A Story Of Arcs, Bends, Curves And Us

The various books, magazines and websites I read often contain various charts that include statistical and scientific data on the economy and the environment. The foundation of such charts begins with vertical and horizontal lines used to graph the trajectory over time of the arc, bend or curve of important research facts and findings.

It seems as if every measurable piece of economic and ecological data is accelerating upward at an alarming rate, soaring ever more sharply towards the apex of the vertical limit with devastating consequences.

Consider income inequality, poverty, pollution, species extinction, deforestation, water and food shortages, health care costs, diseases and disorders, corporate welfare, defense spending--just to name a few. The common theme that countless charts and graphs show is that the arc of the curve grows rapidly sharper as key benchmark measures of our ecological sustainability and economic justice hurtle towards transformation or disaster, most often disaster.

The fact is, the only chart that shows a flat line to match the horizontal bottom are those that depict wages, which have remained stagnant in America for nearly 40 years when adjusted for inflation.

What happens in the chart does not stay in the chart--the manner in which the data arcs, bends and curves greatly impacts all of us. What the charts tell us is the story of ourselves.

They tell us that our global environment is so afire that it may soon no longer be able to support human life. It tells us that our economic “free market” system is almost entirely owned, run, milked and exploited by just a tiny fraction of one percent of us and in many ways has crashed around us and upon us.

In order to reverse the trajectory of the arcs, bends and curves before it reaches critical mass we must admit to and correct the mistakes that have brought us to this point. In order to understand our mistakes at their deepest level we must recognize that our most serious and recurring mistakes are grounded in our culture, our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why we are here.

It boils down to two words--Economy and Environment--and how the arcs, bends and curves capture and measure the mistakes we have perpetuated in both, thereby irrefutably making the case for us to change our way of thinking which has led to the near-terminal velocity of the lines charting our course towards certain thresholds that measure the biological and human limits of our world.

The most fundamental mistake we make as humans is a belief that an abstract economic system is divine and separate from us. This mythical free market, so we believe, operates under its own divine set of rules and is entirely and eternally self-regulating. It is always right. The fact that worldwide it is more than 95 percent owned and run by less than .0001 percent of us is just the way it happens to work. We are here to serve the economy, the belief goes, and it is not here to serve us.

This free market asylum and the tortured gospel for which we have sold our collective souls has depended heavily on changing the thinking of the people to support and vote against their very own economic interests and stability. Virtually the entire barnyard of our elected officials is preaching a mix of free market religious revivalism and brutal 19th-century industrial capitalism.

The idea of the free market as the ultimate democracy and measure of personal freedom has been seductively simple, as the average person does not have enough economic training to know that there is no such thing as a free market--all markets (outside of individual barter) are the result of both society and government creating them through a complex web of laws, trade, tariffs, rules, massive public financing and the handing out of endless subsidies to privileged private interests.

The most dangerous mistake we make as humans is the far-reaching belief that we are separate from nature. Our many religions tell us that a supernatural being who is not part of our planet created us. That we have been set apart from all other life forms and that the majority of the six billion of us don’t even believe that we are animals, but instead think we are a completely different life form.

Just as a tree, fish, deer or person is a seemingly independent and single organism but is made up of an intricate web of interacting living parts, so too is our planet. We need to think of Earth as a single organism in which all of us play an interactive role in its care and sustainability.

The Earth’s atmosphere, our life-protecting shield, is a thin layer just five miles high, a distance that if laid out flat you could run from one end to the other in a bit more than a half an hour. When Europeans first arrived in North America the average depth of topsoil was two feet and was rich with minerals to sustain a bounty of plant life. Today, North America averages six inches of topsoil depth, and much of it is devoid of many vital nutrients as a result of pesticides and industrial agriculture practices.

So essentially, we are a quick 8k run or a shovel blade depth away from depleting the atmosphere and soil that sustain all life on this planet. The majority of us have been raised to believe that we are separate from our natural world, that we have been created to consume to the point of collapse. It is why we need to change our way of thinking so that we are simply incapable of rationalizing away the fact that we have killed off 90 percent of the big fish that were in world’s oceans just fifty years ago and that in just the past 100 years we have laid waste to more than half the world’s forests--we can no longer separate ourselves from, and dominate nature, without severe consequences.

