, through the open doorway, and toward a group of boys and girls who were kicking a soccer ball around in the street outside.
Questions you might ask yourself as you contemplate 2019:
Should I stop using Facebook, given all the controversy around the sharing of information with other companies and possible collaboration with the Russians?
Should I stop shopping at Amazon because its founder makes so much money, appears to exploit his employees, and pits cities against each other for lower tax rates and fewer employment benefits?
Should I stop drinking water in plastic bottles because of the horrendous damage the petroleum and plastics industries are causing?
Those questions and others like them remind me of one asked of the Dalai Lama by a member a group I led to India a number of years ago when we met in the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamshala. The questioner referenced a call for everyone around the globe to pray for peace on a certain day.
“Praying for peace is good,” the Dalai Lama responded, “but if that’s all you do, it’s a waste of time and may be counterproductive.” He went on to explain that if you walk away from such prayers feeling that you’ve done your part, you’re deceiving yourself. You must (in his words) “take appropriate actions every day.”
So, if you choose to answer “Yes” to the three questions above and to similar ones, it is important to understand that such actions may be effective because of how they impact you and your perceptions; however, by and of themselves, they are insufficient.
Let’s explore those three questions by asking three different ones:
If George Washington had stopped drinking tea, would that have ended the tyranny of the East India Company and King George of England?
By giving up smoking, did my dad force the tobacco companies to label cigarettes as dangerous to our health?
When I joined the Peace Corps because I opposed the war in Vietnam, did I stop that war?
Giving up tea and cigarettes and defying the draft might have been significant steps for George, dad, and me. However, they weren’t enough; we and others had to participate in concerted efforts, consumer movements, demonstrations, and political actions, to make the desired changes.
An acquaintance who quit smoking in college found that it was so good for her personally – and such an inspiration – that she then went on to organize one of the successful legal campaigns against Big Tobacco. Both actions, giving up smoking and organizing a movement, were important – the first because it changed her life and her perceptions and the second because it led to new public perceptions that changed the law. However, had people like her simply stopped smoking it is unlikely that the laws would ever have changed.
Today, movements that alter perceptions – what we might call “consciousness movements” – are easier than ever before. Whether the issues revolve around Facebook, Amazon, plastic bottles, smoking, war, or something else, social media offers amazing opportunities to organize, to alter perceptions on a large scale, and by doing so, to change the reality of what it means to be humans dealing with these issues on this planet.
It seems like poetic justice that postings on Facebook have highlighted two recent actions aimed at reigning in Facebook’s power. Bipartisan reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russia’s efforts, through Facebook, to turn African American voters against Hillary Clinton inspired the NAACP to launch a Facebook boycott. At about the same time, the D.C. attorney general sued Facebook for allowing outside companies to access user data and mislead users on the privacy of their data. Legal actions, boycotts and other concerted movements multiply individual actions on a scale that can be highly effective.
So, as you enter this new year, you may want to ask yourself questions about your buying habits and your life-style. Perhaps you will decide not to purchase water in plastic bottles, use plastic straws, or do other things that are inconsistent with your values. But don’t stop there. Take the next step . . . start or join a consciousness movement. Change your reality and then change the collective reality.
When Dr. David Dao was dragged off a United Express Flight by police officers from Chicago’s O’Hare airport on April 9, 2017, the ensuing outcry resulted in policy changes at major airlines. When Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, the highly split US Senate came together and voted for the first time in U.S. history to advance a bill to withdraw military forces from an unauthorized war (in Yemen) using the War Powers Resolution Act. The November 27, 2018 Senate vote, a stunning 63 to 37 bi-partisan action, delivered an historic rebuke to Saudi Arabia and President Trump.
These two stories are among the many examples of actions that trigger demands for change.
We can recall times throughout US history when violent events, like those two, triggered demands for change, from the Boston Massacre in 1770 to the current confrontational and often bloody demonstrations over police shootings of minorities. Yet, it is important to remember that around all these violent actions are nonviolent ones that set the stage by helping the public change perceptions. In the United Express case, fellow passengers recorded videos that went viral. The Khashoggi assassination and subsequent Senate vote followed months of media exposure to the indiscriminate murder of civilians by the US-supported Saudi military in Yemen. Before and after the Boston Massacre, writers like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Orators like Patrick Henry inspired a change of perception among Americans from “we must suffer the British because they are invincible” to “the British are intolerable and can be defeated.”
