During a recent camping trip, my daughter was eager to teach me how to play bridge. In her excitement, she rattled off a baffling list of rules. “What’s the goal?” I asked. “Do I want to get more cards or get rid of them?” She patiently explained and, once I could orient myself towards the goal, I got it.
Just like a card game, our economy has rules we’re taught to follow in pursuit of a common goal: More. More money spent, more roads built, more malls opened. That’s what economists call growth.
More is good, right? Who doesn’t want more? But more of what?
More kids in school or more kids in jail? More windmills or more coal-fired power plants? More efficient public transit or more gas wasted in traffic jams? In the game of More, measured by the Holy Grail of Gross Domestic Product, they all count the same. Economists make no distinction between money spent on stuff that makes life better and money spent on stuff that makes life worse. If the GDP goes up, they say, we’re winning – even though it doesn’t tell us a thing about how we’re really doing as a society.
What a dumb game.
What if we changed the point of the game? What if the goal wasn’t More but Better – better education, better health, a better chance for the planet to survive? Shouldn’t that be what winning means?
Transforming the entire economy is a Herculean task. But when we focus on transformational solutions, we make a new reality possible. To do that, first we have to be able to tell the difference between game-changing solutions and new variations on the old game of More.
Take two proposed solutions to a big problem: the scourge of single-use plastic. Some well-meaning entrepreneurs start a business that gives people gift cards for recycling plastic. But a citizen group of neighbors, tired of disposable bags littering their streets, starts a campaign to ban plastic bags in the community.
The gift cards might divert some plastic from landfills and incinerators. But they create more plastic by encouraging people to buy additional stuff. Even worse, they tell people that More is the reward for being a good citizen, reinforcing the old rules of the game.
Banning bags is harder. But it’s a game-changer. By volunteering their time, the citizens are declaring there’s something more important than earning and spending. They’re insisting that the health of their community is more important than chemical company profits. To win they’ll have to reach out to businesses willing to think of alternatives to throwaway plastic. They’ll learn what it’s like to go up against the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for bag-makers. They’ll have to organize meetings and talk to their neighbors and friends.
One bag ban doesn’t solve the problem, but taken together they can start to turn the tide. Local solutions are copied, then scaled up. And when citizens experience the power of corporations thwarting change, they’re motivated to team up with other “solutionaries” to create real democracy of the people, by the people, for the people.
It’s the difference between reform and revolution. Reform tries to correct abuses. Revolution changes power relations, opening the floodgates for all sorts of solutions. Here are some examples of revolutionary solutions that give me hope about our ability to change the game:
Worldwide, millions of people are working on solutions like this. But if we don’t keep our eyes on the bigger prize, our solutions will be too much effort for too little result. It’s time to join together to change the goal of the game we’ve inherited. Let’s get to work.
Annie Leonard is the founder of The Story of Stuff Project. Her newest film, The Story of Solutions, debuts in September at www.storyofsolutions.org.
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