“What can I do to fix a broken global economy?” It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot these past few months as I’ve crisscrossed the US speaking at TED venues, music concerts, the World Affairs Council, bookstores, on radio and TV shows, and at a variety of other forums.
During this election year it is important to recognize that corporations pretty much run the world. Despite the outcome of the elections, they will continue to do so — at least until we organize and change the rules that have created the dominant neoliberal system.
We all support corporations. We buy from them, work for them, manage them, invest in them, and help them with our tax dollars. We have to ask ourselves — and answer — the following questions:
Question 1: Do we want to support companies that maximize short-term profits if that means causing the oceans to rise, destroying rainforests and other vital resources — in essence destroying the resources that support our economy?
The obvious answer: No.
But that is exactly what’s happening today. We’ve created a cannibalistic economy that is consuming itself — and us — into extinction. Paul Levy, the author of Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil, calls it the “Wetikonomy”: a reference to wetiko, an Algonquin word for cannibalism that was used specifically to describe the European colonialists and their destructive way of interacting with the world. The consequence of the corporate-led global economy is to destroy life in a perpetual quest to grow GDP.
Question 2: Change what?
What can we learn from the American Revolution? In 1773, most colonists believed the British were invincible. But George Washington recalled the Battle of the Monongahela during the French and Indian war, about 20 years earlier, when he had seen a huge British army badly defeated by a handful of Indians. “No, they are not invincible,” he said. “We just need to hide behind trees.”
We must change the story and the rules.
We are at such a time now.
When Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics, he promoted the current story: “the only responsibility of business is to maximize profits, regardless of the social and environmental costs.” The rules governing business ever since reflect that story. That was in 1976, a time when financial capital was considered in short supply and nature abundant. No one was talking about peak oil or climate change. But that is no longer true. The situation has changed. The story and the rules must also change.
Question 3: What is the new story?
I was taught in pre-1976 business school that corporations should be good citizens, should serve a public interest, in addition to paying a decent rate of return to investors. They should give employees health care insurance, retirement pensions, job security, pay taxes, and support public service institutions, like schools and recreational facilities.
The acceptance of Friedman’s logic, the Reagan/Thatcher (counter)revolution, the hijacking of academia and the economics profession, the absurd concentrations of wealth and power among a tiny elite, and many other events have led to a new dominant moral and economic order called neoliberalism. We must now create a new story, one that states that the responsibility of business is to serve the public, to be good citizens, to contribute to our shared commons, and to create a regenerative economy rather than a cannibalizing one.
It is essential to recognize that the old story and rules have resulted in a dysfunctional system, a global failure on an unimaginable scale. We are in the midst of the 6th great extinction on this planet, and the first to be created by a single species. We need to build an economic system that is regenerative — that is itself a renewable resource — instead of one that is consuming itself into extinction.
We need new rules, regulations and laws that support ideas and processes that clean up pollution, that internalize the so-called ‘externalities’ of doing business, that regenerate destroyed environments, and that develop technologies for new, more efficient energy, communications, transportation and other systems.
Question 4: What can you do?
There are no simple answers to this question because so much depends on your context, your life path, your particular set of privileges and desires.
One place where we all can start is to look for and shine a light on the story behind the story. One of the things I learned through the process that eventually resulted in my book, The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, is that there are almost always stories behind the “official” story.
Recent incidents, such as WikiLeaks and the Snowden/NSA files, and great investigative reporting from Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica and the committee of journalists who published the Panama Papers, have exposed corrupt politicians and tax-evading billionaires.
Democracy depends on spreading information, on transparency and a healthy dose of skepticism. It demands that we question our leaders, government policies, and the ingrained logic of our cultural, political and economic operating systems. In order to create a less destructive world, we have to first be able to see the cannibalistic tendencies rooted in selfish consumption (wetiko) in our culture, in our community, and indeed, in ourselves.
The second aspect of what you can do is to create local, individual, and collective power to demand political change. Most change gets implemented on local levels — and it all starts with an individual or group of individuals. Social media has increased the power of each and every one of us in powerful ways.
Recently, a small group of activists and bloggers in Vermont, a state with less than 0.2 percent of the US population, got a law passed forcing corporations to label GMOs. As a result, some of the biggest food producers in the country — Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Mars, and ConAgra — committed to the national labeling of GMOs.
The power of community organizing ended apartheid, gave women and Black people voting and civil rights, has ensured that corporations clean up polluted rivers, and almost brought an obscure Vermont senator and proclaimed socialist into the White House (and in the process deeply influenced the Democratic Party). The list of successes is endless.
Through joining and supporting social movements, we will inspire government to pass laws that will create a regenerative economy.
We have to demand that corporations serve a public interest. Corporations run the world and they depend on you. CEOs receive monthly summaries about email, Facebook and Twitter messages that come to their offices. They know they have to listen to their customers.
Pick a corporation you want to change. Start a social networking campaign: “I love your products but I won’t buy them any more until you pay your workers a living wage, clean up the pollution you caused, pay your taxes, and create transparency in your operations.” Send it to all your social networking circles and ask them to send it to theirs.
You are living at a watershed moment in history. This presidential campaign has, above all else, shown the power elites that we understand that the system is broken. Now we must change the story and the rules, and do it in time for civilizational and planetary regeneration.