Inside NCR: So let's enter the Ecozoic Era

By now we know it's more than just another "recession." Some have dubbed it "The Great Recession." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, thinking on another plane, has termed it the first phase of "The Great Disruption." By this he means it could mark the end of a financial system built on the shortsighted, unrealistic demands of sustained growth -- at the expense of finite resources.

Most of us are affected, some more than others. Some 50 Californians at risk of foreclosure or who had already lost their homes came through Kansas City, Mo., March 8, part of a national campaign by PICO National Network (People Improving Communities through Organizing), a network of faith-based organizations. NCR staff writer Rich Heffern gathered their stories (see story). Meanwhile, he relayed this astonishing figure: Banks are now foreclosing on U.S. homes at a rate of approximately 40,000 homes every week. One in every 10 U.S. home mortgages is now either delinquent or in foreclosure. This is part of a financial collapse of an unparalleled order.

Where do we go from here? While frightening, this collapse could, one dares hope, mark the birth of something new. Might we come together as never before? Might we recognize that vast income inequalities are neither good for the poor nor good for the nation as a whole? Might we see that short-term greed imperils our way of life and the planet itself? Might we again be guided by virtues of compassion and generosity? Might we learn to ask again not what is "best for me," but what is "best for us"?

Longtime NCR readers are familiar with the writings of eco-theologian Thomas Berry, who, three decades back, offered us hints that we were entering a death-and-rebirth moment. He wrote that human beings are in the terminal phases of the Cenozoic Era and at the door of what he called the "Ecozoic Era." The Cenozoic Era, he wrote, has included the period of biological development since the great extinction of plant and animal life 65 million years ago. The new Ecozoic Era is the period when human conduct will be guided, from necessity, by a greater ecological respect for the earth and when humans will finally understand all life "as an integral earth community." This community, he dreamed, would "recognize, honor and protect" the rights of the earth as a living reality, as well as the rights of all of its species, including the human species, to exist and support each other.

But can we learn from the past? From our failings? What are the lessons? Times columnist Bob Herbert recently quoted Jared Bernstein, now chief economic advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden. Bernstein wrote the following in the preface of his book Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed?: "Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us. ... Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them." Working people, he said, were told that all the special tax cuts for the rich would eventually help them, that they would eventually "trickle down" to them. So they signed on to tax policies that worked against them.

According to Herbert, the seeds of today's economic disaster were sown some 30 years ago. While the national economy, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled since then, the average income for the majority of Americans has actually fallen. "As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000," Herbert wrote.

The right-wingers, he went on, with the onset of the Reagan administration, took control of government and began draining it of programs that served the poor as they funneled revenues to the rich through tax cuts and other benefits. What he did not say, but might have, is that during this same period these masters of power expanded, at great profit to a few, military spending to unprecedented levels.

Try to wrap your mind around this: For the 2009 fiscal year, base U.S. military spending rose to $515.4 billion. Adding emergency discretionary spending and supplemental spending, the number comes to $651.2 billion. This, however, does not include many military-related items that are outside of the Pentagon budget, such as nuclear weapons research, maintenance and production, veteran affairs, interest on debt incurred in past wars, spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. When it's all added up, we learn the United States is spending about $1 trillion annually on what we euphemistically call "defense" spending.

This figure is nearly 20 times -- yes, 20 times! -- more than the second-largest spender, the United Kingdom, at $59 billion. China, by comparison, spent an estimated $49.5 billion in 2007. Are we safer? Can our nation sustain this spending? Or are these numbers also adding to our collective demise? Every dollar spent on weapons is a dollar that does not go for education and health care and for a cleaner and healthier environment.

Have we learned the lessons?

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