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Money doesn't make babies happy


globe-hands-sm, Flickr image by noticeljIf we were the kind of people who considered coincidences worth investigating or retrieving we could use the idea of coincidence to look more closely at any thoughts we might have about causality and our experience of it. After all a crisis is, if nothing else, a way of showing us that whatever kind of people we thought we were we're not, and however we got to where we are is not how we thought we got there. In other words there is something in the nature of causality that we have ridden over the top of. It is crisis and coincidence that disrupt our narratives of the world, give us pause, give us breath, give us anything other that what we have been taking.

The cusp of irreversible climate change and the precipitous global collapse of supposedly steadfast financial institutions are some way to being versions of each other. They are not two disparate but somehow coincidental events colliding like asteroids that have lost their orbit or their sense of home.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a financial 'crisis' needs a more immediate response than mere climate 'change', as though of two patients, one needs immediate surgery while the other can be safely left on a drip for a while. Our response to crisis is very much about how we mask crisis, manage it out and so on, and our ways of masking crisis are very much part of the problem, if not the problem itself.

It could be said that the global disintegration on the financial markets gives a voice to the increasing terror lurking behind the thought of tomorrow, as the planetary climate upon which we depend far more than on the Dow Jones begins to go haywire on an apocalyptic scale. This displacement of terror works precisely because we know that these events are linked. It promises that we might come back to some kind of financial equilibrium, calm our frayed nerves, create at least a semblance of an illusion of a predictable future of happy consumerism and material prosperity.

We are so wired, in these times, into viewing the process of living as an act of utilitarian consumption, that even profound ruptures in the very fabric of reality are converted into economic anxiety.

It is this confluence of crises that might — that could only — give us some intimation of the immense shift of the human imagination which lies before us, the realisation that the way we think is not sustainable. This is another way of saying that our state of mind is self-destructive. It's not possible to come to grips with the climate change/financial crisis nexus and at the same time to remain the same people, any more than it is possible that working through personal trauma can leave someone unmarked.

Still, in all of this, there's something missing or something unsaid. It's not easy to think of a viable future as one of a changed imagination. If it were we'd have already done it. Neither is it easy to draw something down to the individual, nor is it popular — and neither do we have the vocabulary anymore — to speak in terms of human virtue and what that might be. If climate catastrophe and global financial ruin are a salutary lesson in anything, they are a lesson in the politics and psychology of greed, the ideology of filling ourselves endlessly over and over, the sanctioned ideology of me first, me second, and perchance, if there's anything left over, me third.

We are terrible at caring for the planet because we are terrible at caring for each other. And we are lousy at caring for each other because we don't seem to have any idea of where the roots of human emotional sustenance lie. Money, as Freud once more or less remarked, doesn't make babies happy. We might begin to look at our obsessive love of money and power as something to be questioned, not just because an entire ocean of material goods cannot make or guarantee happiness, but also because there might be a causal link between that obsession and the poverty of our notions of care.

The global nature of the imminent environmental catastrophe and the speed of the financial meltdown do us a service in revealing to us what we have hitherto effectively denied: the alarming fact of our intimate and irrevocable interdependence.

We are not just in the world, or even on it, but we are of it. The planet's wellbeing, our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of other species are ineluctably intertwined. Not only is this now blindingly obvious, but such an acknowledgement has to force us to reposition our goals of personal happiness and our understanding of each other.

The chaotic consequences of unimagined greed on the world's financial markets and the resultant suffering to millions of ordinary people can give us a moral compass that might point to the wellbeing of others as a priority that overtakes all else. The single-minded pursuit of personal profit has created an unworkable, exploitative and fantastically greedy economic system that literally eats the biological structure of the planet and transforms it into poisonous waste. The amount of energy that is put into such a system of destruction beggars belief, and the re-routing of that energy into something that approximates care of the other is our task.

A few hours before he died, Thomas Merton, who was often prescient in these and so many other matters, said, 'The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living things, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.'

Compassion, in this sense, is not merely an emotion. Fused to, and contiguous with, the fundamental nature of our mutual interdependence, there is a different understanding here, not just of what we could do, or what we might feel, but of what human beings are for. Care of the other, something which the philosopher Bill Readings in The University in Ruins described as 'infinite obligation', is not just an acknowledgement of the practical workings of the interdependence of wellbeing, but also implies a grasp of the idea of causality as itself endless. That is, we just do not know precisely with any determinacy what the full consequences of our acts will be.

This is not to say that results cannot be known for events, but that the effects of any cause are endless, and reverberate in places and times and minds of which we cannot be aware. Our choices of care matter and do not vanish into the void. They have impact, consequences for ourselves and others, and take shape and form of which we cannot conceive. For us, care is the only thing that can matter, the only thing that can give meaning, shape, and resonance to the world.

