This is a difficult article to write because I know so many people are struggling from job loss and cutbacks due to the pandemic. There is no doubt that this is traumatic, and my heart goes out to all the individuals and businesses who are trying to pick up the pieces through a recession. However, while we manage this short-term crisis a longer-term and more deadly one is looming. While we may all be focused on slowing the train to take a sharp curve, the current economic policy has us heading off the tracks altogether.
What Is The Opposite of The Economy?
Almost every single interview with political leaders is used to advertise the work being done to create ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, and to build the economy. My greatest wish for everyone is that they have full and meaningful employment. However, this singular focus got me thinking — if the priority is on jobs and the economy, what is missing out? There is only one pot of funds and always another side of the coin. So, whatever the opposite of The Economy is will be taking a back seat.
My theory is that the opposite of The Economy is The Community. First, let me explain what I mean by The Community. In fact, I am referring to the four levels of community as outlined by Macy and Johnstone in their book ‘Active Hope.’ I have created the diagram below to present a summary of their concept.
Here is how I see the preoccupation with The Economy impacting each level of The Community:
· Where We Feel At Home. By concentrating on building the economy you are building an individualistic society. People become concerned with getting and keeping their job, being able to rent or buy a house and protecting their possessions. Their own financial wellbeing becomes the key motivator and they become more insular and independent.
· Our Neighbourhoods. The increased level of employment, and the fact that many jobs are further away from our homes means there is less ‘slack’ in the system to enable community participation. The less involvement there is in community events, the more that people feel their neighbourhood is threatening or unsafe. This only reinforces the withdrawal from the community and increases the isolation of families. People withdraw into their own little bubbles and then you are left with neighbours who have never met each other.
· The Global Community. By focusing on economic growth you quickly create a division between the have and the have not’s — the winners and the losers. There will be those that gain from the growth and those that don’t. Resources are pulled from poorer nations to sell to richer nations. Income inequality creates further division and instead of collaboration and community, you get competition. This occurs both within Australia and across the globe as the amount of resources decline. Everything from oil, fish and water become sources of conflict.
· The Earth Community. Selling the message that The Economy is the most important thing places the greatest priority on those things that we can buy. It is fuelling a preoccupation with spending and seeking external sources of happiness. Ultimately though these external sources of happiness are not sustainable and instead the community is crippled by depression and loneliness, only fuelling the withdrawal from the community even more. We lose touch with our sense of place in this world and the amazing gifts that it provides, and we begin to see the Earth as a commodity to use for our own short-term pleasure.
I have asked a number of my peers what they think the opposite of The Economy is, and it is interesting how many come up with the same conclusion. It appears that there is an inherent understanding of the damage that an economic focus is doing on our sense of community, and yet, no sense of urgency that anything should be done about it.
The Economy Is Doing Great!
Well, with all of the attention it gets, you would be very worried if The Economy was not in good shape. While the pandemic has put a significant dip in the statistics, up until then it all seemed to be really rosy. Just have a look at these results:
But The Community Is Suffering
At the same time, however, we are seeing an increase in suffering and negative consequences at all levels of The Community. At an individual level, we have seen an increase in mental illness and psychological issues including:
· Depression. The World Health Organization reports that Australia has the second-highest prevalence of depressive disorders globally (with prevalence rates of 5.9 per cent). In addition, antidepressant drug consumption rose by 8.6% per year between 2000–2015.
· Loneliness. The Australian Psychological Society (2018) reports that over half (51%) of Australians report they feel lonely for at least 1 day each week and 25% of Australians report they are currently experiencing an episode of loneliness.
· Psychological Distress. In 2017–18 there were an estimated 13% or 2.4 million Australians aged 18 and over reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. This is an increase of 12% from 2014–15 (11.7% or 2.1 million Australians).
· Addiction. Around one in 20 Australians has an addiction or substance use problem, One in six Australians (17%) consume alcohol at levels that put them at risk of an alcohol-related disease or injury. Nearly 6,000 people die from alcohol-related diseases every year in Australia. That is one person every 90 minutes. And between 2007 to 2016 the rate of opioid deaths increased by 62%, from 2.9 to 4.7 deaths per 100,000 population.
· Suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia for people aged 15–44. More than 65,000 people attempt suicide every year, and in 2017 over 3,000 Australians died from suicide. That is 8 people every day!
