The first crisis point of the COVID-19 disaster was figuring out how to respond, after being caught flat-footed, to the immediate health threat. Now that the death curve in many places has begun to flatten and the scope of economic disaster is hitting home, we are approaching crisis point two, which is all about how we move toward “reopening” the economy.
In the next weeks, as the economic pain and fear increases, the clamor to “get back to normal” is going to ramp up. Some politicians, sensing political opportunity, are already stoking that foment. The outcry for normalcy will certainly gain momentum.
The point that must be recognized and discussed, that begs our attention, is the fact that “normal” was killing us.
Most of our politicians and the for-profit media portray the economic disaster we are currently facing as strictly Covid-caused. It’s not. For many, many Americans the “normal” economy was already broken long before the first patients fell ill. C-19 is merely revealing fundamental flaws in societal and economic norms that have been eroding upward mobility, impoverishing entire communities and devastating the environment.
Before the onset of the pandemic more than fifty percent of all Americans were living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings. In other words more than half of us were already living below or near the poverty line – half! Most at that marginal level were working long hours and multiple jobs just to pay monthly expenses, stay slightly above water and do their part to keep the economy growing. You could certainly make the argument the economy wasn’t really working for them; rather they were working their hearts out to feed the status quo economy.
At the same time, Income inequality in the U.S. was off the charts. Over the past fifty years, the highest earning twenty percent of households have steadily brought in a greater portion of overall income in the country. In 2018, the top twenty percent captured more than half of all income in the country. Income inequality in the U.S. is higher than any other G-7 country including the UK, Japan, Italy, Canada, Germany and France. Now more than ever before achieving the American Dream depends upon your zip code. Due to imbedded biases toward the wealthy and privileged, “upward mobility” in this country is constrained, as never before, by income, race, and where we currently live. We have accepted as normal a Robin Hood society, in which wealth is systematically distributed upward from the poor to the rich.
Meanwhile, this same economic system that was failing millions of Americans, relied upon chewing up natural resources and ecosystems at a relentless, rapacious pace. The large-scale sacrifice of environmental health for economic growth was also accepted as normal. It should serve as a stunning existential wake-up call that the only real winner in the COVID-19 crisis at this point is the planet. Air pollution is down; climate change emissions have dropped precipitously; water pollution is down. Even wildlife trafficking and consumption is down. All of this is happening because we’ve been forced to push pause on an economic system that is fundamentally unsustainable in that it grows by destroying natural systems and our planetary life support structures.
Here’s yet another aspect of normal that should give us serious pause. COVID-19 shows that our status quo economic system is devastatingly fragile. For the massive numbers of people at or near the poverty line loss of a job means immediate crisis. The public support programs being pushed out now, while essential, are adding to a level of national debt already unprecedented and which we have no real idea how to deal with. In fact, the bulk of economic growth over the past couple of decades has largely been debt driven, and that was viewed as normal. Add to this, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry stopped manufacturing antibiotics because they don’t turn as much profit as other, less universally necessary drugs; we now get 97 of our antibiotics from China. Meanwhile Big Pharma, artificially hikes rates of certain life-saving drugs and, like big Oil, gobbles up millions in federal subsidies each year. Our seemingly robust U.S. economy was a house made of cards and COVID-19 blew in a mighty wind. It was a stress test for our current economic system and the system failed; this economy of, by and for the ultra-wealthy was eviscerated by a virus.
In a powerful cautionary tale, remember that after the great recession of 2008, for the most part, we did just go back to normal; we got the economic engine churning again and through hard labor, escalating environmental destruction, propping up Wall Street and the finance industry, blowing open oil and gas drilling, and mushrooming the chasm between the ultra-wealthy and all the rest of us. And, well, that led us to where we are today.
Just because a thing is normal doesn’t mean it’s good.
We have before us a decision of epic magnitude. We can let the discomfort and fear overwhelm us and put all of our energy into getting things back to the way they were, or, we can take a stand for creating a new normal. This is the biggest challenge and opportunity of our era.
Right now, as we are still, mostly, in this abnormal space of relative stillness, with life-as-we-have-known-it on pause, is the perfect time to ask what would we like “normal” to look like?
What kind of work would we like to do?
How much would we like to work?
Do we really need to drive to work everyday?
What kind of businesses would we like to see in our community?
How and how much would we like to travel?
Are we really OK with so much wealth in the hands of so few?
Are we really OK with the ecological destruction that has been normalized?
What actually makes us happy?
It is so critically important to remember the economy is not an act of God or a force of Nature. It is a human-made construct. We invented it and groom and redirect it all the time. That means we can reinvent it, now.
Let’s not waste this crisis. Let’s not let all the lives and livelihoods lost just be collateral damage of a broken system but rather the impetus to create anew a world that works better for all of us.
We need a new normal and there has never been a better chance to create one.
I just got back from delivering a Sacred Activism workshop at the Unity Worldwide Annual People’s Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Unity is one of many spiritual paths known as New Thought that are totally non-denominational, inclusive, and believe we are all one with the Divine Source that created us and everything else. I have been a Unity member for nearly twenty years but haven’t really gotten all that involved until the past several years.
Now among other things, I serve on the Unity Worldwide EarthCare Team: EarthCare is the program that helps Unity congregations adopt more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. The EarthCare team had been asked to present a workshop on Sacred Activism and I was one of the presenters.
Sacred Activism is an approach that blends both social action and spiritual groundings. It aims to take concrete action on difficult social issues without falling into the level of consciousness that created the problems in the first place. Sacred Activism works to find a balance between the meditation mat and marching. It acknowledges that we will only be our most effective in the work we do for the outer environment when we also do the work to clean up our own inner environments.
