EcoIQ

No One Will Rescue Us
We Must Save Ourselves

By Dennis Church, EcoIQ Editor

Severe and growing dangers are barreling toward our homes and communities like a runaway train. We are in increasing danger, and more and more people are understanding this not as an abstraction, but instead through their direct life experience. That experience may be of flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires or similar calamities, or it may be of job losses, factory closings, business bankruptcies, town centers hollowing out, and extractive industries closing up, or it may be bridges and water lines collapsing or other critical facilities failing. Many communities are being hit with multiple problems at once, greatly compounding their difficulties. In any case, the real pains being felt now leave little need to call on abstract future disasters to motivate the defense of our homes and communities.

At the same time, it is true that all crises contain or give rise to opportunities. Communities that can identify and seize these opportunities may actually gain ground in spite of the losses they'll fail to avoid. Other communities will simply blunt the impacts of problems and, in spite of losing some ground, still maintain their communities as good places to live, raise a family, and earn a living.

No one will rescue us from the dangers we face, nor will anyone intervene to bend opportunities to the benefit of our communities. If we are to be saved, we will need to save ourselves. If we are to seize opportunities, we'll have to find them and figure out how to exploit them ourselves. Again, no one will do this for us.

The change we need cannot be commanded by power. It cannot be decreed from on high. Indeed, we should not want that kind of help. In theory, it might save us from some dangers, but at the cost of the freedom and flexibility to govern our own communities.

When people face up to the dangers coming at us, the natural reaction is to look for where the solutions are going to come from. Let's look at the various potential rescuers people identify to see if anyone or anything is likely to ride to our rescue.

A Catalog Of False Hopes

People point to many things when searching for who or what could save us. Many of the things they point to could be helpful, but without healing our political polarization and dysfunction, most of these potential sources of help will instead contribute to making the problem worse. Let's examine them one at a time.

Government Will Save Us - Some people seem to think that a whole raft of new federal or state government programs and regulations can be passed and will produce the changes we need. The record does not support such faith. Until our elected representatives can work together again, they aren't likely to do much. But it is worse than that. What would be needed under a "government saves us" scenario would include a ton of money, meaning a lot of new taxes. Good luck with that too. Government could help, but that would require smart, effective programs, policies and regulations not diluted and fatally compromised by lobbyists and special pleaders. That in turn would require a top-to-bottom revitalization of government integrity. Corruption is now so embedded in our system (much of it legal and in plain sight) that restoring integrity must be viewed as a long-term project. A final reason not to put too much faith in higher levels of government is that with the stresses coming, reactionary politicians will push to the front and a frightened electorate will be tempted to turn to "strong" leaders out of desperation and anger (see Russia and the rise of Putin, or pre-Nazi Germany and the rise of Hitler, or countless other examples). We should have learned by now (see the federal government from Reagan to today) that we cannot count on policy or funding consistency from the federal government, so building local community plans based on assumptions about what the federal government will do over the next decade may not be the wisest course for communities focused on surviving the future.

Corporations Will Save Us - Some people think that the efficiency and drive for growth of corporations will produce helpful results. Again, the record does not support this optimism. The corporations are in it for themselves alone (in spite of the good intentions of some corporate executives). They obviously have no loyalty to the communities and employees they have abandoned in their search for higher profits. Instead, they have relocated to be near the cheapest and most exploitable workers. What corporations mainly seem to do is rig the rules of the game to their advantage while at the same time avoiding and evading taxes at all levels of government. Their influence in the rule and regulation making process, extending from the politicians to the administrative staff, is so great that many observers simply summarize by saying that corporations have "captured" effective control of much of our national government and similarly captured many state governments. Corporate governance reforms could greatly improve corporate alignment with the public interest, but to implement such reforms would require a federal government that is no longer polarized and dysfunctional. That obviously isn't something we should count on anytime soon.

