Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I was recently reminded of this observation when I read Dr. Max Stephenson’s Soundings commentary, “Of Sea Turtles, Piping Plovers and Freedom,” a piece inspired by his recent vacation on Topsail Island in North Carolina where I had the privilege of growing up. I was struck by how his commentary delicately articulated the paradoxes that not only have marred parts of the beautiful island that I call home, but also continue to stimulate me intellectually and motivate my work. Many of his insights are accurate and paint not just a picture of island life, but also of our country as a whole.
Stephenson’s particular examples are of environmental degradation and the tense arguments that surround individual liberties and the conservation of the vital ecosystems that border the Atlantic Ocean. However, as he explains, this narrative could describe current political debates concerning employment or poverty as well, as the underlying, systemic issues are very similar. Southwest Virginia community leader and president of SCALE (Sequestering Carbon, Accelerating Local Economies), Anthony Flaccavento, also expressed this concern in his 2012 Community Voices talk at Virginia Tech addressing the challenge of sustainable development in southwestern Virginia. Although his remarks focused on solutions to that region’s specific ecological concerns, he ended his comments by quoting Wendell Berry, who has suggested that the environmental crisis is not alone a calamity afflicting the environment, but is best understood as a crisis of politics and economics.
Both Stephenson and Flaccavento alluded to the impacts of neoliberalism, defined by political economy scholar David Harvey, as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices” (2005, p. 2,). Our nation’s politics have arguably only become more neoliberal since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. Neoliberal policies not only allow companies to evade or bypass emissions standards, but the hegemonic character of the that economic philosophy’s discourse encourages and disposes Americans to think that they are all separate individuals and that their choices do not affect other people. This is the modern thinking that touches on a deep strain of individualism dominant in some sectors and sections of the nation and that therefore underpins many of our current environmental and social problems.
So, returning to Einstein’s observation, how might we address this concern? Ultimately, the way out of this thinking and the problems it has prompted and exacerbated is to understand the roots of it and make changes accordingly. First, citizens need to think more critically. Our populace is hindered by information overload and an educational system that is more and more oriented (by neoliberal policies) to preparing people for specific existing jobs than to equipping them with capabilities to innovate and to create the new positions necessary to address social and economic change. This situation has the potential to create an inactive, disconnected, apathetic populace that does not possess the analytical wherewithal, time, or money to grapple with many of the nation’s problems. In order to understand those issues, the citizenry must learn, question, and search for prudent, broadly acceptable solutions. This set of capacities is difficult to attain for the aforementioned reasons, but it is nonetheless necessary for effective governance.
In addition to thinking critically, it is also necessary for citizens to take action. In this day and age, when neoliberal thinking has persuaded many that individual rights and private property claims trump all else, sharing and giving are in many ways radical, political acts. In addition to interacting with people of like mind, it is also important for citizens to speak with and seek to understand individuals with different perspectives. There are many groups adopting this stance now in the United States. Entrepreneurs embracing the “Maker Movement,” for example, are offering people spaces where they have access to very expensive, shared machinery at an inexpensive price. People on both sides of the political aisle are also conducting dialogues throughout the U.S. in efforts to find common ground and shared space for joint action, including, for example, Conversation NRV in Blacksburg, Va.
I am heartened by this genuine demand for connection and creativity that is not predicated on a belief in the absolute primacy of the free market. Leaders who want to make political change should take note of these trends and align future actions with arrangements that allow citizens to rethink and, when appropriate, to challenge the status quo. It is on the basis of these insights that leaders can help to guide the populations of communities to work together so that we can face the present and forthcoming challenges of the 21st century.
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Anna Erwin is a third year PhD student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program. She is focusing her research on food systems and social justice with a specific concentration on food access for farmworkers. Anna also teaches the US Government and Politics class and is a member of the Community Voices team. When Anna is not working on her PhD, she is teaching yoga, traveling, or hiking.