I recently spoke at an event in Seattle entitled “The Myth of Capitalism” (a reference to a book by Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn that I recommend). The myth is that capitalism is defined by the current form which in reality is an aberration. A distinction has to be made between capitalism and what many economists refer to as predatory capitalism. According to Merriam-Webster, capitalism is:
an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market. (1)
The transition from a fairer form of capitalism to this current aberration had its own trigger. When Prof Milton Friedman accepted the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, an idea he’d promoted over the preceding years redefined the goals of businesses around the globe. That idea in summary: The only responsibility of business is to maximize short-term profits for the owners (shareholders), regardless of the social and environmental costs.
Concepts like this had been gelling for some time. However, after Prof. Friedman was awarded the prize, “maximize-short-term profits-at-all-costs” became the uncontested goal, the measuring rod for success.
This goal gave corporate executives the right – even the mandate – to do whatever they think it will take to maximize profits, including buying public officials through campaign financing and promises of lucrative post-government consulting or lobbying jobs, exploiting workers, annihilating or buying out their competitors, destroying environments, reducing taxes and wages, lobbying against environmental and social regulations, promising (as well as threatening) to impact economies by locating their facilities in (or removing them from) cities and countries, and depleting the very resources upon which their businesses ultimately depend. The result: Top-down, authoritarian chains of command that support autocratic management styles – in government, as well as business.
This in turn has led to an economic system that is failing us, the Death Economy I often describe in these blogs. It is based on the myth – the perception – that this aberration is in fact capitalism and something we must accept as “just the way it is.”
The Seattle event was one of many where I hear people breathe a collective sigh of relief when speakers proclaim something along the lines of: “This is not just the way it is; we can transition to a Life Economy.” History attests to the fact that their optimism is well-founded. Changes in perception trigger changes in the realities of human institutions, laws, and life-styles.
The United Express incident and Senate vote are symbolic of something much greater that is happening around the world. In both cases, as well as for the American Revolution, police brutality, and so many others, the shadow side of policies molded by perceptions was exposed. Perceptions changed and that altered human reality. The many crises we face today, from climate change and species extinction to autocratic government leaders, are forcing us to look at ourselves and the impacts current policies will have on future generations.
If one man, Milton Friedman, could alter international economics in a way that has led to global disaster, together we can turn that around. Change can happen quickly, especially given that people everywhere are clamoring for change.
Make no mistake, a revolution is happening. I saw it while speaking recently in England, Russia, Kazakhstan, Australia, the Czech Republic, and around the US and Latin America. I know I will see it again tomorrow when I take a group to the Kogi of Colombia and in January when I take other groups to the Maya of Guatemala and the shamans of Costa Rica. People everywhere are waking up to the need for change. As expected, those who benefit from the status quo are doing everything they can to stop it – and to convince us that “our system may not be perfect, but it’s the best there is.” It happens during every revolution. We know that is a lie. We know we can do much, much better.
We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to turn these terribly destructive perceptions on their heads. We must change the “maximize short-term profits for shareholders” perception to “maximize long-term benefits for all.” That will trigger the change we want and must have.
Anyone who has ever played on or followed a sports team knows THE MOMENT. That crucial moment when the team is down, the clock is running out, and it looks like the game is over. At that moment, a team with character rallies. The players tell themselves: “Its game on, not game over!” They cheer each other on. They gather energy. They inspire themselves to win.
We are facing such a moment in national and international crises. It’s easy to convince ourselves, “there are just too many problems; they’re way too big.” We can persuade ourselves to give up by citing the many physical crises – the fires, floods, wars, famines, hurricanes. We can see people divided by attitudes toward race, religion, politics, climate change, immigration . . . and throw up our hands. In the US, we can cite the horrifically vitriolic mid-term elections. Every country has scapegoats to offer.
Whether you choose to think “game on” or “game over” is a matter of that subject I write about often: perception. Most, if not all, our crises are the result of human perceptions and the actions directed by those perceptions. We have the power to change perceptions. And, thus, reality,
In times of crises like these, we may be inspired by the experiences of indigenous people. As I prepare to guide groups to visit the Kogi of Colombiaand the Maya of Guatemala, I see how they, along with the Amazonian cultures I travel to every summer, have learned to cope with huge challenges.