Technology Will Save Us - Many seem to harbor this belief. The history of dire predictions about the future is studded with examples of new technologies saving the day (or seeming to). From the Green Revolution preventing famine to the modern refinement of fracking preventing an immanent oil shortage, there is a long history of dire problems seemingly solved (or reduced or postponed) by technology. Today, encouraging news about renewable electricity and the potential electrification of almost everything, combined with the potential of several of the carbon capture techniques to really work, are leading optimists everywhere to believe a technical solution to the climate crisis is at hand. Technical developments and possibilities are certainly encouraging, but few objective observers believe that even the most promising of these technologies can be scaled as quickly as needed without significant intervention in the energy markets. Further, even if we displace oil in transportation and industry entirely, and make our buildings energy neutral, these steps, even if very successful, will be inadequate to forestall a climate catastrophe. And none of this discussion touches on artificial intelligence, robotics, 1984-type state surveillance systems, genetic engineering, and many other advanced technologies being developed today. Technology could do more good than harm, but only if technology decisions aren't guided primarily by short-term profit maximization. If we leave most important technology decisions in the hands of corporations, with governance rules and corporate charters as they are today, technology will prospectively do more harm than good. See a more detailed discussion of technology in the essay Cooperation Is The Path.

The Invisible Hand Of The Market Will Save Us - There is much merit to the notion that markets could be useful, and may be essential, for our adaptation and wellbeing. But today the invisible hand is rendered deaf, dumb and blind by an epidemic of market rigging so pervasive as to make many of the traditional claims about market benefits to society hollow at best and outright ridiculous at worst. To make markets work to our advantage, subsidies must be removed and externalities must be fully priced in. Again, this could only happen in a politically functional system, so until or unless our polarization and paralysis are resolved, markets will often push in the rigged direction and to the detriment of society at large. It doesn't have to be this way, but a corrupted politics makes other outcomes impossible.

The Elites Will Step In And Save Us - This has happened before. The New Deal was a project of an elite faction. But not this time. Today they aren't stepping in to save us, but instead they are stepping out to save themselves. Maybe not quite The Hunger Games or Elysium just yet, but gated communities, private islands, private jets, and private guards and security services have become standard equipment for the rich. It would appear that noblesse oblige is dead. The rich feel no obligation to care for the safety or welfare of the rest of us. Like the corporations they largely control, they appear (with some honorable and notable exceptions) to care mostly about themselves. What about their children, you ask? Their response is mostly to leave their kids so rich that they will be able to pay lavishly to try to get out of harms way.

American Voters Will Wake Up And Save Us - This idea is simply that when things get bad enough people will wake up and act politically to fix things. There are two problems with this idea. The first is that even if things do play out this way, the awakening may come too late to cope successfully with the most urgent threats. But there is an even more basic problem with this scenario. When things get bad, people become both afraid and angry. As outlined above, history shows that these conditions are as likely to produce an autocrat as a constructive democratic leader, and the autocrat isn't likely to be a good guy working on the side of the angels. Still, this is one of the more promising pathways, and as laid out elsewhere, this can work out if people get active now and focus sufficient efforts locally. Waiting passively for a national level awakening is almost certainly a false hope destined to yield disappointment and pain.

A Great Leader Will Arise To Save Us - This is a child-like wish that is as likely to produce a Trump as it is to yield someone who would actually lead constructively. This scenario has promise, but just wishing for it is akin to wishing for a miracle. We could elect great, or at least good, leaders. But electing leaders who would or could do what we need done would depend on fixing our political system from top to bottom.

As noted repeatedly at the top and throughout this inventory of possible sources of rescue, a healed political process is an indispensable precondition to converting several of these into major contributors to real solutions. With a healed political process and an electorate unified around key values and goals, we could use the powers of government to help, reform corporate governance to help, harness technology to help, use the market process to help, incorporate elite leaders (Bloomberg, Stayer, Gates, Buffet, etc.) as allies to help, and maybe, just maybe, we could even elect a few great leaders to help. All of this, however, depends utterly upon healing our political process.

Our Democracy Is A Neglected Commons

Healing our democracy is the common thread that runs through all of the many different pathways leading to a future we could look forward to and be happy to bequeath to our children. But for decades now we've been treating our democracy a lot like we've been treating our roads, bridges and water lines - with gross and willful neglect.

Think of our democracy as a commons. Our democratic commons consists first and foremost of a set of shared beliefs and values, including the belief that voting is important, in fact, that it is a civic duty, and the belief that compromise is honorable and essential to social comity and functional democracy. It includes our collective understanding of our own nation's history, of how our self-government was designed to work, and of how it is actually working today.

