The world looks far different today than what most people could have imagined just two months ago. 

The normally crowded Red Square at the local university sits vacant.

The spread of the pandemic, the extent of the lockdowns, and the enormity of the economic impacts are all immense.  It is not hyperbole to say that everyone is affected.  We are truly, undeniably, all in this together.

But how together will we be when we come out of it?

Will the pervasiveness of the coronavirus pandemic result in real change?   Or will it simply represent a bump – a huge bump, to be sure, but a bump – that tweaks the world’s power and wealth into a revised form of injustice and dysfunction?

Innumerable people are impacted.  Medical professionals struggle to help the sick without getting sick themselves.  “Essential” workers toil in vulnerable roles, doing their jobs while risking their health.  Many have lost loved ones to the virus or are themselves fighting the disease.  And millions who aren’t working and lack financial security have little hope of their situation improving.

Will we allow all this hardship to be in vain?

That is the question that all of us who aren’t sick or struggling must address.

In her excellent nine-minute talk entitled Coronavirus Capitalism, Naomi Klein opens with this quote from the free market economist Milton Friedman:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.  When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that were lying around.  

Many small businesses may not survive the pandemic.

Power does not yield easily.  The ideas pushed by the extremists who control our government are predictable:  Rescue the largest corporations with tax holidays and bailouts.  Relax or remove rules that protect people so as to “ease the regulatory burden” on huge businesses.  Ensure that industries that contribute most to the climate crisis, which also contribute the most to far-right politicians, are bolstered. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We can work to ensure that, out of this vast upheaval, greater balance in economic, social political, and ecological systems results.

We need to change the ideas under which we are living.  We need to rewrite our story.  Now.

Already we know that extreme measures are possible when leaders are motivated.  Things that would recently have seemed unthinkable, like closing schools and businesses and sending a check to all Americans, have suddenly become not only thinkable but actuality.  What will it take to apply this kind of courageous thinking to decorporatizing our society?

We know what problems need to be addressed, some of us all too well.  They include a lack of paid sick leave, which results in a rapid worsening of a disease that could have been better contained.  And the economic imbalance that lets some comfortably sit idle while others must go to great lengths to feed their families.  Add in the atrophy of manufacturing in the USA that has brought vulnerability to both supply chains and employment security.  Don’t forget the extreme overemphasis on military-industrial spending relative to budgeting that meets human needs.  Include the rapid unraveling of ecosystemic balance resulting from fossil fuel dominance.  Complicate all this with a form of “leadership” built on telling lies to facilitate polarization and blame, instead of actual courageous leadership.

High alert is the order of the day.

The pandemic shines a glaring light on these problems.  They aren’t new, but their current obviousness is an opportunity to build a better society.

Fortunately, it only takes three weeks to establish a habit.  We will be under the shadow of coronavirus for months, at the very least.  Therefore – for those of us who aren’t struggling – this is a perfect time to rewrite our stories!

After describing how low oil prices could lead to a surge in demand, a recent New York Times piece entitled Coronavirus and Climate Change observed that, alternatively, “Governments could seize this moment to enact new climate policies. Low oil prices are often a good opportunity to remove subsidies on fossil fuels…since consumers are less likely to feel the impact.” This is just one example of where well-timed advocacy could result in lasting positive change.

No basketball during the pandemic. Can we shoot for substantial change as our next hoop?

In my last post, I recalled the Committees of Correspondence of the 1700’s that gave rise to the nation we call the USA.  That grassroots network of thinkers exchanging ideas slowly and surely generated a new polity that uprooted unjust colonial rule.  The participants built common cause and strategized for collective action. 

Following their example, we can ensure that more just systems emerge after this pandemic.

I propose forming a new network of correspondents that I hope you’ll join.  My hope is to draw together a broad range of citizens to correspond, collaborate, and effect change.

In groping for a name for this endeavor, I took Susan Woodward’s advice and came up with the name Ahimsa.  Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that translates as doing no harm, compassion, or nonviolence.  I propose that the Ahimsa project begin with these premises:

First, we recognize that our corporate-dominated economy and political system are profoundly detrimental to the health and welfare of society and to our fragile planet.  

It can be a scramble for helpers to figure out how best to help.

Next, we will network with each other, guided by the concept of Ahimsa.  This means, for example, addressing and fixing the problems listed above.

Ahimsa is at odds with the agenda driven by corporations and corporate-controlled politicians.  And it implies a collective approach at a time when too many people are looking out only for themselves.  However, another world is possible if we empower individuals, care for each other, and rein in corporate power.  Our exchange of ideas can be a starting point.  

What might Ahimsa look like in practice?  Here are some of my ideas.  Would you be willing to do these things?  Maybe you are doing a lot of them already!  What are your ideas?

• Call or email at least one leader every day.  Speak truth to power.  Make your voice heard.

Be a helper.  Make life easier, as best you can, for those working hardest at this time.

Share with others close to you what you’re doing and why.  Invite them to join the effort.

• At least every few days, inspire at least one person to join this change process.

• Express gratitude.  Create social value by celebrating those who are making a difference.

Stay collaborative.  Don’t let differences of tactics block the movement toward shared goals.

Communicate regularly with other Ahimsa-aligned people about what you are doing.

This communication network can create a consensus — not just of ideas, but of action.

Further reflecting on the 18th Century Committees of Correspondence, there are striking parallels between what was needed then and what is needed now.  Here are some lessons of the coronavirus lull — again, recognizing that many aren’t experiencing a lull.  But those of us who are experiencing a lull need to advocate for everyone’s welfare during our idle time.

Lesson #1:  Simple living that meets basic needs and avoids luxuries is lovely

Lesson #2:  Self-reliance, gardening, and home repair reduce your vulnerability

Lesson #3:  Reduced consumption overall and especially of energy and travel are not difficult

Lesson #4:  More frequent reaching out to family and friends help focus on larger values

Lesson #5:  More time spent being creative, staying fit, and recreating keep life rich

Lesson #6:  Self-reflection helps ensure that you are living the life you wish to live

What would you add to this list?

And would you join in a correspondence around Ahimsa?

The message is clear. Now how do we make it into reality?

The Naomi Klein talk referenced earlier, Coronavirus Capitalism, ends with the same quote from Milton Friedman, but with one more line included:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.  When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that were lying around.  

That, I believe, is our basic function:  To develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

This is our work.  Please join the dialog by commenting!