June 4, 2003
It is easy to see the assumptions of previous eras. They stand out so clearly.
“Kings are divine.”
“Women are too dim-witted to vote.”
“Slaves are sub-human property.”
It is much harder to see the assumptions of our own time, but as an old assumption begins to loose some of its power to explain the world, it becomes easier to notice. And when an assumption begins to sound downright silly, change is on the way.
That’s what I was hoping anyway, as I read a speech delivered to an audience of university students this past May. The speechmaker was Mitchell E. Daniels, corporate executive and (until his resignation takes effect later this month) director of the Whitehouse Office of Management and Budget. Listen to a voice of the current economic order declaring its core assumptions.
“If your upcoming business careers were a movie plot, it would resemble the movie “Speed.” As you recall, in that film a criminal has rigged a bus so that it will be destroyed if it ever slows down. That is pretty much the situation confronting today’s actors in a wired, global economy. We’re winning and leading the world forward because of our natural lead foot, which helps us drive to the next breakthrough, the latest wacky idea, the “New, New Thing,” a minute or two before others do. The mistake we have to avoid is letting the bus slow down.
This is not an argument for ignoring risks, only for remembering that there is also great risk when the bus slows down. We must be careful never to impose a school zone speed limit on our entire national economy in pursuit of the illusion of perfect safety.
We in the U.S. are not immune to the fear of speed. And of course we do need limits. But it’s critical that we keep our speed bumps in the right places, and the right height. Especially after a serious accident, there is a human tendency to set up “School Zone” signs even on the interstate.
Put your foot down and leave it there. Adopt a pioneer mentality. Don’t let anything dampen your “animal spirits.” And never, never let the bus slow down.”
Does the economy exist in its own little corner of the world, with everything that is vulnerable and precious safely tucked away somewhere in a “School Zone?” That’s the assumption woven into this speech.
The problem is, data coming in from the planet tell us that this division of the world into economic interstate highway and isolated school zone just isn’t accurate. The economy draws on the raw materials of the forests and oceans, it depends on the purification services of microbes and atmosphere, and it needs the work of human hands.
When scientists report to us that the altitude at which clouds form in the Appalachian Mountains has risen by 590 feet over the past thirty years, primarily as a result of the drier air that is created when lowland forests are cut, we see the economic bus charging though a school zone.
When other scientists report that warming oceans have increased the virulence of a bacterium that causes coral bleaching we see the economic bus roaring through a school zone.
When Central American coffee farmers can no longer afford to send their children to school because overproduction of coffee has depressed prices to poverty-inducing levels, we see the economic bus driving, quite literally, through a school zone.
The notion that the economy is separate from nature and people is on shaky ground, and it has been for a while. The people who agitated for child labor laws, minimum wage laws, the ban on DDT, or protection for endangered species never accepted that the economy was separate from the rest of life, and we are healthier and more secure because of their skepticism.
Still, many people accept the assumption that the economy exists more or less in isolation from the biosphere and human communities. Daniels’ speech was serious, not tongue in cheek. I imagine his audience clapped and cheered in a way that they wouldn’t have if he’d said that kings are divine or women unintelligent. We are living through a period where an old idea still has power even in the face of clear and mounting evidence of its flaws.
In an honest conversation, in the clear light of day, facts tend win over assumptions. Assumptions thrive when people take them on faith or because “everyone agrees”. And so, to limit the damage being done by the assumption of economy -in- isolation, we need to place the facts right out beside the assumption. To start out, we can ask how “never ever let the bus slow down” can be good advice on a planet of 6 billion people who share declining stocks of fish and forest and fresh water. We can point to the evidence of shifting cloud cover and dying reefs.
Maybe challenging the economic doctrine of the experts sounds scary. Still we must do it. So why not think of it this way: you are a passenger on a bus, speeding through a busy schoolyard. There are more vulnerable and precious things up ahead. You can see them clearly, but the driver doesn’t seem to notice them. Now’s your chance. Shout a warning. Ask that self-assured driver what the heck he’s up to.