At the neighbourhood level, we see that:
· 77% of Australians never talk to the people next door and know little about them.
· More than half don’t know their neighbour’s name and 25 per cent wouldn’t recognise their neighbour’s faces
· 56 per cent of people actively avoid their neighbours
· Two-thirds of people believe that crime is on the rise despite the actual statistics show a decrease in crime over time
· In addition, 9.5% of Australians or around 2.37 million people aged 15 and over report lacking social support (Relationships Australia 2018). This disconnection from the community is not only a result of the individual isolation noted above, but also is a key risk factor for developing loneliness.
Within and across nations we are seeing income disparity and poverty increase. We are seeing the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It suggests that those in power are making decisions that improve their position rather than that of the most vulnerable.
There is also an increasing number of conflicts occurring over natural resources. For example, over the last years, there were 172 conflicts across the world where water was the trigger. These ‘water wars’ are being fought in every corner of the earth, with one each year being recorded in North America. The wars include everything from outright violence to active protest, arrests and legal action. In developing countries, they are more likely to be physical battles over access to wells. While in the richer countries they take the form of protests and legal action against oil, dams and diversions which have the potential to impact on the quantity and quality of water supplies. While we have not yet seen any physical battles over water in Australia, there sure has been an ongoing war of words over the Murray-Darling Basin. Accusations are made regularly of one state ‘stealing’ water from another.
Our Earth Community is also suffering. Humans have driven almost 700 vertebrate species to extinction already. It is reported that another 25 per cent of mammals, 40 per cent of amphibian species, 33 per cent of sharks and 25 per cent of plant groups are now threatened with extinction. Based on these proportions, the researchers estimated that approximately 1 million animal and plant species could die out, many “within decades.”
Global warming is also wreaking havoc and has the potential to redraw the world map. Scientists at the non-profit organisation Climate Central estimate that 275 million people worldwide live in areas that will eventually be flooded at 3C of global warming, with 80% of those affected being in Asia.
What Will Save The Train Wreck?
I am certainly no policy expert and have no real understanding of the complexity involved in changing policy direction. However, just looking at the above evidence it does appear that the only thing that will save the train wreck is if we begin to place just as much emphasis on Community Growth as we do on Economic Growth.
Of course, the two do go hand in hand, but it is obvious that the focus on the latter is destroying our communities at all levels. There is a crisis of mental health, community disconnect, global conflict and destruction of our Earth. This is occurring as an inevitable consequence of concentrating on individual prosperity for the sake of our shared homes.
We hear our political leaders speaking every day about the economic crisis we face and the efforts they are putting into economic recovery. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we also heard about their commitment to balancing economic growth with community growth? Yes, it would be distressing, but what if the leaders also told us about the crisis we are facing in our community and what they were doing from a policy perspective to address it.
As you can see, additional spending on mental health is just a band-aid solution to one part of the crisis. A better balance of economic and community policy is required to address the crisis at all levels. And if the pandemic has shown us anything it is that we can pull together in a crisis. It is through a shared problem we come together with a sense of meaning and purpose. People have done it during COVID-19 and a new sense of community and shared responsibility has been fostered. Let’s build on this to bring a renewed dedication to the community while we also rebuild the economy.
Because the two are not mutually exclusive. While we avoid our neighbours, it is reported that 90 per cent of us would feel happier if we did know and spend time with our neighbours. What local government initiatives could be enacted to bring this about?
Economists have put price tags on our social relationships and found the happiness delivered in volunteering is equivalent to adding $50,000 to your balance and seeing a friend ‘most days’ is equivalent to adding $100,000 to your balance. What policy incentives could be created to encourage the building of stronger social relationships?
A balanced perspective between Community Growth and Economic Growth also requires courageous leadership. There may be hard decisions made about where money is being spent, for example, more coal mines to deliver jobs or community initiatives that will restore and build relationships in our neighbourhoods and with the Earth. There is no doubt it will be difficult as the balance is found between the wants of the individual and the needs of the community.
As outlined in my previous article, the current dearth of political leadership does make this seem unlikely. But if they choose, the political leaders can do their job and pull people together and get us back on track for the long term.
They have shown us how they can change the nature of our lives overnight to battle a pandemic. Now, to avoid the train wreck they need us to show how they can change the nature of their policies to save our lives!