Resilient Community: Economics and Spirituality

Community Garden by eschlabach
(Eschlabach photo.)

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” –Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Of the fallacies of modern times, perhaps none is so pervasive and destructive as the belief that capitalism as a system runs on pure greed. “Self-interest” has been redefined as selfishness, and self-benefit is perceived as the only motivation for commerce. Little wonder that we’ve become a nation led by the greedy, an economy dependent on “hysterical consumerism,” a society in which trust is largely relegated to history, and a system of morals in which what is legally permitted trumps what is right.

But Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, told a very different story: “enlightened self-interest” did not mean greed; it acknowledged that a healthy society promotes individual well-being.  It also recognized a sympathetic desire to help those in need. In other words, at the very root of capitalism is the maintenance of the community of individuals.  This includes such antiquated ideas as a handshake as contract, but also the knowledge that a healthy community means better quality of life for everyone who lives there.  And, as Adam Smith points out, it means developing charity– giving to those in need just because they need it.

This regard for the well-being of others, besides being essential for capitalism to function, brings us to the realm of spirituality: most broadly, concern for that which is outside ourselves. Less broadly, it refers to that which is not material. And in yet narrower (but perhaps most common) usage, it refers to the quest to know God.  But this narrow definition should not dissuade us from using the term in its broader sense, as Smith did and as spiritual teachers have for millenia.

“The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted — let these be your God. Know that service to these alone is the highest religion.” —Vivekananda.

The quest for Resilient Community relies on reclaiming this spiritual component of economics.  It requires building relationships based on trust, and ensuring that our neighbors are cared for.  Ultimately, of course, our neighbors include people throughout the world.  Resilient Community does not mean turning inward, away from those outside.  Nor does it mean focusing on those with whom we have most in common.  Rather, Resilient Community means crossing the boundaries that currently divide us, realizing that holistic community health means that we prosper when the community as a whole prospers.

“We are encouraging the development of strong, community ‘localization’ movements that have a universal spiritual foundation. We have found that focusing on the shared ‘heart language’ of the common virtues of Love, Integrity, Courage, Service, and Respect (and 25 other sub-virtues) has allowed our movement to grow and transcend political and religious differences in our community.” — Dr. Richard Flyer, founder of Conscious Community Network in Reno, NV.

Localization doesn’t mean isolation.  It offers benefits both for us and for those in distant lands who suffer under the current economic globalization.  Poor nations across the globe have encouraged their subsistence farmers to switch to cash crops or factory work in order to profit from global demand.  And while GDP rises as a result, production of food for local consumption falls, prices rise, and quality of life plummets.  In Thailand, farmers can’t afford to eat the fruit they grow for export; their diet suffers despite an increase in income.  In Sri Lanka, factory workers sleep in shifts because so many live under one roof that they can’t all lie down on the floor at the same time.  In Mexico, the poor flock north to factories on the border where they can make a regular wage– but it’s not enough to feed their families.

As we rebalance our consumption patterns to favor local production, the global forces encouraging migration from subsistence farm to economic cog lessen.  This will work to stem the flood of folks giving up self-sustenance in favor of more income and less quality of life.

“[A]s we sympathize with the sorrow of our fellow-creature whenever we see his distress, so we likewise enter into his abhorrence and aversion for whatever has given occasion to it. Our heart, as it adopts and beats time to his grief, so is it likewise animated with that spirit by which he endeavours to drive away or destroy the cause of it.” –Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The development of strong communities, like the pursuit of conflict resolution, requires that we understand the position of another, even though we may not agree with it. We must begin to understand that while we may not agree with certain practices, in most cases those practices are not without reason.

Action without understanding sometimes has dire consequences for others. A misguided American boycott of products made with Bangladeshi child labor threw thousands of Bangladeshi children out of work, leaving them to starve on the streets. Dutch aid workers had to step in to feed these children. A holistic understanding of the realities in Bangladesh would suggest that, though we object to child labor, it’s better than the alternatives currently available.

The creation of Resilient Community presents great challenges. “Think globally, act locally” becomes more than just a bumper sticker.  Yet we must also embrace the idea that each community is different and there is no “one size fits all” solution. Democracy and self-empowerment require that we let each community make its own decisions– and then, unless universally-accepted human rights have been infringed upon, wholeheartedly support them in their choices.

In our increasingly polarized and intolerant society, allowing others to disagree with us may be the greatest challenge we face.

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