Each of these groups has endured terrible hardships. Each could have given up, become victims to those who tried to oppress them. However, they chose to view obstacles as challenges that motivated them to change their perceptions; in so doing, they altered reality.
These cultures have a tradition not to run from danger but to confront it – to, as they say, “touch the jaguar.” They see the jaguar as the obstacle standing on the bridge of perception change. When we touch that jaguar, deal with it, we reboot our perceptions and move from “it can’t be done” to “we are doing it.”
My friend Paul Hawken, editor of the pivotal book Drawdown, eloquently expresses this very concept around the challenges of climate warming. “It’s not game over,” he says with that team captain’s winning smile of his. “It’s game on!” He goes on to assure us that we can reverse climate change, not just stop it.
Tom Paine expressed this same idea at a moment when the American Revolution faced its most dire crises:
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. . . A generous parent should say, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace” . . . By perseverance and fortitude, we have the prospect of a glorious future.
Paine’s words were read aloud to the soldiers bivouacked at Valley Forge and to people in taverns, schoolhouses and churches throughout the colonies. They inspired Americans to touch the jaguar, to transform “the British are invincible” to “we can defeat the British.” Paine’s words changed perceptions across the colonies; they created a new reality and altered history.
We are in that moment again – a very large moment. This is a time for us not to shrink from the challenges. It is the time to gather strength from the jaguars we face, to change reality by embracing new perceptions. To proclaim GAME ON so that our children may have peace and the future will indeed be glorious.
I just returned from lecturing at Tilton School, the NH school I attended as a student during my high school years and where my dad taught for nearly four decades. Being there now, talking with students and teachers, gave me a new perspective on the problems we face: climate change, US politics, international relations, gender issues, global poverty, and many more. I also was reminded that at Tilton I received an education that opened me to critical thinking, and I saw that the school continues to do that for students today.
Among the most important lessons I learned at Tilton that forever shaped my life: We humans have survived many crises; culture and history are changed by the written word – perception – more than by the gun and sword; and it is imperative for us always to explore the truths behind the “facts.”
As I wandered around campus this past week, I came upon a photograph of my dad outside his old classroom. The accompanying acknowledgement of his contributions to the school reminded me of his long view of history. I sat down in a nearby chair, opened my computer and wrote:
During troubled times, like the ones our country – our world – is experiencing, we may take comfort in the knowledge that we’ve staggered close to the brink before, and pulled back.
I recalled a history teacher, Jack Woodbury, lecturing about the role of perception during WWII. Through Google, I found a quotation. Then I continued writing:
After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt united a terrified nation with the assurance that “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” We and our allies altered our perceptions and did as FDR had predicted.
I flashed back to a moment in my senior year and returned to Google; my fingers scrambled across the keyboard:
When the US felt threatened by Soviet domination of space, President John Kennedy in September 1962 said, “We meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance.” He announced the intention to beat the Soviets by being the first nation to send men to the moon. “And,” he added with an optimism that seemed almost naïve, “it will be done before the end of this decade.” Another perception-altering moment. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July 1969 and guided us into an era of amazing technological advances.
I thought about the current students at this school. They are living at a time that will see changes that are so different from any we humans have ever before experienced – or even imagined. I returned to my writing.
Unlike the crises experienced by Roosevelt and Kennedy and despite what politicians may want us to believe, today’s greatest crises are not about “us” versus “them,” not about nation pitted against nation. These crises require that we all come together to stop destroying life as we know it.
Reading my own notes after leaving Tilton, the thing that strikes me hardest is that a nation and world torn apart by so many issues – race, religion, immigration, gender, income inequality, and (in the US) Kavanaugh – need to focus on coming together like never before. Surviving these crises depends on our ability to transform perceptions of division into ones of unity.
I’m recently back from another trip to indigenous shamans in the rainforests of Latin America and from teaching a “Sacred Plant” workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck NY. Now I am full of wonderful anticipation around my upcoming trips to the Kogi of Colombia in December 2018, the Maya of Guatemala in January 2019 and ayahuasca shamans in Costa Rica in January 2019.
