Taking On the Erosive Cycle of Money and Political Power
Elizabeth R. Sawin February 4, 2002
Every day I try to protect my children from problems I didn’t create and cannot solve alone. I spread creams on their skin to shield them from the UV radiation that sneaks in through our thinned ozone layer. I try to feed them food free of pesticides and hormones, but I know their bodies are exposed to a cocktail of manmade chemicals every day, despite my efforts. I give money and time to environmental initiatives and help care for a few hundred acres of land. I do what I can, but really keeping them safe is going to require action at the level of whole watersheds, whole oceans, and the whole atmosphere. It’s going to take bike paths, funding for sustainable agriculture projects, incentives for renewable energy, and limits on greenhouse emissions. And I can’t imagine much progress on any of those fronts without a democracy committed to the common good and the long-term future.
That’s why the Enron story leaves me feeling so outraged. My children’s future depends on our democracy running along at its full power, but the Enron story reveals just how hobbled it currently is.
Our current system allows a destructive cycle. Wealth gathers power to itself, and uses the power to gather more wealth. The voices of power and wealth grow stronger, while ordinary voices grow weaker. And, in general, the powerful voices do not speak for the long term or the common good. They can’t. The jobs of the CEOs, lobbyists, and consultants who are making all those campaign contributions depend upon maximizing shareholder value, quarter by quarter, month by month. In their professional personas the people involved cannot make the long-term their first priority. Because of this fact, restoring our democracy must become as much a part of the environmental agenda as restoring wetlands or forests.
We could start by thinking about erosion. That’s the way Paul Krafel frames it in his book, Seeing Nature.
Like the accumulation of wealth and power, erosion is a cycle with momentum. A trickle of water carves a tiny channel in a grassless slope. The channel — now a low spot — attracts more water and becomes a deeper grove. Once erosion begins, water that could run uniformly across an entire hillside instead becomes channeled in one narrow, destructive gully. In the same way, in the political system we now have, money and power that could be spread across society become channeled in fewer and fewer hands.
The beauty of Krafel’s metaphor is that we know exactly what to do about erosion – focus upstream where the gullies begin, and divert the flow of water so that gullies cannot form.
To fight erosion you plant grass. The grass takes root and holds the soil in place as each blade absorbs and diverts the flow of water in the gully. When you cast your vote in the next election, think of yourself as one of millions of blades of grass. You can send a little bit of the power out of the gully and into a slower tributary by voting for someone who accepts no large campaign contributions. When you spend or invest your money, do what you can to make sure it ends up in a rivulet that flows gently across the hillside. Buy from a local farmer, invest in a local business and you will be turning water out of the gullies and sprinkling it on the hillside.
Your one vote and your meager shopping list may seem to be tiny weapons against the kind of power revealed in the Enron stories. A single blade of grass looks fragile against the torrent of a rainstorm, too, but a whole patch of grass can absorb the force of a powerful storm.
To fight erosion you also build dams. You climb to the top of the hill, to the beginning of the gully, and you mold the soil into dams, breaking up the rush of water into smaller flows. You must build a dam that is strong enough to hold against the power of the water. In the fashion of dams, we need to discover how to come together as a solid unit standing close enough to each other to divert the erosive power right at its source. We might start by adding our strength to the dams already forming wherever anyone takes a stand for serious, stringent campaign finance reform.
Practically every Enron news article I’ve read has fueled in me a sense of outrage. But the particulars of Enron and Congress and the President are only a distraction. As long as it rains, water will flow down the hill. It can flow gently through the grass, nourishing everything, or it can race down whatever channel started first and grew the fastest. The outcome for the hillside is shaped not by the water, but by the grass and the mud dams.
So, let us not waste time cursing the rain. Let’s find our grass seed and our hoes. Let’s use the outrage to speed our work.