Elegy for a Toxic Logic

A STUDENT of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once sheepishly asked him whether he could sum up the essence of Zen in a single sentence. “Everything changes,” said Suzuki Roshi without missing a beat, then moved on to another question. Now that everything has changed, the despair of four years ago — not just that Bush had been re-elected but that he would prevail forever in a nation that would forever believe his lies and follow his cult of imperial war and climate-change denial and free-market fundamentalism — has vanished like morning mist.

Everything changes. I myself expected we’d see a nonwhite or nonmale presidency in my lifetime, but not that it’d come so soon, and with it came a profound symbolic shift within the United States, a redefinition of “us” and “them,” as well as a sign to the rest of the world that this country is some kind of hybrid, turbulent bridge between global north and global south, the white and the nonwhite, wealth and poverty, as the poles weirdly united in Barack Obama, whose symbolic currency is immeasurable, whatever his limitations. But electoral politics, even as they unfolded with all the richness of a Shakespearian drama (with the Clintons doing a splendid Lord and Lady Macbeth in the primary season and McCain topping them with his King Lear to Faust meltdown), were hardly the only arena where change prevailed.

Capitalism imploded more dramatically than anyone had imagined, though once it had, its collapse seemed as obvious as inevitable. That is, underregulated free-market capitalism ate itself before our eyes. At the beginning of the Bush era, now passing from the face of the Earth more like a toxic plume than a morning mist, the then-functional FEMA predicted three major catastrophic risks for the United States: a terrorist attack in New York, a hurricane strike on New Orleans, and a major earthquake in San Francisco. In early 2008, some distinguished sources were predicting an economic apocalypse too, including German president and former International Monetary Fund chair Horst Köhler, who declared, “International financial markets have developed into a monster that must be put back in its place.”

When these markets fell apart, so did many of the fundamental premises of the past few decades, which is part of what makes this moment in history so interesting, and so unpredictable. Even trying to grasp it is dizzying, like looking — as Mike Davis put it — into the Grand Canyon and trying to understand its vastness. What exactly collapsed? Not just the financial assumptions of the Bush era, or the Clinton and Bush eras of globalization, or of Reaganomics with its cult of the free market, but something bigger and deeper. It became clear that the American economy had been for almost four decades a desperately ill patient requiring more and more life support to keep it going: get off the gold standard in 1971, then deregulate markets, globalize capital, go for “financialization” — the conversion of more and more aspects of life on Earth into investment opportunities — unto the derivatives and hedges and bundled mortgages that brought it all down.

I have never been able to confirm the adage that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the characters for disaster and opportunity, but if it isn’t true it ought to be. This unforeseen moment has many possibilities. The death of capitalism, or rather the revelation of its profound diseasedness, is an opportunity it would be ironic to call golden. But check out what Michael Pollan wrote last October: “In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. . . . Expect to hear the phrases ‘food sovereignty’ and ‘food security’ on the lips of every foreign leader.”

What he’s saying is that the rationale for globalization has unraveled and, in some parts of the world at least, will soon be abandoned. The logic of forcing your local or national economy to stop providing for its own needs and serve instead the global market has been upended. Sadly, as with most calamities, the already poor and hungry will pay and are already paying the greatest price — but we should be careful about being too mournful about this moment in history. The system was designed to produce their poverty and hunger, to grind them down and discard them. When it worked as intended, farmers in India and Korea were committing suicide by the thousand; Mexican farmers were being shoved off their land and essentially dispatched on the long tramp north; Brazil’s soybean bonanza was leading to deforestation, displacement of small farmers, soil degradation, and doing nothing for that nation’s hungry. The same stories could be told about many nations in Africa — and about American small farmers. It was a system designed to destroy the many for the profit of the few, and it had been producing suffering, hunger, and despair all along. Though its collapse may produce yet more suffering, it opens the way to systems and ideologies that could produce far less. Already unsteady as the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas failed, globalization itself is faltering, as is the rationale that it is good for the majority of us. It never was, and now the evidence has won the argument.

The sudden rise in petroleum prices helped to undermine the logic of shipping everything everywhere, and domestic shippers have already scaled back. Those fuel prices dropped again in part because consumption itself dropped, but they will not drop to where they were a few years ago. Cheapness — in the United States, if not in Europe — was part of what made polluting the atmosphere fun and easy. The whole argument against doing anything about climate change was that the unregulated free market must not be interfered with, except maybe to commodify the right to pollute. Now that the market had to be interfered with in order to save it from its own folly, that argument is gone. So much of what made the United States such a disproportionate polluter and emitter was our obscene wealth, now somewhat reduced; a decline in snowmobile purchases, overseas vacations, new construction, and so forth is very good news for the environment. The madness of postwar affluence is fading, and Americans are beginning to make very different choices about debt, consumption, and other acts of economic overconfidence — though of course desperation remains unevenly distributed in a world that always had enough for everyone. The early tales of the crash concerned capitalists canceling their yachts, not standing in bread lines.

