Transforming the Economy: Linking Hands Across the Social and Environmental Divide

I share the deep concern expressed by Allen Kanner in “Why Extinction Matters at Least as Much as Climate Change” about what is happening to our planet, and I agree with him that focusing on climate change is too narrow in scope and effect. However, I don’t believe that shifting attention to extinction is the way forward.


"We now have a not-to-be-missed opportunity to link hands with the global Occupy movement," the author writes. "Their focus on the injustice and unsustainability of corporate capitalism is taking the debate rapidly in the direction of strategic action." Here, a sign at Occupy Oakland makes the link between environmental injustice and corporate power. Credit: Creative Commons/Rainforest Action Network.

If we are to have any chance of bringing about meaningful change, we urgently need to broaden and deepen our analysis. Climate change and extinction are both too narrow. We need to move beyond ecological concerns to reach out to the ever-larger proportion of society focused on eradicating injustice and poverty. We need to reach out to those who now live in fear of losing their livelihoods and homes. And, if we start addressing root causes, we will see that the corporate control of our governments, media, science, and even our minds is the single most important cause of both social and ecological breakdown.

My perspective has been greatly influenced by living in the non-Western world for much of the last four decades. In less industrialized countries the impact of corporate media and advertisements is stark and dramatic. People who previously exhibited tremendous self-respect and dignity, start speaking of themselves as “underdeveloped,” backward, and poor. I have witnessed the many ways in which conventional development and economic globalization manipulate people into becoming consumers. At the same time, the destruction of more self-reliant local economies unravels the fabric of community because it leads to a dramatic increase in competition and conflict for scarce job opportunities.

As Kanner points out, “The world’s dominant economic system, capitalism, not only assumes that people are fundamentally selfish, but goes to tremendous lengths to drive this point home on a daily basis.” This economy encourages competition, desire, and jealousy at every turn. It plays on our fears and insecurities to induce us to consume ever more stuff. It underlies the pressures in the workplace, the desperation to hold on to a job in this time of rising unemployment and the fear and despair among the unemployed. It pervades every aspect of our lives, even influencing how we think and feel about ourselves. It has separated us from each other and the natural world and created or exacerbated every environmental crisis we face today.

In my view, we need to go straight to this root cause by addressing the economic system rather than the symptoms it produces. To do so, it is vital that we link the harm that this system is inflicting on the natural world to the harm that it inflicts on human beings. This allows us to acknowledge not only the tragic loss and suffering in the nonhuman world, but also the suffering in society: our children who are pressured from a young age to consume in order to feel loved, special, worthy; the teenagers so beset with insecurities that they harm themselves or lash out violently against their peers; the millions around the world who deal daily with depression; the students graduating with massive debts, full of self-doubt and little hope of employment; the 99 percent that have had more than enough of it all.

Mecca KFC

"My perspective has been greatly influenced by living in the non-Western world for much of the last four decades," the author writes. "I have witnessed the many ways in which conventional development and economic globalization manipulate people into becoming consumers," as in this crowded KFC in Mecca. Credit: CC Al Jazeera English.

Seeing the global economic system that promotes rampant consumerism and waste as the root cause of our environmental problems also enables us to reject the personal guilt and self-recrimination that is so widespread today in the West. Instead of focusing on narrow, individual consumer choices, it’s important to raise awareness about the need for policy change. Our efforts to reduce our ecological footprint are small in comparison to the massive amounts of carbon emissions produced by big business in the blind pursuit of globalized trade. Few jobs exist where we can work for the benefit of people and planet, and environmentally friendly products are often prohibitively expensive. The products most readily accessible are overpackaged, overprocessed, and shipped halfway around the world.

The same applies to extinction. Even though we should certainly encourage a sense of empathy and care, few individuals have any direct influence on the survival of endangered species. We can grieve, we can support conservation organizations, but ultimately we must make fundamental changes to the economy to avert further destruction.

We now have a not-to-be-missed opportunity to link hands with the global Occupy movement. Their focus on the injustice and unsustainability of corporate capitalism is taking the debate rapidly in the direction of strategic action. And, once the critique of multinational corporations and banks gives voice to the need for a systemic shift away from globalization, toward economic localization, we may well be on our way to greater sanity and sustainability.

The corporate economy is so vast and so distant that it’s structurally incapable of representing the needs of people and the Earth. Increasingly, people are coming to realize that the future lies in reducing the scale of economy, so as to bring it under democratic control. In essence, localization is about shortening the distance between producers and consumers wherever possible and meeting our needs -- especially our basic needs -- from closer to home. In localized economies, the impacts of our choices are more visible and we end up using resources more efficiently, while producing less waste and pollution. Localization is neither about eliminating international trade nor stopping all industrial production. It’s about insisting that business be place-based, that they belong to a society and adhere to the rules of that society.

The first and most urgent task is to level the playing field through re-regulating big business. Currently, large corporations -- including banks, agri-businesses, and energy companies -- enjoy a range of subsidies and tax breaks that are out of reach of smaller businesses. Without these supports, it would be very quickly apparent that business at this scale is inordinately costly, wasteful, and in many ways nonsensical. For example, redundant trade -- the importing and exporting of identical products in almost identical quantities -- would cease to be profitable and we could immediately reduce global carbon emissions by millions of tons.

Alongside these policy changes, we can support the bottom-up localization movement, which is already demonstrating that it is possible to reduce our ecological footprint while increasing economic stability. A prime example is the local food movement. By shortening the distance between producers and consumers, food miles are lowered, local economies strengthened, and many more small, diversified farms are able to survive. Studies have shown that farms like these actually produce more food per unit of land than large-scale monocultures. This means that more localized food systems leave more space for wilderness, while also increasing niches for wildlife on the farms themselves.

farmer's market

Local farmer's markets such as this one in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, offer a concrete example of localized economies that are already functioning. Credit: Creative Commons/WBUR.

In more place-based, localized economies people reconnect with the natural world around them; this kind of reconnection is one of the best ways to engender compassion, whether for other humans or for other species. There are a number of projects that are already doing this with juvenile delinquents, prisoners, torture victims, and people with drug addictions. The personal transformation many of them experience in reconnecting with the source of life is truly inspiring.

Experiencing our deeper connections to the living world can certainly lead to feelings of grief and loss, but also to joy and an appreciation for what is still there. Even the tiniest worm and beetle can engender a sense of the miracle of life and remind us that we are deeply, spiritually intertwined with the magical complexity of the cosmos.

Ultimately, it is deeply inspiring to realize that the same changes that are essential for our ecological wellbeing are essential for human well-being. No matter what our main concern is -- climate change, unemployment and poverty, social conflict, or extinction -- we can be most effective by focusing on root causes. That way we can begin not only to reverse our countless ecological problems but also to start the journey of recovering our deeper nature, our life-purpose, and our joy.

(To read other perspectives on extinction, climate change, and the rights of nature, click here.)


2 thoughts on “Transforming the Economy: Linking Hands Across the Social and Environmental Divide

  1. A beautiful goal worth working toward.

    However, I wonder how one dialogues about root causes in a way that a majority of Americans could understand and connect with? I think one of the most significant challenges here is communicating a complex message that isn’t reinforced by the mass media. Any thoughts on this idea are appreciated.

  2. A wonderful article. Really puts it all together.

    I think, Greg, that it is not necessary to communicate the entire message to everyone. ANYONE can see the damage done to individuals by being brainwashed to see their worth as being dependent on how much they can afford to spend. Anyone can see that all the stuff we buy becomes garbage eventually – and there is no where to put it!

    What if there was a law that people could not transport their garbage more than 20 miles from the source? People would become much more careful about waste.