January 6, 2009

Letter from Joanna Macy

October 27, 2008

Dear People,

Well, it's happened. The financial meltdown so long predicted has begun for real. Even if we knew it had to happen, it's scary. Stock markets crashing, foreclosures skyrocketing, the biggest banks going belly up, jobs disappearing. With so much suffering for so many, and more losses foretold, it's hard not to feel the panic.

I'm scared of what that panic will do to our country--corroding our trust in each other and in the future, when we need it for the Great Turning. At moments I feel fear about my own life, wondering what it will mean for Fran's and my work for the world, if the cushion of savings he's so carefully husbanded evaporates.

So I am grateful for teachers who, at just the right moment, remind me to hold a larger perspective. Here are three who have been of particular help: Minqi Li, Robert Reich, and Granny D.

Minqi Li is economics professor at University of Utah. He shook me awake to the realization that this economic collapse, far worse than anything since 1929, is what life on this planet needs for the survival of complex life-forms. He says that in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to avoid irreversible climate disaster, "the world economy must contract at a historically rapid clip--at an annual rate of -1 to -3.4 % between now and 2050…. Economic growth will have to be thrown into reverse."

The retrenchment he sees as necessary is about 55% over a span of 40 years; that is what occurred over four years in the Great Depression. As Stan Cox of AlterNet points out, everything depends on how the economic contraction is handled. If chaotic efforts are made to restore capital accumulation, life on Earth will continue to deteriorate. To cure the malignant economic growth that we've unleashed, new ways of thinking and acting must come from the bottom up and from both hemispheres of this ailing planet. The turbulent times that lie ahead may offer the opening we've been waiting for.

According to Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Clinton, the "deep recession" he foresees is the direct result of the economic inequality we've created. His analysis suggests that this economic failure is the price of moral failure.

The top 1 percent of American earners take home about 20 percent of total national income. Reich says the last time that happened was 1928; after that the economy caved in. "The wealthy," he reflects, "devote a smaller percentage of their earnings to buying things than the rest of us because, after all, they're rich and already have most of what they want. Instead of buying, they're more likely to invest their earnings wherever around the world they can get the highest return… The underlying problem of such imbalance in earnings has been masked for years: first by sending more women into the work force, till working mothers with school-age children almost doubled since 1970, to more than 70 percent. The second coping mechanism was working more hours, till Americans became veritable workaholics, putting in 350 more hours a year than the average European. Then came a third way of coping: to borrow... But now with the bursting of the housing bubble, we've reached the end of our ability to borrow, just as lenders have reached the end of their capacity to lend. That means there's not enough purchasing power in the economy to buy all the goods and services it's producing.

"We're finally reaping the whirlwind of widening inequality and ever more concentrated wealth… The long-term answer is for America to invest in its working people--health insurance, good schools and higher education, while also investing in the clean-energy technologies of the future, and adopting progressive taxes at federal, state and local levels. Call it bottom-up economics. It would be a sad irony of the Wall Street bailout robs us of the resources we need in order to do that."

Nine years ago at the age of 90, Doris Haddock, known as Granny D, walked 3,200 miles across the country to promote limits to corporate rule. Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, she shared her memories of the Great Depression and urged us to stop viewing it as a time of horror.

"Maybe we were hungry sometimes, but did we starve? No, because we had our friends and family and the earth to sustain us. Our memories of that time are more round and golden than sharp-edged. My husband Jim made an ice rink from a little meadow, and he made a few dollars extra those winters of the Depression. I learned to put on one-woman plays and performed in women's clubs here and there, making the rest of what we needed. We were fountains of creativity. We were fountains of friendship to our neighbors. As a nation, we were a mighty river of mutual support."

Read on. Granny D's words are such wonderful medicine for us all right now that I'll not interrupt her till I sign off.

"Imagination! Let me suggest that a generation raised on books and storytelling, where one's own imagination had to fill in the colors and details, made us a generation quite able to imagine marvelous ways to fill our family dinner table in those years. Let me suggest that the power of imagination was essential to the rise of all the grand improvements we achieved for each other and called our New Deal. Imagination allows the citizen and the politician to connect with people of every situation and condition.

"The foundation of right-wing politics is a grand absence of imagination. If you cannot imagine what people need until it happens to you, then I suggest you have never read a mystery book under your covers by flashlight…

"I want to tell you - especially if you are young and have not experienced true hard times - that there is nothing much to it, if you will insist on creatively and ferociously loving the friends and neighbors around you. And fifty or seventy years from now, if you are blessed with a long life, you will count those years as being some of your best, as indeed I do…

"Fear for the loss of material things is but the jitters of an addict, and the jitters go away once we relax into whatever new world we find ourselves come into…

"If you own stocks, you own a small percentage of the nation's economy. It's like owning a family business. Some years your shares will be worth a lot, some years they will not. But they are your piece of the action and you should hold onto it. You might even use the current low prices as an opportunity to increase your share of the pie.

"Our real challenge is not the disaster caused by the deregulation of Wall Street, for which my friend Senator McCain must answer, but instead it is the dislocations -- economic, food supply, coastline and weather dislocations -- caused by our continued use of fossil fuels and the resulting warming of our atmosphere that is our real emergency and the true challenge for our character.

"And I want you to understand that you must see beyond the distraction of these present headlines to the true challenges ahead, which have little to do with Wall Street and everything to do with changing the very ways we live, so that intelligent life on earth might prosper and survive."


Yours in glad solidarity,