In the economic sphere, American politics has been reduced to an argument over big government so that we the people avoid talking about big capitalism, the largest source of our economic predicament. But reality is not cooperating with our evasions. Despite the so-called recovery, the free market pathologies generated by unbounded capitalism during the past four decades are continuing to expand.

The economic solution does not lie in the ending of capitalism, but rather in reinventing American capitalism to serve the people and to restore individual freedoms, protect workers and their communities, respect the environment and constrain or abolish the worst greed-driven elements of laissez-faire capitalism. Although there have been times within our history in which unbounded capitalism was reined in (the first 50 years of our nation’s founding, the trust-busting years of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency and the New Deal period from 1935 to 1980) most of American history has been “anything goes.”

We need permanent and lasting economic justice solutions. We can be well on our way towards achieving a democratic capitalism with the following:

A fundamental redistribution of power and money. Obviously, this will require a stronger government (though not necessarily a bigger one) that stops subsidizing the maldistribution of wealth and income through its tax code and spending programs. Government has to recover some of the economic levers it purposely abandoned in the era of deregulation, a move that created obscene inequalities.

A revival of antitrust law to protect customers and workers from the brutality of monopoly capitalism. The owners of small businesses typically act more responsibly than big-time CEOs because they have a personal stake in the companies they run. Reckless behavior by the big boys could be curbed if they faced similar risks. Abolish overseas tax havens that enable companies to pretend their profits are earned in other countries like the Cayman Islands. Eliminate tax subsidies for corporations that distribute generous profit-based bonuses to the top officers but little or none to the employees down below. On average, the largest 400 corporations in America pay nearly 12-15 percent of its earnings to just its top five individual officers.

The most threatening challenge to capitalism, and our survival, is arguably the finite carrying capacity of the natural world. If the industrial system is not transformed, the destruction of nature will limit economic growth and eventually bring down the entire system. Companies that do not change are doomed. We need to end the great fallacy that the DOW, NASDAQ, S&P 500 and the GDP are accurate measures of progress. A sustainable ecological economy depends on people understanding it, being an integral part of it, balancing it with nature and acting on it.

In the environmental sphere, transforming our culture and ways of thinking will come through the understanding that the world is a living and complex thing, rather than a machine with a series of levers to pull for whatever we want or desire. It is no longer possible to pursue the unsustainable logic of industrialism to its limits in a biological landscape.

The Iroquois Confederacy had an actual “law” that every decision had to be made in the context of its impact on the environment on the seventh generation. Given the current velocity of our trend lines, if there is not a change within our cultural beliefs and actions, the world in which we live may no longer be recognizable to the seventh generation.

The word "unsustainable" is immensely underrated, possibly because it is so overused. But it is not a "maybe" word. It does not refer to a process. It points directly to an end point and says that when that point is reached, whatever behavior it is referencing must change or end. How the arcs, bends and curves end within the many charts and graphs that speak to our past and show us our present will ultimately be our future. Do we choose to change or let it end?

Chris Perry

My Family and I relocated to the City of Lakewood in 2008 to be near my Wife’s extended Family. We have two young children that attend Lincoln Elementary School.

I have over 25 years experience as a community organizer, political campaign manager, director of a non-profit, environmental and social/economic justice writer, lobbyist, demonstrator, non-profit board member and lifelong community activist and volunteer. I am passionate about economic and social justice, environmental causes and identifying and addressing the root cause of social, economic and ecological ailments that undermine our long-term prosperity and sustainability.

In my spare time I enjoy time with my wife and kids hiking, kayaking, gardening, traveling, enjoying all four seasons and exploring all that Lakewood and Northeast Ohio have to offer. I’m also an avid runner and have a passion/addiction for running marathons and 100-mile ultra-marathons.

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Volume 7, Issue 18, Posted 10:48 AM, 09.07.2011