Still, everything changes. And a logic that was tantamount to religion has collapsed, the logic that made it so hard to do anything about everything: poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, corporations run rampant, economic madness. Now that the logic is gone — or so weakened that it can never come back with the force it had in all policy arguments for the past three or four decades — we have an extraordinary opportunity. Not a gift, not a guarantee, but an opportunity to supply a different logic, one of modesty, prudence, long-term vision, solidarity — and pleasure: all the pleasures that were not being brought to us by a system whose highest achievement was represented by endless aisles of shoddy goods made in countless sweatshops on the other side of the world.

The future has never been more uncertain, but that’s not all bad news. This moment could belong to those who want to articulate something that is neither capitalist nor communist but local, durable, humane, imaginative, inclusive, and open to ongoing improvisation, rather than locked in place as a fixed ideology. The moment is ours to seize.


  1. Great thoughts. I predict 10 years hence, the dubbyah’s will be spinning this as well, and we will have forgotten that capitalism and cronyism were supposed to be dead and discredited.

  2. wasn’t it russell baker who wrote something like–when something has been declared to be dead, done, finished, it starts to resurrect? it is going to take laborious self-examination, work, and ethical reinvention in our society to keep the stake in the heart of this vampire (capitalism and cronyism.)








  4. Meat production has also dropped dramatically, sparing many millions of animals the agony of being raised in torturous conditions merely to be consumed. See: http://tinyurl.com/6zgsad

    For the Earth and for many of its inhabitants the economic downturn is a very good thing.

  5. Was this nonsense written in a swoon right after the Obama election? “Everything changes” is an absurd statement, perhaps good propaganda for Buddhist guru-followers, but imbecilic. What changed in the US power structure? Did all the guns and bombs get laid down? Is economic inequality lower? Are the jobs and decent housing and medical care flowing now like wine? If this is a crisis that brings “opportunity,” why are the same Clintonians and neoliberals and neoconservatives guarded by an expanding police and judiciary enjoying a banner weekend while the merest protest merits 22 years? The supersystem is concentrating, Ms. Solnit, and the time is now to admit that. The dying kangaroos in Australia, impelled to return to their fire-ravaged territory only to die from burns, are testimony.

  6. I agree with the fact that this is the moment and we have leaders who have the potential to change, but sadly they are already desperately trying to revive the beast with such efforts as with the stimulus package. It seems that Obama is trying to make America into that same “Great Nation” that everyone thought it was back in the day. In my opinion, people will not change or cry out for change until they feel the sting of the need for it. Personally, I’m somewhat disappointed with these first steps. Perhaps part of the strategy of politics and I need to be patient, but trying to go back to the world as it was is, I hope, not the goal.

    I’m reading Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, by Lester R. Brown. He’s president of the Earth Policy Institute in D.C. and he puts forth viable solutions to these ideas, naming the technologies that we have in place already. It not only talks about the problems as stated in this article, it brings forward possibilities on how we can bring about changes.

    Find it and read it, then pass it on to someone else!

  7. There is no guarantee that this moment of opportunity will be taken to its full advantage – opportunity in the economic crisis and opportunity due to the change in Washington. President Obama is but one human being and I believe his vision is more expansive than he has articulated publicly so far. Maybe I’m wrong and ultimately his goal is to revamp the old way of doing things but with a slightly “greener” face. I don’t think so, though. And for me, I have to see where we are now as more than just the sum total of economic and political stuff in the US. There is such a thing as timing in the Universe, as Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry have talked about particularly in their book The Universe Story. We are part of a much larger picture (or hologram if you will). I, too, am impatient and I tell myself every day that what is happening could very well cause the shift or transformation I’ve been working for and praying for and visualizing for many years now. Again, I could be wrong. But for now I’ve decided to let my optimism out while maintaining a good dose of realism. Many of us predicted the downfall of an economy proped up by cheap, though ecologically devastating, energy, giving everything away to the rich and powerful, letting corporations run things, an economy dependent on unsustainable and ultimately unhealthy in every way consumerism. And now it appears this prediction has come to pass. And we saw it, envisioned in, and even hoped for it. Not to prove that we were right but to finally get to that place where changing it might actually be possible. Well, here we are . . .

  8. Thanks Jen, and all. It’s pretty clear that we enlightened ones are not much less inclined to stake our lives on a logical position; but while we know we need a new world order, we also know we can’t live on melting ice. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Gregg couldn’t stomach working for Obama?

  9. In our world everything has name and form. Everything that has name and form follows the flow of time and space— always changing. Not one thing remains the same. Buddha taught that our world is impermanent. If we completely attain impermanence then we can find the one unchanging thing, the one unmoving thing. Since everything is changing, mountain becomes water, water becomes mountain. Everything appears and disappears.

