Going Forward

Nov 7, 2014

Montanans love rivers.  We float them, fish them; we hike and drive next to them.  We just watch them go by.  And sometimes we toss stones into them.

Writer Kathleen Dean Moore writes of how rivers, when slowed by obstacles, drop the particles they carry.  And when they do, the course of the river begins to change.  For Moore, this is a powerful metaphor.  The river, for her, is the raging flow of money, politicians, and voracious consumers who fuel the relentless warming of our planet.  But on this post-election day, we might very well see it as the larger torrent of money, special-interest politicians, and indifferent citizens who largely won the day, and who will likely perpetuate a government even less responsive to the common good than ever.

According to the Social Progress Index, relative to other countries the United States is 23rd in meeting basic human needs, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, and 70th in health.  Even though countries with higher levels of access to social programs do better than the United States in promoting human well being, the best our politicians can offer us by way of vision are slogans like less government, more jobs. 

These, and many more issues, are the social rivers of our day.   And the highly polarized and largely reality-divorced politics we have allowed to take hold may well drive us to despair.

More and more, however, people are looking for other ways forward.  The President works around an obstructionist congress.  Individual states pass legislation while Washington fiddles.  And the rest of us?

As individuals, we, too, can move forward.  Moore provides a powerful suggestion of hope:  “Our work and the work of every person who loves this world—this one—is to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood. As it swirls around these snags and subversions, the current will slow, lose power, eddy in new directions, and create new systems and structures that change its course forever.”

This is the hope of changing the world from the river bottom up.  It is also the civic duty of each of us.  I believe that real change still requires the dogged optimism of those willing to take on the big-moneyed, small-minded politics of our day—protesting vocally and visibly the ways in which political intransigence and ideology cause real suffering and injustice. 

But real change takes a dishearteningly long time.  Hope then survives on the idea that each choice we make in our daily lives is a witness.  Social change comes best through people recognizing that daily life choices—big and small—make a real difference, and that others notice them.  Ride a bike, grow your food, write to your representatives, every month.  Find some alternative way of living, some experiment, some departure from conformity that says no to unchecked consumption, injustice, and the forces of greed.  Find out which companies do the most damage, and vote with your pocketbook. “This,” says Moore, “is the steadfast, conscientious refusal to let a hell-bent economy force us to row its boat.”

And our hope relies on the ongoing conversation.  History shows that extremism grows where people become isolated, where they are not exposed to or do not talk respectfully about alternative ways of seeing the world.  Genuine conversation is hard.  But it may be the only way we can unmoor each other from entrenched political views.  It sheds light on the consequences of our political choices.

The rivers of our lives together take passive observers down courses they won’t want to go.  Yet each of us tossing enough stones can change their direction and achieve a more livable world.  That is the responsibility each of us has to each other.

As these commentaries come to an end, I want to thank the Mansfield Center, the University of Montana, Montana Public Radio, and you, for the privilege of the sharing ideas and keeping the conversation going.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs, at the University of Montana.