The plants have been on my mind and in my heart for a great deal of my life; and they are speaking louder and more forcefully than ever, right now. As readers of this blog well know, I believe we humans are experiencing a global Consciousness Revolution and the plants are reaching out to push us deeper into this revolution.
Michael Pollan, in his ground-breaking book How to Change Your Mind, as well as many other scientists and researchers, discuss the newly emerging science around the intelligence and communications skills of plants. Just a couple of examples:
When one plant was hooked with electrodes to a machine that converted its energetic expressions into audible tones and another was placed beside it – unhooked – the hooked plant made screaming sounds every time the unhooked one was injured by a human scientist;
When a cabbage sitting on a plate that measured changes in energetic vibrations was cut with a machete, it made similar screaming sounds;
A vial of small shrimp was set over boiling water near a plant that was hooked up with electrodes. When the shrimp started dying, the plant was seen to go frantic, on a polygraph setup. (1)
Today botanists know that plants can send chemical signals vast distances through their root systems to warn other plants of changing climatic conditions and other threats. The shamans I have worked and studied with for many decades also have learned to tap into this plant consciousness and in the process gain an understanding of what plants can do to help us humans. Such help includes healing through ingesting plants as medicines and applying them as ointments and poultices. And now, a new consciousness arises from the plant world to boost human awareness…
Plant consciousness recently has emerged in part through the growing interest around what are referred to as “psychedelics,” such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, San Pedro, and Nicotiana rustica. On my trips, and in most of my workshops, I offer people the opportunity to experience at least one of these.
Although all these plants – when taken with respect and under the right conditions – are powerful, the latter, N. rustica, is especially important. A great teacher in many ways, it is a particularly potent variety of tobacco that grows wild in the Latin American rain forests and is the most widely used of all the plants held sacred by the shamans there. It has much more in common with ayahuasca than with the Nicotiana tobacum that is used (and corrupted with chemicals) to make cigarettes.
N. rustica contains high amounts of beta-carbolines, including the harmala alkaloids harmane and norharmane – the same that are found in the Amazonian vine Banisteriopsis caapi, the principal ingredient in ayahuasca. These MAO-inhibitors stimulate the central nervous system by obstructing hormones like serotonin and norepinephrine. Shamans long ago discovered what science has confirmed, that these harmala alkaloids have antidepressant properties and are often able to help people become more grounded and “awake” to the deeper realities in their lives – personal and communal. (2)
Many botanists and anthropologists believe that Native North Americans used N. rustica in their pipe and other ceremonies – until the Europeans arrived. They theorize that the shamans decried that the colonists were so out of touch with nature that they could not handle the power of N. rustica and relegated its keeping to those who lived in the remote jungles of Latin America.
One of the reasons that I find N. rustica so magical is that it teaches us that perceptions rule human realities. When I tell people at workshops or on trips that they will have the opportunity to “take tobacco,” I find that their reactions often reflect the perceptions that have been molded by advertisements for and against cigarettes – N. tabacum plus chemicals. Once they try N. rustica (usually as a liquid or powder sniffed through the nose), their perceptions change – and so does their reality!
As the shamans stress and I emphasize during workshops: All plants are teachers. For example, the poison ivy thrives not in the deep woods but in areas invaded by humans; it warns us to stick to the path, stay away from the fragile forest– or at least walk consciously and gently. The blackberry has sharp thorns to remind us to honor its existence and that work is required to savor the fruits of life. Standing before a plant you can feel the beauty of the exchange – you send it CO2 and it returns the gift, sending you Oxygen. The sacred teacher plants, like ayahuasca and N. rustica, have emerged into our collective consciousness because they are needed at this time.
Let us remember that these plants are teachers. They are not “drugs” and not to be used lightly or recreationally. They have a message. And it is up to us to take our time, to listen, and then act in accordance with their message: To insure the survival of the plants, the animals, the rivers and forests, and us.
We are at a pivotal time in human history. We are waking up to the fact that we are in charge of our Living Earth’s navigational systems and we are navigating into disaster. It is time to reprogram and reboot those systems. Time for a new consciousness of what it means to be humans on this planet and in this universe.
The plants are getting it. They are speaking to us.
Let us listen. With respect and humility.