Turning Lemons into Lemonade

images-2.jpegimages-3.jpegI like the metaphor in the title; it truly captures the opportunity of this, hopefully only a single, moment in historical time. Crises have a strange sociological or psychological tendency: they bring to the surface underlying beliefs and values that drive individual and collective action. And when that happens, the possibility of reflection and change enters the space we are in.

Alternet collected the comments on the financial crisis from a variety of experts. The closing comments struck a chord for me.

Hahnel offered a word of caution, noting that "80 years ago people thought [unregulated] free market finance was dead. If the funeral had a name, it was Glass Steagall (the New Deal-era legislation that made banks choose between issuing mortgages and securities). In 1999 Phil Graham, Robert Rubin and Bill Clinton killed Glass Steagall, signaling the return and triumph of free market finance. Hopefully this crisis will kill free market finance once and for all. 'Never again' is the appropriate response." He added what was perhaps the most salient point: "I hope this lesson will be the beginning of a larger lesson: The economics of competition and greed does not serve us well."

I see two separate but overlapping results in listening to or reading responses to the economic turbulence of both Main Street and the Punditocracy, including Wall Street. In these responses, I hear a new awareness that the cultural beliefs, like greed and competition, that have become so engrained in post-World War II may be part of the problem, not part of the solution. If this awareness takes hold, then we may have taken, unawares, a step toward sustainability and the possibility of flourishing.

From Main Street, I hear the realization that relationships, community, and interconnectedness are the real foundation for well-being. Money is ephemeral and full of empty promises. Narcissism and hyper-individualism do the same thing: the short-lived rush of satisfaction leaves a huge pit in the soul when the ability to buy, baby buy is shattered. Maybe we will no longer hear a President call for shopping as the balm for the hurt of a 9/11 magnitude event.

The other critically important change is the growing awareness that the world is complex and big parts of it, like the financial system are too. This means we don’t really know how they work, and we have begun to learn that they can collapse into a mess in a moment. We have seen 5 to 10 years of apparent financial growth disappear in an instant. This slowly growing understanding is yet to be translated into meaningful action. The political system, also increasingly showing its own complexity, still believes it needs to find the guilty parties and point the finger of blame at them.

We have not yet embodied the fundamentals of complexity which teach us that it is the web of relationships that produces what we want. Perhaps some actor or action triggers a collapse or regime change, but the consequence is a system failure, not just a single part that fails. Charles Perrow called these normal accidents--accidents that were bound to happen at some unknown time because the parts of the system are so interconnected that an inevitable breakdown in even a small part can cause the whole system to dysfunction. Some of us, like me, wish in retrospect that we had relied a lot more on our instincts than on what goes for rationality.

We still fail to understand that sustainability is not some output that is mechanically produced, in this case, by some motor inside of the socio-economic system, but emerges only when the web of relationships, human and natural, that comprise the whole system is working holistically. One cannot measure sustainability nor simply adjust the levers we can control to get any of it or more of it. Money or wealth is the measurable output of the financial system and the economy, but that is not what we really want from this system. We want emergent properties like happiness, comfort, security, confidence, and so on. Maybe we will stop equating happiness with individual wealth and societal well-being with GNP. If like the findings of Hahnel above, we can recognize we have been mislead by both our ideologies and our tacit beliefs and values, we can then start to reconstruct a world that works for both the planet and all the life that dwells on it.