Is the Party Over?
Back in the 1970s when I was in my early 30s, my father insisted on telling his children that “the party is over.” The dark ages were coming. People were living beyond their means and consuming useless junk. They were addicted to trivial entertainment and up to their eyeballs in debt.
“What you sow, so shall you reap,” he paraphrased the Bible. “Civilization is doomed.”
Some 35 years later I find myself reflecting on my father’s dire prophecy in a fitness facility working up a sweat to a pounding chorus of the Beastie Boys’ “You Have to Fight for Your Right to Party.” Sarah Palin is on the television monitor explaining how the “common folks” are going to Take Back America. Pundits and scholars are making gloomy predictions about peak oil, peak civilizations, complexity theory and the inevitability of large scale collapse and rebirth. An economist tells a journalist not to worry. Americans will wake up and start consuming again. There is plenty of room left in the growth curve. We just have to unleash and deregulate human initiative.
Personally, I don’t have any grand predictions about the future. But I do have some insights and lessons learned from an interesting and unpredictable career working in philanthropy, public policy and community health. If my own children were to ask me whether the party is over, this is what I would tell them:
- The party never got started for the majority of people on the planet. Billions still live in poverty and lack basic access to food, education and essential services. Instead of bemoaning our own situation, we should consider what we can do to help others less fortunate than ourselves.
- Human progress measured solely in terms of gross domestic product and the increasing consumption of goods and services is morally, environmentally and even economically bankrupt. Rather than focusing on the distribution of human comforts alone, focus first on the character-forming effects of civic participation.
- Instead of perpetuating a narrative focused on satisfying ever increasing human demands, we should shift our efforts to moderating them. Reasonable limits – and the self-discipline to live within them – bring their own rewards.
- Consider the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism – the state of mind of people who believe things will get better – can be so much wishful thinking in a critical reading of recent human history. Hope – a belief in the goodness of life, in some underlying justice and meaning in the universe despite the evidence to the contrary – is absolutely essential to nurturing human virtue and faith. Resilient people and communities may lose a sense of optimism from time to time. They never lose a sense of hope.
- Consider the difference between self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Self-sufficiency is having the resources to get along without help, to be completely independent. In today’s interdependent world, no one is sufficient unto themselves. Self-reliance, on the other hand, is reliance on one’s own judgment, abilities and resources, the tendency to look first to the self for the locus of human intention, interpretation and action, and not to look first to the collective. It is no paradox that we nurture and extend self-reliance to the degree we invest in a healthy social reciprocity with others.
The party that is likely drawing to a close is one of ever increasing material “progress” fueled by a monoculture of industrial production techniques, large scale organizations and consolidation in the name of efficiency and market penetration – the “too big to fail” party. But what is singular today could well become plural tomorrow: social-ecological communities characterized by diversity of species, functions and response; redundancy of overlapping functions and institutions that diffuse disturbances; and robust and stable feedback loops that allow for quick response and adaptation.
When it comes to building healthy and resilient communities, the party is far from over. In fact, it’s just getting started.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.