And the very fact that this is possible says something very powerful about the nature of the world, the reality we inhabit, a reality that perhaps we have not yet begun to grasp with any coherence or subtlety. It should be a fact of astounding significance to us that the world can be cared for at all, that we ourselves respond to and are dependent on care, that the world responds to care and that world is in a sense, a manifestation of our care.

Whatever further existential significance we wish to draw from this, it is not anywhere near enough a common knowledge. Perhaps it hasn't even risen to the level of 'knowledge' at all, but remains as an unconsciousness uneasiness, a kind of fathomless anxiety, that all is somehow not well, and there may not be any way to make it well. 'Ho, ho. Think again, buster,' wrote Hunter S. Thompson. 'Look around you. There is an eerie sense of Panic in the air, a silent Fear and Uncertainty that comes with once-reliable faiths and truths and solid institutions that are no longer safe to believe in ... '

Still, caring and being cared for is not easy. And on a profound level it's our narratives of care that are now being disrupted in the shape of a great ethical and spiritual crisis, repeating itself over and over every day with increasing force and tension. Dealing with the climate crisis, and consonantly with the great suffering inflicted on humanity by the habitual actions of greed, is not a utilitarian act. Of course it's axiomatic that we need to rethink our dependence on fossil fuels, examine why a few are so rich and why so many are so poor, reconfigure our relationships with other species. It's a no-brainer that if we are not using a light we should switch it off. We have to learn some ethical everyday mindfulness about our actions.

But it's that toxic little line of flight that takes us from institutional greed to climate catastrophe that seems so beyond our reach, so removed from our mundane concerns.

A kind of groundswell of care goes beyond what we have so far been able to imagine, and our quickness to condemn the inanity of such an idea could give us a clue to its danger. As Octavio Paz wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude, 'love has always been a dangerous activity, but now it is even beginning to be revolutionary'.

The institutions we have unthinkingly placed our trust in, banks, political parties and so forth, are not going to save us, nor even do us any favours. We rely on them to our greater peril. They are after all demonstrably uninterested in anything but varieties of a principle of self-expansion, of regimes of control and power and subservience that acknowledge very little of the urgent times which face us, right now. The political promise of the 'return to growth' is a kind of coded signal for the return to greed, to the immensely destructive habits of thought and action that have given us unprecedented species extinction and ecological devastation and point to a kind of misery we have not even begun to contemplate.

This is not to say that group or institutional action isn't possible. But personal understanding and personal action has an effect, it has power and it matters. It matters because nothing can function in isolation to anything else. In particular nobody can survive without being to some degree held in a network of care, and what care is and what it might be in the future and how it might look on a global scale, on a neighbourhood scale, and to each individual is where we need to put every atom of our thought, our imagination and whatever intelligence we can muster.

Stephen WrightStephen Wright lives on a commune in NSW, writes, reads, plants trees and thinks. The above essay won him the 2009 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award, with the theme 'Climate Change and the Financial Crisis: Can We Afford to Save the Planet?'

Topic tags: Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award, Climate Change, GFC, Can We Afford to Save the Planet



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Existing comments

wow. like all your other readers i thought aw this is way too long to read, and then i started to read, and...wow. thoughtful, pointed, honest, sweeping. wow.

Brian Doyle | 30 September 2009  

Thank you Stephen for sharing your thoughts...I think you have said everything that ever needs to be said again.

kylie kingston | 30 September 2009  

Thanks, Stephen, for your punchy article. Poverty of spirit - whether greed or despair, creates a catastrophic spiral effect. The notion of a network of care provides hope and within the grasp of local action.

Jean Rockel | 30 September 2009  

Stephen's essay echoes the words of John Dewey: "From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone -- an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world."

Gus Barker | 30 September 2009  

Thank you Stephen Wright for your thought provoking article.

I don't think it all was absorbed as I would have liked, but the gist of it I think was profound.

Our whole existence depends on care. Without it we eventually consign ourselves to a certain extinction, and in a manner not worth contemplating, or perhaps it is worth opening our eyes to the unpleasant reality of the consequences brought about by greed, selfishness and power.

The powerful reality is that we are all capable of care, no matter how poor or how rich. We as individuals have opportunities to care for our environment, for others and for ourselves, without the help or support of any government.

What a huge effort is also required, to resist the call to materialism. Some belief in a good God I believe is our strength.

This does not do justice to your article. Many thanks for your insights.

Bernadette Introna | 30 September 2009  

Thank you Stephen for your wonderful essay. I am a member of the Christian Community and agree with you that the real crisis we face is one of rampart materialism. Mainstream media seeks to glorify materialism by pushing such furphies as global warming and ignoring the global spiritual crisis. Dark Ahrimaic forces indeed threaten the fabric of our reality. These we can counter by caring for the cosmic evolution of the world and recognizing our interdependence with the celestial hierarchies. Once we reach this level of spiritual maturity, global warming will be seen for what it is - a non-issue.

Raul Ayala | 02 October 2009