Pollyanna, a best-selling 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter, might well be the best model we have for describing the deeply-held set of mythologies that underpin our current economic structures. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centered on what she called "The Glad Game", consisting of being eternally optimistic, finding something to be glad about at every turn.
As far back as history is recorded and probably even before, human beings have, for convenience and easier living, organised themselves into power structures. This has benefited those among us who like to have and wield power, as well as those of us who just like to get on with life within some sort of ordered social framework. There have always been leaders and followers. Leaders are happy for as long as they remain leaders. Followers are content to be led as long as their living conditions do not deteriorate and become even happier if conditions improve.
The evolution of widespread trade and business led to a third partner being added to the arrangement. Now, powerbrokers, (governments), are allowed to continue in office for as long as they can deliver, among other things, a protective environment for business to operate. For its part, business provides jobs, spending power and goods for the rest of us to buy, buy, buy. In the western world, this state of affairs has developed over the last 500 years, intensifying over the last 200 years with the discovery of vast amounts of easily recoverable cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels. Over the last 50 years with the widespread use of oil, gas and advanced internal combustion engines, the pace has become positively frenetic. An unspoken ‘handshake’ between the three groups has become so much part of the way we live; we hardly acknowledge its existence. More and more, governments now have to be elected, businesses have become global and ‘workers’ have been transformed into ‘consumers’.
This happy state of affairs; always more bigger and brighter things to buy, increasing profits, and an encouraging social environment, underpins nearly every social grouping in the world today. For the last fifty years, in the so-called ‘developed world’, and more recently in the ‘developing world’, things have improved. Anybody who is able to work is catered for. Apart from the odd shortlived hiccup, the economy has continued to grow. Pollyanna would have been ecstatic. The arrangement between the three partners is indeed a ‘Pollyanna handshake’ so deeply embedded in our consciousness, and even perhaps unconsciousness, that it would take an extraordinary happening to bring about any change.
Those of us who like to look ahead, curious about tomorrow, are seeing the development of extraordinary things. We sometimes despair as to why the powers-that-be are not putting in place policies and actions that take into account things like global warming, the depletion of oil, multiculturalism and the other paradigm-changing issues currently facing us. Perhaps we would despair less and be more able to do more, if we better understood some of the often unrecorded relationships that exist in our society and the power structures stemming from them.
Most of us are not capable, even in groups, of making extraordinary things happen by oral or written persuasion alone. We should not despair, or be surprised then, if we do not make inroads into the Pollyanna handshake, no matter how rational or insistent we might be. To do so is to be unknowing of basic human drivers and how society works. Politicians desperately seek reelection. Business people desperately seek record quarterly profits and most of the rest of us desperately seek better jobs and a continuation of the greatest party history has ever seen. To attempt to be the party pooper under these conditions is to invite scorn and derision from all and sundry.
What then should we do? Collecting, analysing and publicising sound statistics and explanations as to why we should change our ways is a good start. However it is only a start, and needs more. Seasoned politicians have a very useful saying; "never waste a good crisis". The current financial crisis is a crisis that we should not waste. It is certain that the very complex system of arrangements that underpin the Pollyanna handshake cannot continue without easily available cheap oil and cheap energy of any sort is fast, albeit chaotically, coming to an end. It behoves us then to come up with workable suggestions for managing the transition from the cozy conditions brought about by the Pollyanna handshake to a future supportive of a civilized and caring society. We should not despair for the future, but rather think constructively and innovate, for the best we can get, given the most likely conditions we will have.
In the meantime, we can be forgiven if, whenever a President, Prime Minister, governor of a Reserve Bank, or any other emperor, talks about a “recovering economy”, “greenshoots” or any other economic nonsense, we see in our mind’s eye, a lovely picture of a smiling Pollyanna with a magic wand, standing on a wee stool behind them, dispensing fairy-dust.