by David McCarthy
Last month we explored ideas about what sorts of economic development are worth our aspirations here in the Hudson Valley. This month we’ll continue that line of thought, taking it to a deeper, more personal level.
Usually when we talk about economic development we mean what kinds of buildings and infrastructure are built, what businesses and industries are established. But we could also look at the notion of economic development in a qualitative way. How do we want the economy to evolve in a more fundamental sense? This is where questions of sustainability, economic justice, and the feeling of community come in. By going beyond development in the external sense we come to the question of what kind of civilization we are creating for the present, and what we are leaving for future generations.
Here is a bit of my personal story: I came to this region 20 years ago this June to be near my spiritual teacher, Abbott of KTD Monastery in Woodstock. I didn’t have a lot of plans for worldly work, but soon after I got here I became very interested in the sustainability movement, and was active in that realm for about five years. It became clear to me during that time that the economic piece of the puzzle was somehow a key to the whole question of sustainability. I became almost obsessed with studying economics on my own—both the progressive writers and also the classic thinkers going back in history. Though I don’t have an academic background in the field, I now consider myself an independent scholar in economics. My research and creative work are now coming to fruition in my upcoming book, Civil Endowment, The Transformation of Economic Power. This column, however, which first appeared in August 2011, was my first real opportunity to share my ideas widely. I am very grateful to Country Wisdom News publisher Chris Hewitt for giving me the opportunity and the freedom to present to the community this column, which comes to an end this month.
In the past few days I have been profoundly blessed to attend teachings by His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa, who is visiting this area for the third time. I would like to share a few points he made in his several talks, which I think have direct bearing on our economic behavior as well as our spiritual lives. He said that we need to break out of the prison of our selfishness, that only we can take down the walls that we ourselves build. In doing so, we can recognize the profound degree of connection that exists between absolutely all of us, and most importantly, we can deepen the heart-level feeling of that connection.
For me, this reinforces the idea I’ve expressed many times in these columns: authentic leadership in economics comes from developing an unbiased sense of compassion. Everything positive comes from that. Only then are we going to actually take responsibility for doing the work that must be done. It is actually not very unusual to have good hopes and wishes for the future of humanity. What is unusual is to be willing to undertake and carry through the actions that create the causes and conditions that will make the needed transformation come to pass. Along the way, it is helpful to keep in mind that taking action to make the community a happier place will make you happier.
As for our stubborn individualism, our laziness and superficiality—these are things we need to recognize and correct within ourselves; finger pointing doesn’t help much. Taking responsibility at that level, though, is what it takes to diffuse the habitual energy of our materialist fixations, and especially our pernicious busyness. Ah, the busyness! Paradoxically, that is actually symptomatic of a certain kind of laziness, an entrenched pattern of avoidance that leaves us trapped at the surface level of life, unable to enter its depths.
In particular, I’d like to encourage everyone to take time to go beneath the surface level of economics. We live in an age of specialization, and we tend to leave subjects that seem difficult to the “experts”. In this, as in other areas of life, we tend to think that someone else is going to fix things. There are really two problems with this. First, in the case of economics, the prevailing views of the experts tend to be deeply flawed. Second, and more profoundly, there really is no “other” out there. Therefore, the challenge is to orient oneself to taking personal responsibility in both understanding and action in this critically important realm for our times, the realm of economics. In doing so, we can become “citizen economists.” That is how we can go forward, together.