Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Post Election Sadness and Hope

As I ponder the results of yesterday’s mid-term election, I feel both sad and hopeful. Those of us on the green side of the ledger generally favor Democrats over Republicans – few Republicans openly espouse political reform toward environmental sustainability – and Democrats did not fare well. What I find to be most notable about this election - perhaps because of its obvious absence – is any discussion of environmental issues (one exception was CA Proposition 23, which fortunately went down in flames). Any politician regardless of political bent was compelled to avoid discussion of environmental issues at all costs. The electorate was screaming “it’s the economy stupid” with such deafening bravado that any words that could be construed as impinging on economic development were shot down with laser-like precision.

Humanity has come a long way over the millennia, yet we still struggle with our acknowledgement of the simple truth that our world is a very simple system. The broadest circle is made up of our environment – the natural resources upon which we all depend for survival. Within this broader circle are our social systems – we are first and foremost social creatures, and depend on one another for our livelihood. Finally, nestled within these two much larger circles, we have our economy. This is the circle upon which we place the greatest importance. It is more immediate to us than the two larger circles, with its ebbs and flows seemingly affecting whether we struggle or thrive. And, when our economic system ebbs such as it is now, our survival mechanism takes flight. This powerful and sophisticated mechanism, fueled mostly by negative emotions such as anger and fear, overpowers our ability to see and relate to the bigger picture. This short-sightedness and lack of vision inspires my sadness today.

Our singular focus on the economy would be okay if the ways in which we choose to drive this system did not have such a detrimental impact on the two larger circles upon which it depends. But, our economic system in its present form continues to degrade our social and environmental systems in critical and, perhaps, irreparable ways. This election clearly demonstrated that the general populous wants to continue to throttle our economy toward a date with its own destruction. This is utterly irrational, but it is what we continue to choose to do. We miss the part about how our economy depends on the vitality of our social networks, and how those networks fully depend on the health and vitality of our natural environment. In fear mode, we are unable to see beyond the smallest circle in which we exist – the forest through the trees as it were. Even though the interdependent three-part system on which our long-term survival depends is simple to see in our minds eye, we cannot see it when we cast our vote.

I am hopeful because people still care. Even though the direction of their care is generally misplaced toward material and financial gain, fundamentally people are trying to show love and protection toward those about whom they care most. Caring can inspire negative emotions, such as anger, when we sense that the short-term livelihoods of our intimates are threatened. Caring can also inspire fear, an emotion designed for its short-term effectiveness – our fight or flight capacity is well-honed. In a state of fear, by design we cannot see the bigger picture because it does no good in our effort to survive a perceived immediate threat.

Caring is also part and parcel of positive emotions. And, positive emotions are the ones that allow us to see the bigger picture. In a state of positive emotion, we are more creative and more willing to take in stimuli from the broader world around us (in a negative state we are less willing and able to take in information for good reason – we need to focus our attention to avert imminent disaster). We are more apt to identify with the truth that we are a small part of a much larger interdependent web of life. We are also more able to envision a future which will allow us to thrive, not just for the immediate term, but indefinitely.

If we can learn to approach perceived problems, such as a broken economy, with a more positive perspective, the solutions we identify will more likely take into account the broader circles on which we and our economy depend for long-term survival. We have the capacity to feel positive emotions (which are greater in number and dimension than negative emotions) for good reason. They guide our survival in ways that negative emotions do not allow us to do. They allow us to identify, and act on, creative solutions to our predicaments. Perhaps most importantly, by inspiring a longer term perspective, positive emotions lead us to ways of seeing and experiencing the world that both improve our sense of well-being and ensure that the futures of our children and grandchildren will provide for their maximized well-being. Without taking into account, and working toward, the sustained health of our natural environmental, we are dooming our descendents to the fate that we most desperately want to avoid.

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