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The Crises Are Over — Now Back to Business-As-Usual?

by Ervin Laszlo

The financial crisis is over: now the big banks can continue to treat money as the means to make money.  The environmental crisis is over: now the industrial economies can concentrate on creating jobs using whatever means are the most profitable without undue concern as to what it does to the environment.  In other words we are back more or less to where we were:  business-as-usual.  The rich can get richer and, one hopes, the poor will somehow manage to stay alive.

Why do people think these crises are over?  In the banking world, it’s because investment banking continues to make money with money.  That’s supposed to be good for everyone: is it not the case that a rising tide lifts all boats?  In regard to the environment, the excitement of the Copenhagen summit is over: although the do-gooders still continue to rattle their paper swords, they can now be safely ignored.  Besides, the scientific data about climate change is not certain: doubts persist.  It would be foolish to let oneself be talked into making sacrifices.  Safe are the tried and tested ways: best to continue securing our own interests.

How can the banking system keep going as it did in the past? First, because it’s still making money.  It perceives its own interests to lie in making money, not just for clients and customers, but for the bankers themselves. But why can the bankers not be made to change their mind? Because the financial world of “making money with money” no longer has much if anything to do with the world of using money to ensure the being and wellbeing of people.  The financial sector has become divorced from society, and it protects its own autonomy. Any attempt to bring it back into the fold of socially conscious and productive actors is considered an unwarranted, undemocratic, and inherently dangerous interference of the public sector in the free market of the private sector.

And why did the excitement about climate change die down?  Because it appears to have failed: it didn’t produce real results. Copenhagen was just another talk-fest where powerless do-gooders pushed and pressed, but were successfully resisted by the holders of power. Now climate change is something we can discuss, but not something we need to do something about. So now we bravely (and blindly) continue doing more-or-less business-as-usual, even if many are beginning to feel uneasy about it.

What would really happen if we continued like this?  That’s not difficult to tell—apart from the exact timing of the events.  There will be more crises: bigger, but not better crises. The world’s financial system is intrinsically unstable: experts know that it’s ready for change, even for, as the IMF admitted, “abrupt” change. It’s only a matter of time. As long as we don’t know when the next crisis will come about, can we ignore it?  The world’s ecology is likewise intrinsically unstable: it was stable for millions of years, but we managed to destabilize it in the last several decades. The next ecological crisis is likely to come with a high price-tag: millions without habitation as islands and low-lying areas are flooded; millions without safe and adequate water as water-tables are lowered and polluted; millions starving as harvests fail due to persistent drought as well as violent storms and extreme weather patterns. And those of us who remain relatively well-off can just complain with Mark Twain: everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

What is the alternative to the return to business-as-usual?  It’s to learn.  To learn that the financial world needs to be brought back to socially conscious and ethical behavior, and that it either comes back on its own, or has to be brought back kicking and screaming. Self-regulate, or risk regulation from the outside: the rule is familiar to business people. What do we learn regarding action in the ecological sphere? Not to entrust global projects to national actors. Governments represent nation-states, and nation-states are supposedly sovereign entities, pursuing only their own interests and responsible only to their own people. As long as governments perceive that their national interests are not fully aligned with the interests of the whole human family, national action will not serve global objectives. In Copenhagen we have been barking up the wrong tree. The result was not the failure of a conference, but the failure of the nation-state system. That system needs to be transformed to become effective on the global—that is, transnational—level.

These lessons speak to the need for an effective transformation: a WorldShift. This shift must transfer the responsibility as well as the capacity for action to civil society: to the people. This, however, presupposes that the people know how to act—that they are informed.  Informing the people in regard to the dangers as well as the opportunities that await all of us in the coming years is something we can do already—and that we must do, in our own immediate and best interests.

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