On our farm in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, the local abbot of a Zen Buddhist temple manages our bees. His calm, tranquil temperament lends itself to the work. A few days ago we were talking about COVID-19 and social distancing. He believes the greatest crisis will come from the fact that most people “don’t know how to be” outside of their modern work-manic, consumerist daily routines.
A great deal of sickness and hardship is emerging from this time. The shock of the virus reveals how economically and socially vulnerable many of us are in the current system. But I can’t help thinking how much opportunity there is in this moment. Billions of us have had our regular life put on “pause,” a mass disruption that gives us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop and question the path we are on at the deepest level.
I teach a class at Bronx Community College and recently, one my students named Carl confronted me: “This shit seems hopeless,” he said, “All we do is talk about what’s broken. Most of us know that, live that. What do you think? How are we going to build a better world?”
That’s exactly the right question right now, so what’s the answer? Here are seven ideas that emerge from our experiments in “re-purposing life” on Longhaul Farm and through the work of the Ecological Citizen’s Project.
Focus on transformation, not reform.
Usually, when you want to go somewhere you start with where you are and draw a straight line to where you want to go. But that approach isn’t going to work, because where we are right now is just too far in the shit, and the structures around us are mostly too rotten to build on. So we must abandon the idea of getting to the future we want using the old ways of doing things.
We must build something new. To do so ideas won’t be enough. Voting for the right politicians to do the work for us won’t be enough. Time is against us. Rising social inequality and all of the sickness it produces are starting to boil over in hopelessness, hate, and further isolation from each other. Instead, our lives must become an embodiment of our values. If parts of the system make us live against those values, we must destroy them and build afresh.
We’ve lived our lives up to this moment in a culture built to achieve their values - more profits or a bigger market share. For many white-collar professionals, social distancing has led to an up-tick in work through Zoom meetings, emails and conference calls, as if the only way we know how “to be” is as parts of an industrialized machine. This culture has decimated our mental and physical health. We eat bad food largely devoid of nutrition; our entertainment is often isolating and increases our self absorption; and the lack of physical exertion in modern life leaves our bodies weak. The work ahead of us will require energy and clarity of heart and mind.
With social distancing, we don’t have much of a choice but to re-skill ourselves and take back most of the work of caring we’ve outsourced to others. So create time to prepare and eat food with the people you love. Teach your children what’s most important, check-in on your elders, and value the work of caring that is so devalued by the market economy. Occupy your spiritual side - even if you consider yourself “non-religious” like I do - by reflecting in the weeks ahead on the big question: am I spending my time on the most important things in life?
Who’s steering the ship? It should be us.
When the first Europeans landed in what they dubbed the “New World,” they were amazed that American Indian tribes living there were willing to sell their land. For American Indians, who believed that land and other shared natural resources could not be owned by any single individual forever, the European craze for signed pieces of paper must have been very strange.
Modern history is a tragic tale of the harms caused by the hoarding of ownership and power by society’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, with greater and greater advantages passed from generation to generation until opportunity becomes a luxury reserved for the few.
The American Revolution was an effort to shift the power of government from the few to the many, but it didn’t go far enough. Owners get to “steer the ship” in all spheres of life, while most people are kept away from real decision-making power. We need a second wave of Revolution, one that extends democracy within and beyond government to our economic lives. The new world will be built on very different ownership structures, evolving forms of Capitalism that share benefits more fairly and avoid using up humans or other living things to the point of collapse.
Rethinking what we mean by home.
A home is more than the materials used to build it; more than a place to put our stuff. It’s the place where we can organize our lives around our values. It should be the foundation of our freedom, where we feel the security that comes from having more control over our lives. But instead, paying for a home has become one of the greatest obstacles to people’s freedom. The cost of housing - either in covering rent or the mortgage bill - makes up the largest part of people’s overhead today.
We must rethink housing in fundamental ways to drastically reduce its costs and alleviate the pressures on people’s lives. One of the best ways to make housing more affordable is to take land out of the market and build smaller homes. In many places communities are creating Community Land Trusts which place land in a non-profit organization to be owned collectively by the community, in perpetuity. Land is no longer a path to creating profits, but a protected resource to ensure that people have affordable homes. Reducing people’s greatest cost can free up the necessary time needed to create new lives.
Making the next energy system community-owned.
If we view land and the natural resources that sustain life as the common property of all present and future living things, then no one individual or corporation should be able to own these resources or exploit them for private profit regardless of the negative public consequences. While fossil fuels have been one of the greatest sources of private wealth creation in human history, the necessary transition to renewable energy creates a unique opportunity to make the next energy system community-owned.
Community ownership of energy is not a new concept. Alaska owns the state’s most valuable oil fields, collects rent for companies to use them, and returns the resulting dividends to Alaskan residents in a check for a few thousand dollars every year. Community-owned renewable energy projects are growing and can create a new income source for individuals that can help to construct a free and economically-secure life in the future.
In an employee-owned economy, we can be the boss.
Most people experience work as a system where we have little say over decisions, don’t share in the rewards from hard work, and bear the brunt of corporate profit hoarding in the form of stripped-down benefits, longer work hours and increased job insecurity. While in 1970 70% of US households supported themselves with a single wage-earner, today nearly half of all homes have both parents working full-time in order to support themselves. It’s no wonder that more Americans report deep unhappiness and stress in trying to balance work and life.
In many ways, the average American has subsidized Wall Street profits with the declining quality of their personal lives. So we need to build an economy that gives people a say over the business decisions that affect their lives, and shares the gains (or losses) of work. Today, over 15 million Americans work in employee-owned businesses; they have 92% more median household wealth and 33% higher median incomes than workers in non-employee owned firms. In addition, they are much more likely to have benefits like flexible work schedules, retirement plans, parental leave, tuition reimbursement, and childcare benefits.
Leadership is our job.
The status-quo way of doing things in modern political systems has given people and corporations - at least those with money - the power to pick representatives and set the agenda. As politicians and political parties compete for power, they fail to come up with big solutions that can really improve people’s lives.
It’s time to grow up. Our current form of government listens more to big business and big donors than regular people. We’ve got to experiment with building a whole new kind of democracy in which the rest of us have real political power. If regular people were calling the shots, I don’t think a community would vote to make it easier to pollute itself, pay poverty wages to its workers, or let the wealthiest pay fewer taxes than the poorest.
That means we’ll have to teach people to think more rigorously for themselves, and give them the power to lead. We need to learn to trust each other more, because we’ll need to come together to get to the other side of the mess we’ve created.
For a longer version of this essay, click here.