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"What is it we're trying to experience here? What is life about?"

In the face of economic crisis, how to make the world a better place 

iMatter Youth NC March for Our Planet

Photo courtesy of Facebook

iMatter Youth NC March for Our Planet

Start with what you love. Susannah Tuttle said that to me on Saturday, and it was perfect for the moment. I loved the bluegrass festival in Raleigh and the way it lifted our spirits. I loved the crowds and everyone smiling, even the guy with the T-shirt that seemed to say "Ban Guns," though on closer inspection, with the small print visible, it said "Ban Government, Not Guns."

Oh well, we both loved banjo music.

I broke away from the festival in the afternoon and strode up to the state government mall for the iMatter rally. I loved that too. The iMatter Youth NC March for Our Planet was led by Hallie Turner, 11, who dates her activism on climate change to a dinnertime conversation with her parents—and a subsequent visit to the library where she read Al Gore's book An Inconvenient Truth—at age 9. Hallie's on the leadership council of Kids vs. Global Warming, a campaign that started in Canada. Its purpose, she said: "Get the message out there that we have to take action now and not wait for our leaders to act."

Ride a bicycle, Hallie said. Plant a tree. Live as if the future matters—"because if everybody starts making these small changes, it's going to build up and build up, and that's what the movement is about."

If you fear for the Earth's chances against a global economy running on fossil fuels, invite Hallie Turner to speak to your group. You'll have new hope.

About 100,000 people were in downtown Raleigh, and only 100 of them participated in the march, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in enthusiasm. After a brisk walk around the State Capitol, they spread out on the mall, young and old, and frolicked on the lawn to the beat of drums and music under a clear blue sky. What could be better?

That's when Tuttle, who runs the Interfaith Power & Light program for the N.C. Council of Churches, talked about her efforts to forge ties between environmentally conscious faith leaders and the conservative Republicans legislators.

Lawmakers are accustomed to hearing how a bill will affect business, she said. But starting with the business model, as she put it, "lifts up the economy as the only reason for our existence."

Instead, she suggests that people talk first about what they love. And the response, from faith leaders and legislators, is almost always that "they love this place—North Carolina—from the mountains to the sea. They love vacations with their grandchildren, from the mountains to the sea."

Start with love, Tuttle said, and the discussions move not to issues of business but of humanity. "What is it we're trying to experience here? What is life about?"

We've been hit lately with two very alarming reports. One, from an international panel of climate scientists, tells us that global warming is an undeniable, worsening danger. We—human beings—are almost certainly its cause. The second, from the University of California, says that economic inequality in the U.S. is at its all-time worst. For the last three years, the top 1 percent of Americans saw incomes grow by an average 31 percent. The other 99 percent gained nothing.

In short, our economy is failing most of us—with millions still unemployed—and it's no good for the planet, either. In our ruthless competition for economic gain, we're hurting each other and ruining our world.

And now, much of the federal government is shut down because the Republicans in Congress hate the Affordable Care Act and will do almost anything to kill it.

It's a trifecta of economic crises. But as much as I want to argue for a new business model, let me take Susannah Tuttle's advice and start with what we love.

We love our place and our heritage. We love our music and the arts. We love life. And if we begin there, we must acknowledge that, whatever our spiritual thoughts, we should care about each other and, as Tuttle said, "our interrelationship with all of life."

Now, imagine a place where banjos are played. It's a simple place where everyone has enough to eat and a roof over their heads and clothing to wear. If they don't, their neighbors pitch in.

Our place has progressed to the stage where we have plenty of food for everyone and too many clothes. We don't have decent housing for everyone—but we could if we were better at sharing.

Moreover, we can supply the basics with a fraction of the labor it used to take. Which is good. Our hyper-efficiency should allow all of us to enjoy more leisure time, and for more of us to move from industrial work to jobs in services, recreation, the arts and education—the things that make our community better.We can protect our water quality and our air.

And yes, more of us will work in health care, expanding services. We'll take better care of our babies. We'll care for working people and prevent illness. That's what the Affordable Care Act is about.

We're a rich enough society that we can afford to extend good health care to all of our neighbors and help them pay for it if they can't afford it themselves. In fact, putting more people to work supplying health care should reduce the cost of services.

The Republicans in Congress believe that if we care too much for one another, our incentive to work and be productive will decline. But they begin with the assumption that our incentive is economic and that, for some of us to win, others must lose.

But what if our incentive is to cherish our place—and to pass it to future generations better than we found it?

Start there and our economic problems look very different—even moral. Even, if you will, existential.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Weighing heavy on my mind."

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