One of my favorite definitions of Sacred Activism comes from Andrew Harvey in his book, The Hope. He writes,
“Sacred Activism is the fusion of a mystic’s passion for God with the activist’s passion for justice, creating a third fire, which is the burning sacred heart which longs to help, preserve and nurture every living thing.”
I certainly feel that burning fire and I suspected a number of people in the room did as well but I did not know how they would respond to information about the insanity of a limitless growth economic system and how GDP is a flawed metric for economic success.
However, the point of the Sacred Activism workshop was to help spiritually awakened people become more effective activists on behalf of protecting our planet and improving people’s lives. I believe nearly every single big, gnarly issue facing us today – climate change, poverty, the massive gap between the uber-wealthy and everyone else, even institutionalized racism – is a symptom of an insane and dangerously flawed economic system. And so, that’s what I said.
I briefly explained that GDP simply measures the amount of money flowing through the economy and not whether that money is making us better or worse off. For example, the GDP registers the money spent to keep a child in juvenile jail as exactly as positive as the same amount of money spent to give a child an education. I explained how virtually all the global rise in GDP over the past decade has been debt-based and is completely unsustainable.
The crowd was totally engrossed and we had a rich conversation about steps individuals and faith congregations can take to begin to disengage from the insane, status quo, consumption-crazed story we are all caught up in.
Earlier in the day, from the main stage, Unity Worldwide (the Mother Ship if you will) made a strong commitment to the EarthCare program, encouraging congregations across the globe to step up their sustainability programs and remember the sacred covenant we all have with our planet. At the conference itself, held at a very nice hotel, Unity conference organizers even went so far as to remove the use of plastic straws and provide reusable, washable bamboo straws in the swag bags attendees received. It was a pretty great thing to be part of.
More importantly, given the tremendous level of dysfunction in our political systems and the media, faith-based organizations are positioned to play a significant role in taking peaceful, powerful action toward a healthier planet and culture.
To my amazement, I am two years into the program to become an ordained Unity Minister (sure didn’t see that one coming and man is it fun). I am honored and excited to be able to play a role in bringing New Economy concepts and actions to New Thought spiritual communities.
I’m struggling. And I know I’m not alone. As a person who likes, and works at, being informed on the major issues facing our country, I am having a really hard time knowing what to believe from the news we are getting. I’ve heard this same concern from so many people – Trump supporters and definitely not Trump supporters alike.
I know from first-hand experience that for-profit, corporate media outlets are not objective and “Breaking News”, which is intentionally designed to trigger us emotionally, is rarely purely factual reporting. And yet, bad as these news outlets can be, they’re still not the true “fake news” sources that have been created to undermine our democracy and make a lot of money generating clicks by coming across as real news with a totally made up claim imbedded in the story. And now, on top of all of that, we have a White House team that has been the source of major false reports – from the significantly wrong and repeated statement that there had been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green (never happened) to the less significant but still blatantly false claim that Trump had won more electoral college votes than any president in recent history (not true).
As people who want to be informed and engaged one of our biggest challenges just now is staying genuinely informed without getting sucked down the vortex of sensationalized, crazy-making media coverage. Here are a few tips for staying informed and somewhat sane in the process.
1) Limit your fixes and fixations
Take the news in doses. It’s something of a universal principle that what we focus on expands. For example Trump’s “War on the Media” has actually driven up cable news ratings. Most importantly, be very wary of “Breaking News”. I mean, really, don’t we all have something better to do until the actual facts surface?
2) Educate yourself about biases
Network news like ABC, NBC and CBS are not usually terribly biased in their reporting. However cable news like CNN, FOX and MSNBC have very definite liberal or conservative slants. Watching FOX and MSNBC is like seeing the same events but from two different planets.
Research shows that the majority of news-watching Americans only watch the stations that align with their pre-existing beliefs. This just increases ideological and political polarization, lack of understanding and empathy and our culture of “othering”. It’s important, even if uncomfortable, to make a conscious effort to get out of our own echo chambers and listen to different perspectives.
3) Pay attention to independent news sources – Since bias and spin is currently rampant in mainstream for-profit media outlets, independent, public and subscriber supported news outlets are more important than ever before. Some of my favorites and most trusted include NPR, BBC, Reuters, Nation, Guardian and The Week.
4) Remember the Purpose of “News”
I think this one is really important and really helpful. News after all is about pointing out the unusual, the “newsworthy”. Everyday goings on are not usually deemed newsworthy. This means the news is sensationalized and all about “If it bleeds it leads” shock value.
The truth is there are massive positive, beautiful, loving developments going on in our country and world. But those everyday “mundane” stories are rarely given any airtime because they do not count as newsworthy.
If you really think about this it means under the current corporate media model we should be really concerned if they start covering only positive stuff, because that would mean the positive stuff was unusual!
Just think about how many good things you’ve done that never received any media coverage? And if you really can’t think of anything you should consider therapy! Seriously, what’s your typical daily experience? Is it the ugliness we see on TV or is it mostly kind, positive (or at least benign) interactions with other people?
I think it’s really important to balance out staying informed about challenging issues, politics, catastrophes and tragedies with a healthy dose of positive news. Some of my favorite sources include Positive News, Yes! Magazine and NBC Nightly News’ Inspiring America segments.
5) Unplug and actually connect
Resist the temptation of the 24 hour news cycle and ceaseless social media. Go outside, take a hike, play with the dog and don’t take a screened device with you! Hang out with positive people. Volunteer in your community. Helping others is such good food for the soul.
These are some strategies for staying well-informed and sane! I hope they’re helpful because we need all the well-informed and healthy citizens we can get right now.