The New Year is upon us, and though the dividing line is perhaps somewhat arbitrary, it can never be wrong to take a minute to stop and reflect on where we’ve been and where we see ourselves going. The year past has brought many changes, many of which have had negative consequences and some of which indicate a most uncertain future, but, as Steven Harper remarked in the face of some of the economic havoc that has spilled out in the latter months of this year: "It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future."
It was interesting to see how much comment was occasioned by Gwynne Dyer’s recent visit, particularly the rather dire predictions about the course of human society in the face of environmental crises. It may be that the economic turmoil that we face currently is a more immediate concern, but it seems rather clear to many that the economy and the environment are intimately connected. Dyer spoke at the ADSS in the early ‘90′s, his primary focus being armed struggles all over the world, but towards the end of his lecture, he insisted that he be allowed a couple of personal reflections based on his wide-ranging travels and long observation, the first being that the generation represented by the students present would be the first in North America who would not be better off materially than their parents’ generation, and second, that there were a billion Chinese, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, and another billion in India, who had access to enough Western culture to see how well we live, and that they would largely aspire to the same level of material wealth. He went on to point out that there just wasn’t the capacity in our closed environment to produce enough cars and fuel and whatever else we enjoy for all those in the "developing" world, likely meaning that scarce resources would be a source of much conflict. Looking at what has happened in the world in the intervening fifteen or so years, it seems that Dyer was able to read the signs and that we’re starting to see the consequences of carrying on with business as usual, projecting economic growth endlessly into the future.
It is also instructive to see how our elected representatives have reacted to situations of major crisis: we have seen assistance to banks, insurance firms, and to the auto industry, with the idea from Milton Friedman economics that taking tax dollars from the general public and filtering it through our large corporate institutions will somehow extricate us from our current difficulties. We all have sympathy for those in the financial sector and the auto industry who have felt the sting of economic retrenchment, but we have to ask ourselves if it makes a great deal of sense to trust the entirety of the well-being of our society to those who created a good deal of the bubble that has burst around us.
It is perhaps time for us to begin to build smaller, more local economies, working to ensure than no one is deprived of the opportunity to make a contribution. There is a great fear of the idea of redistribution of wealth, but after thirty years of redistribution upwards, might it not be time for some recalibration that would leave more wealth in the hands of those who generate it in the first place? Perhaps we need to think more in terms of succeeding as a society than entirely as individuals, even when personal success can involve toxic excess, as has been the case with much of the corporate and financial sectors over the last ten years.
Success and well-being can also be defined in ways other than material consumption, and perhaps this is as good a time as any for us to step back and examine our assumptions about what makes for a fulfilling life. We can all fill in our own blanks, but we surely have to account more accurately for the consequences of the choices we make, especially in a World that now has roughly three times the population of the middle of the last century, and some of whose citizens consume two to three times as much material and energy as did the affluent in North America at that time.
Returning to Mr. Harper’s pronouncement about predictions, it is time for us to assess whether it really is all that difficult to foresee the consequences of our choices if we are willing to look broadly and deeply at the signs that surround us. So my wish for the New Year is that we continue to succeed, but in a manner that is more caring through a mix of the spiritual, the social and the rational.