A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity 

The current economic crisis is a chance to let a thousand ideas bloom.

As utility workers were testing the operations of the San Antonio Creek Wet Weather Treatment Facility near Jack London Square on October 15, a pump malfunctioned and for five minutes, untreated sewage poured into the Oakland Estuary. A "No Water Contact" advisory was issued by the East Bay Municipal Utility District for this popular kayaking and boating area. Consider this in the context of a recent BBC story entitled, "World 'to fail' on nature target." In 2002, 200 nations signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, setting a target of curbing loss of biodiversity by 2010. It has now become clear, that, to quote an English expert in Population Biology, Georgina Mace, "Virtually all of the trends that drive the loss of species and ecosystems are continuing at a global level." There is no chance that the world will meet this target. In fact, due to destructive human activity, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction of species in Earth's history.

These two matters highlight the types of problems and choices likely to be spotlighted in the coming worldwide recession.

There is a silver lining to our current economic crisis and the many eddies of disaster that will come with it. This crisis presents a unique opportunity for those who believe the world has been headed in the wrong direction for some time. One of the constant refrains in communities that work for social justice is that it seems to take a disaster to get action on a particular problem. Those who note this are then often accused of wishing and wanting for economic hardship and pain. But that is not the issue today.

The opportunity for those who want change comes not from the economic pain that we will all be facing, but from the fact that the ideology that has produced these problems and kept them in place is now seen as bankrupt. This crisis is a failure of the entire ideological underpinnings of the global regime that cannot maintain a functioning banking system or fix environmental problems, little or big. But the old system of market fundamentalism has now crashed and burned in the government takeover of the worldwide financial system. As leaders of every ideology from around the globe have admitted in recent weeks, the fetish of deregulation and the era of laissez-faire is over.

Even Alan Greenspan conceded that he made a mistake in promoting these failed policies. Astonishingly, though, Greenspan claims that his main mistake was that he thought these financial alchemists could take care of themselves; he now believes they cannot. Whether they could take care of us or the financial system upon which we depend was evidently not Greenspan's primary concern. Still, times have clearly changed. Alain Baidou, the French philosopher, has written perceptively about how events can change our being. This crisis may be one of those events.

When these issues are debated, economic realities will have a certain resonance. We are all going to have to struggle to keep our financial heads above water and to be able to care for our families and friends. We are sure to continue hearing how we have to cut taxes on the rich in order to help out everyone, but people will not buy it, as they see their ability to fund their pensions and their children's needs decline due to our hitching our financial wagon to the post of Wall Street greed. We also are going to hear from governmental leaders that the money is not there to keep our communities safe and clean or our environment healthy. But that is only true if we continue to operate in the old ways. When environmental concerns have been raised in the past, there have been hurdles and excuses from governments and big business as to why we cannot do things that need to be done, whether it is to adequately maintain public infrastructure, or to seriously tackle issues of species loss, pollution, forest desecration, climate change, and the rest. But if our governmental leaders and corporate chieftains cannot stay on top of these issues during the "good times," why should we follow them in the coming bad times?

So, if your concern is the environment, or education, municipal government, or justice on the job, now is your time. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But those who want change cannot think about things in an old way. Our situation and its solutions need creative wisdom. Fortunately we will not be as hamstrung by the old paradigms as we have been.

In the environmental arena, James Speth, a Yale professor and "ultimate insider" in the mainstream environmental movement, has written an interesting new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, arguing that it is time to take on the big picture and the system itself. Written before this current crisis, but out of frustration at the inability of the environmental movement to actually produce the kind of needed environmental activity, he argues that the only way the planet can be saved is with bold action. Speth's account is sobering, even given all of the global warming news that we have all internalized. A world that sings the tune of market fundamentalism can never save the planet. Current strategies of environmentalists, while holding back certain advances of degradation of the environment, have completely failed to address the big picture, Speth argues. But now the stage and assumptions are differently.

In his book, Speth quotes that free marketer Milton Friedman to good effect: "Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around." The East Bay is a hotbed of creativity with a lot of ideas "lying around." It is time to let our good ideas and our good intentions run wild. There may not be another such opportunity in our lifetimes.


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