    What changed in the US power structure? BIG BROTHER IS TIGHTENING HIS GRIP.Did all the guns and bombs get laid down? THERE WILL BE MORE, MANY MORE. Is economic inequality lower? THE BOMBS AND GUNS HAVE TO BE PAID FOR. Are the jobs and decent housing and medical care flowing now like wine? THEY WILL DISAPPEAR BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES…THAT’S CHANGE. If this is a crisis that brings “opportunity,” why are the same Clintonians and neoliberals and neoconservatives guarded by an expanding police and judiciary enjoying a banner weekend while the merest protest merits 22 years? THEY HAVE OBVIOUSLY FOUND INPERMANENCE.

  10. I’m not from NH, but just across the border in ME so I do get NH news, and I’m quite pleased that Gregg couldn’t stomach working for Obama. I do wonder, however, why he was picked in the first place.

    The US power structure will not change overnight. And maybe it won’t change substantively at all. Maybe what will change will be the rest of us, maybe reality will shift, forcing the power structure to follow suit. We can’t possibly expect total transformation in less than a month. We’ll be lucky to get it in four years, or eight years. This is the razor’s edge we’re on. Negativity and shouting will get us nowhere. Perhaps, Gera Rosy, you’re right and all is doomed. Well, here we are anyway. I’d still rather focus on the possibility and opportunity that is always present in every moment.

  11. The article seems opposed to free markets. This is the old left-right paradigm straw man. We haven’t had free markets, rather markets distorted by privilege. Check your Adam Smith. Free markets means inexpensive land, widely distributed, and absence of monopolies and special corporate privileges. This is the opposite of the Wall Street speculative market. Ane I’m afraid that Obama is going to bouy those up.

  12. Right now there might be an opportunity for proper change worldwide, but I don’t see the tiniest inkling of it. All measures in USA and UK to help with the economy crisis, seem to be about proping the old system up, even more stuff o sink into the mud. The material world is finite. If our dreams are for more wealth, more material possesions some of us will be dreadfully disappointed.

  13. to auvery eva: this is exactly the issue: the world (and all of our resources) is finite.

    None of us (well most of us) can imagine what this world will look like when oil runs out and we can no longer produce/ship/package/store/prepare food as we do every day just as one little example….What? no grapes from Chile in the winter?

    We cannot imagine it because precious few of us has EVER even known the real work of food production…myself included. I’m already starting to bless my coffee (of all things!) every day.

    This is just one piece of a huge puzzle. So many things need to change, but in this stimulus package, there is a plan to expand I-95 (the already choked and packed east coast corridor) to 12 whopping lanes of water -hogging concrete rather than, let’s say adding more train service!!! WHY? Hmmm? Let’s see? More oil consumption?

    Business as usual, guys. Business as usual.

    What I’d really like to know is where can I go? Who can I work for to help change things. Each day, I feel like a sitting duck.

  14. If we are looking for change in the old power structures, we are looking in the wrong place. I see change all around me in the people in my community, who are working to start up a farmer’s market, who are giving classes in community ed about growing your own fruit trees, who are opening storefronts for yoga and reiki healing, who are walking and bicycling instead of driving everywhere.

    And especially I see change in myself. Every little change I make, towards gratitude, love, and believing in abundance, brings greater learning about how I can take care of myself and my people and my place in a better way.

    I agree with Ms Solnit, that the economic meltdown could and should be seen by us, as an opportunity to re-invent our lives and economies based on caring for each other and the earth, rather than about greed and money. WE the People are the only ones who can create the world we want, we can’t wait for someone to do it for us.

    If we look at the world and the awful mess we’ve gotten into, it’s very easy to get discouraged and feel disempowered. Or to get angry and strike out, trying to bring the monster down, only to find ourselves in prison. If we look within our own hearts and minds, we find that real change is possible, and this is where it all must happen. One little step at a time.

  15. There is no substitute for brilliance other than experience. How then can you put so much faith on a president who after only four weeks has already blundered several times? I agree that change is in the air and things will get better, but all in due course. That course will last another ten to twenty years.

  16. One of my friends lost all her retirement funds in the recent collapse and her plans to take a permanent and well-earned break after decades of teaching young children are now in ruins.

    This doesn’t feel like opportunity.

    On the other hand, I have noticed people spending a lot less
    on “non-essentials”, traveling less, and learning how to do some things for themselves rather than hiring an expert, etc.

    So maybe what’s happening is, as usual, more complex than anybody would prefer and can’t be summed up in a phrase?

    What goes with impermanence is a flexible heart, an open mind, regarding the essence or true value of anything, including this economic crisis, however it looks today.

    One more thing. The genuine and lasting results of Obama’s efforts have to be discovered along the way. I say let’s stay calm as we can and give the man at least a couple of years …meantime, who can say they haven’t blundered several times a day, each and every day??

    I know I certainly have!

  17. Of course, while we’re staying calm, we can also be very actively promoting and supporting and repairing and creating…

  18. politic rigidity and its poor ability to change are simply the law of nature.

    It is a simple inertia. Something that is stable, will reluctant to move

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