The democratic commons includes a news media that does its job of educating and informing voters, and it includes the belief among voters that they have an obligation to follow and understand their voting issues and options.

And it is very practical as an actual mechanism. This includes polling places, voting machines, ballots, election workers and volunteers, and everything else needed to manage an election.

In every aspect described above, a tragedy of the democratic commons is unfolding before our eyes. We've been coasting, cashing out our past investments while our democratic system has decayed to the point of possible collapse.

Survey after survey confirms that we believe in democracy less, trust the government less, and trust our fellow citizens less than we have ever trusted before. Voting rates are disgraceful, especially in the critically important local and state level races that determine so much and in the equally vital congressional midterms. More and more people are speaking and acting as if compromise is dishonorable, and our knowledge of our own history and of the basic principles of democratic governance is shockingly low. The civics courses that used to be common in our public schools have largely given way to "more practical" subjects.

The media fail to do their jobs at best, and disseminate propaganda and yes, fake news, at worst. Many voters and ought-to-be voters for their part tune out, and decide how to vote based on simplistic impressions and the buzz in their social circles.

And to cap it all off, the actual mechanisms are in terrible condition. Voting districts are gerrymandered, often resulting in an amazingly small share of the total population selecting the person who eventually wins. Sometimes by incompetence, sometimes by intention, too few polling places are available, they are too remotely located, they have untrained staff, and too often the voting machines are in disrepair, are obsolete, are hackable, or are lacking an auditable back-up record.

We are now reaping the consequences of these decades of neglect and underinvestment.

Activists and advocates of every stripe, of every side and on every issue, are primary users of our democratic commons. Across the board, robust success for nearly every issue would require a well-functioning democracy, and yet almost all advocates count on this commons while investing little or nothing to maintain it, or given its present state, to repair and restore it.

Since nearly every important goal or project is likely to fail without a well-functioning democracy, every activist and advocate should today, right now, divert a share of their time, money, credibility and other resources to maintaining and restoring our democratic commons.

We Must Save Ourselves

Can we get help to protect our homes and communities, or must we really save ourselves alone, without much help? The irony of our situation is that so long as we wait passively for someone to rescue us, no rescue is likely to arrive. If, on the other hand, we adopt the attitude that we must save ourselves, if we take responsibility for saving ourselves, then we also open the door to much more opportunity to tap sources of help.

The really inconvenient truth is not about the dangers we confront, or even about the dysfunction of our institutions. It is instead that we must personally take responsibility, and that in turn means we must we willing to engage, to give our time, our money, and our many intangible resources to this essential project of democratic restoration. Now, not later. Today, not tomorrow.

But even more difficult than disrupting the established flow of our lives, we must be willing to undertake the difficult struggle to change our own hearts. The anger and vilification that divides the majority against itself blocks healing our democracy. But getting over it, giving up our righteous superiority and moving on to real solutions, will be painful and difficult for many. This may be the most inconvenient truth of all. It is never easy to cast the beam from thine own eye. To survive, we must grow in our hearts.

We must convince people by the millions to commit their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to protecting and advancing the human prospect. Today such a commitment is indistinguishable from the struggle to protect and advance the prospect of all life on Earth. The entire biosphere is certainly one living being at least in this specific sense - the entire biosphere, including we humans, will thrive or wither as one. We must tend our garden.

United, We Are Unstoppable

Pessimism about our future flows entirely from the belief that we are incapable of overcoming our divisions. Solutions are technically and economically feasible. The only real barrier is us. As noted elsewhere, restoring our democratic commons can sound idealistic, but in reality it is our only practical path to the power required for comprehensive reform.

There is no assertion made here that this will be easy. Nor is this logic dependent on viewing people as "good." In fact, quite the contrary. It is now clear that people are predisposed to be tribal, combative, ego-driven, self-interested, and dominated by short-term motivations. They are not informed, and they are grossly uncomprehending of our situation.

This view is not why we can't unite. It is the opposite. It is why we must unite. We must unite to save ourselves, and this will require us to overcome the destructive inclinations within us all. The path to this overcoming is self-understanding paired with ongoing active engaged cooperation.

We are not powerless unless we believe we are. Our powerlessness is an illusion. In fact, resistance to adaptive change would crumble in the face of a united people. United, we the people could reclaim the ability to shape our future. United, we would be entirely unstoppable.

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