The Common Good

Two Kinds of Economic Recovery

I just watched President Obama's Indiana speech and town hall meeting from my hotel room in San Diego. I was watching on MSNBC, with Chris Matthews hosting and Pat Buchanan commenting. Pat (predictably) panned the speech, saying that people in Elkhart make RVs, and Obama's speech failed to explain how we'd get Americans to buy RVs again. His comment, it seems to me, perfectly epitomizes an adventure in missing the point, and perfectly articulates two kinds of economic recovery.

For many people, economic recovery means "getting back to where we were a few months or years ago." That means recovering our consumptive, greedy, unrestrained, undisciplined, irresponsible, and ecologically and socially unsustainable way of life.

I'd like to suggest another kind of recovery ... drawing from the world of addiction. When an addict gets into recovery, he doesn't want to go back and recover the "high" he had before, or even to recover the conditions he had before he began using drugs and alcohol. Instead, he wants to move forward to a new way of life -- a wiser way of life that takes into account his experience of addiction. He realizes that his addiction to drugs was a symptom of other deeper issues and diseases in his life ... unresolved pain or anger, the need to anesthetize painful emotions, lack of creativity in finding ways to feel happy and alive, unaddressed relational and spiritual deficits, lack of self-awareness, and so on.

Similarly, I'd like to suggest whenever we hear the word "recovery," we as a nation see it not as a call to get back our old addictive high, but rather as a call to face our corporate and personal addictions, including the following:

1. Our addiction to carbon. Fossil fuels are an addictive substance. They give us speed ... quick energy ... serving as a kind of cultural amphetamine. Meanwhile, they toxify our environment and throw the ecosystem in which we live into dangerous imbalance.

2. Our addiction to weapons. Weapons are one of the most addictive substances possible. They give us a feeling of well-being and security, removing our feeling of fear and anxiety, much like a barbiturate. But like a drug, they make us lazy and slow -- lazy and slow in the much more important work of relationship-building, justice, and peace-making, lazy in seeking the common good. And they plunge us into an addictive cycle, because if everyone in the world is getting more and more weapons, we aren't safer ... especially when increasing numbers of those weapons are nuclear, biological, and chemical.

3. Our addiction to fear. Religious leaders, media leaders, and political leaders have all discovered that you can raise quick votes, dollars, and members through the hallucinogenic stimulant of fear. By making straights afraid of gays, conservatives afraid of progressives, Christians and Jews afraid of Muslims, citizens afraid of immigrants, and vice versa, these leaders get a quick organizational high -- crack for their unity and morale. But the more fear you pump into your system, the more fear you have, and pretty soon, you go from being stimulated to paranoid, seeing things that aren't there and missing things that are. And soon after that, you move from paranoia to paralysis, leaving you in greater danger than ever.

4. Our addiction to stuff. Jesus said that a person's life doesn't consist in the abundance of her possessions. An economy that measures growth by the number of durable goods (resources) extracted from the environment and turned into non-durable goods that are bought, used, and then thrown away into a landfill ... that economy "succeeds" by turning goods into trash, and calling it success. That's not success. We need to imagine moving beyond an extractive, consumptive economy to a sustainable economy, and beyond a sustainable economy to a regenerative economy. I believe that in God's world, if billions can be made destroying the planet and exploiting people addictively, trillions can be made caring for the planet wisely and caring for people justly.

5. Our addiction to a single bottom line. During the president's town hall meeting, a man from Indiana told how he started a solar-powered attic fan company, and how he chose not to ship manufacturing overseas, but instead, to provide good employment for his neighbors. That meant, he said, that he had a little less cash in his pocket ... but wouldn't you agree that being a good neighbor has a value that can't be measured in dollars? The single bottom line of financial profit is addictive, and like an addiction, it destroys families and communities. We need to rediscover a triple bottom line -- financial sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability. So we need a recovery of family values, and we also need a recovery of community values, and neighborly values, and ethical business values.

6. Our addiction to easy answers. "Government is the problem." "Just throw money at the problem." We can't afford our addiction to these kinds of easy ideological slogans and facile reactive fantasies in a complex, real world. Ideology is, in many ways, a drug that substitutes the quick high of unthinking reaction for the hard work of acquiring wisdom.

So ... maybe we can sabotage our addictive tendencies by letting the word "recovery" have a meaning that wakes us up rather than drugs us into the comfortable, dreamy, half-awareness in which we have lived for too long. That's my hope and prayer. (For more on this, see my book Everything Must Change.)

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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