by David McCarthy
Lately I’ve been taking considerable inspiration from a book by Seth Godin called The Icarus Deception. Mr. Godin, a best-selling author of business and marketing books, weaves together a remarkable set of ideas, all of which relate to navigating the often-daunting territory we travel these days. In particular, he makes the provocative assertion that “the connection economy demands that we create art.” What follows is more my interpretation of that one statement than an attempt to summarize his book (which I highly recommend).
To understand economics in any kind of useful way, we have to see where we stand in history, and where we stand in terms of place. The Hudson Valley in 2014 is actually quite a fortunate region in both those senses. When I traveled to California last winter and saw a whole vast state plunged into drought, I swore I’d never take for granted the abundance of that one simple element of life, water, which we have here aplenty. The forests of our region, stripped bare a hundred years ago, have significantly recovered, though certainly not to their virgin splendor. And the Hudson itself, though still plagued by PCBs and other contaminants, is not the open sewer it was 50 years ago.
As for the human economy, we are firmly in a post-industrial phase, where factory and industrial jobs have mostly given way to a complex matrix of small businesses and individual entrepreneurs, all working in the homogenized context of huge national corporations in the malls and edge cities. As challenging as it is to succeed here, we are lucky in global terms. We are spared—for now at least—the devastating environmental problems, the overcrowding, the pervasive and absolute poverty.
Perhaps some of us are doing well enough to think everything is fine. But I suggest we are all fortunate in another way—we are fortunate to be able to see challenges at a deeper and more universal level. How can we conduct ourselves so as to be of benefit to humanity generally and to the world economy? How do we find a way through this weird period of urgency—and the abundant distractions available to help us ignore that same urgency? It’s a time of tipping points and contradictions; a time of business as usual on the precipice.
This brings us back to the connection economy. The essence of New Economics is really about such an economy, because it talks about our human-to-human connections—not just our personal connections to other individuals, but our connection up to and including the whole of humanity. And equally, it talks about our connection with the natural world.
When Seth Godin talks of the imperative of making art he is talking about a response to the conditions of our time—when business may be tough, job security is low-to-none, and conformity is no longer rewarded. What he means by making art is not our conventional notion of art, but rather turning whatever work we do into art. This is something highly personal, something we work to perfect. It’s the opposite of mass production and “just do your job.” It’s the work that we worry about (simply because we really care about it) and obligates us to honesty and self-examination. There are a lot of people doing this kind of work around our valley, and I’m honored to know some of them. Our local currency project, the Hudson Valley Current, for example, has turned out to be all about connection. How could it not be? I am really grateful, to everyone involved—to our supporters, board, and staff and to our over 100 (and counting) members—for all that we are learning. It’s personal, and it’s art.
And even more personally for me, I went out on a limb last month with my column “Think Globally, Act Globally.” I took my long-held idea of creating a permanent capital endowment for the whole human race one step closer to reality. I named a number: one penny for every person on the planet. I asked a question: “Are you in for a penny?” I know this all sounds farfetched. I know it seems unrealistic. But to go the next step we have to take a risk—whether it’s the risk of ridicule, or of simple indifference.
A few days ago, I was sitting at Sissy’s Cafe in Kingston having breakfast and an old friend made my day by putting a penny on the table and saying, “I’m in.” He happens to be an artist.