When I attended a local strategic discussion about how to tackle the current economic crisis, I didn’t expect to be thinking mostly about washing dishes with my kids.
To walk into the room at this event organized by Los Angeles think tank The Horizon Institute, you would literally trip over leaders and activists from some of the most effective progressive community, labor, environmental, and faith-based organizations in LA. After a panel of the exciting work being done in LA, especially the emerging alliance between labor and environmental justice groups in campaigns such as the fight for Clean and Safe Ports, and the promise of new jobs and environmental conservation from a growing “green” economy, I radiated with optimism. My glow quickly faded when sociologist Edna Bonacich stood with microphone in hand and asked if industrial growth is compatible with responsible stewardship of the planet. Can we continue to push for growth of industry when resources are limited?
Edna raised a very serious and long-term question. Is our current system and way of life sustainable in the long run? It echoed a similar inquiry 94-year-old activist Grace Lee Boggs once posed at another gathering —“what time is it on the clock of the world?”.
As our economy makes relative strides upward and a number of economists have trumpeted that we have “averted the worst,” several of the nails which punctured and spun our economy into crisis remain. The companies too big to fail have grown larger. The financial companies still run under the same model and free of much regulation like before. Many of these corporations have shown little evidence that they have replaced short-term greed with long-term investment in people. However, the final nail was driven by all of us—an embrace of a system primarily dependent on increased consumption and short-term gain.
Most of us know or are part of the legions of those walking with debt-heavy credit cards nestled next to our new ipod or smartphone in pocket. Millionaire Ivan Boesky’s commencement address at UC Berkeley’s School of Business Administration in 1986, which found its way into popular culture through Gordon Gekko, an investor/corporate raider character in the film Wall Street, is our manifesto: “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” We are running up the evolutionary road to Las Vegas.
Economic thinker E.F. Schumacher would like to take us on a much greener path. He observed the drive amongst both the employer and employee to reduce work for the greatest return. The employer strives for the greatest output with the smallest number of workers. The employee seeks to work the least number of hours for the greatest monetary return (a wage is compensation for sacrificing leisure). He shakes his head at this understanding of work and proposes a “Buddhist Economics” which re-defines work as an opportunity to develop oneself, form community, and create services and goods for a meaningful life.
Grace Lee Boggs finds this idea flourishing in the over 700 community gardens growing on abandoned lots in Detroit. People supplement their income by selling the produce to local stores, soup kitchens, and businesses. Youth and local residents sow vegetables together as a community and learn “self-reliance, trust and concern for social justice.” Grace explains, “It does this by engaging them in activities to improve the food security or ability of all community residents to obtain safe, culturally acceptable, nutritiously adequate diet.” Personal responsibility takes on a new dimension and meaning as the local residents transform themselves from consumers to producers. She quotes the National Black Farmers Association, “We can’t free ourselves until we feed ourselves.” In the process, their relationships to each other and the earth changes.
To be primarily a consumer, we give up the freedom to be independent and creative.
I must confess I initially reacted with a frown and floral images of hippies in my head. However, as my 8-year-old daughter helps me wash the dishes after dinner and takes pride in a pan that she thoroughly scrubbed and smiles at me, I wonder. Maybe, Grace has something there.