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Building Relational Wealth Will Help Us Survive Climate Change


Todd Khozein is the Founder and Co-CEO of impact and innovation company SecondMuse.

The challenge of climate change, like other large, complex, life-altering challenges, must be met by solutions developed within new economic and political paradigms that alter the theoretical frameworks that have dominated the globe for 150 years. We are on the cusp of reimagining how markets and government working together can serve a common, global good.

Let us be clear about the scope of climate change. It is not simply a threat to heat our winters and raise sea levels; left unchecked, it will overturn literally every aspect of modern life. From the swamping of island nations and loss of species to supply chain disruptions, massive worldwide migration, agricultural disruptions that could lead to food insecurity and even starvation and chaos in our transportation and communication systems, its implications will be staggering.

Relational Wealth Versus Traditional Economics

Humanity will survive in a form we recognize only if we build resilient economies in which people connect with each other, their neighbors, their communities and others around the world. These bonds create relational wealth that allows groups of people to collaborate on difficult challenges in ways unaccounted for in traditional economic theory. Resilient economies built on relational wealth take pains not to cause harm to the environment or to the majority of humanity. Instead, they recognize that humans thriving in a healthy natural environment yields significantly greater and more balanced economic prosperity.

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Negative externalities like damage to large groups of people and the planet are not part of the calculation in neoclassical economic theory, much to the detriment of our planet and many, if not most, of its inhabitants. Our transactional economic system delivers exactly what it was designed for — innovation, consumption and high median income — but none of what it does not measure, like relationships and their ability to elevate communities when faced with transcendent challenges.

This is evident in this country’s woefully disjointed and ineffective response to Covid-19, which has exposed deep-seated distrust of government and the medical community, as well as a disheartening lack of selfless communal concern. Frankly, that was to be expected from an economic system that glorifies the individual and devalues the bonds between humans that create resilient economies.

Sociologist Parker Palmer advocates for “macro-democracy” in which individuals engage each other and build connections unrelated to their political ideologies: family, friendship groups, classrooms, workplaces, religious communities and civic spaces. These associations “remind [people] of their connectedness with one another and create a million micro-democracies upon which the macro-democracy depends.”

We have seen examples of this amid the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, 165,000 foreign nationals in the U.S. have medical training but can’t practice medicine because they lack an American medical license. Witnessing the human misery brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic pre-vaccination, hundreds of individuals have offered to put their knowledge to good use by working or volunteering in related roles.

As we now begin to experience the devastating impact of climate change on people and other creatures, we will never have more opportunities to affect the future. This kind of massive change has occurred before; most humans were indentured to feudal lords just a few hundred years ago — as few as 150 years in the American South — and now most are not. We have the ability to make a transformational change once we appreciate the moral and practical imperative to do so.

This moment of inflection affords us the freedom to recognize that we can do so much better for everyone on Earth — and for the Earth itself. This moment is brief and so we must act with urgency.

A Resilient Economy

A resilient economic system reflects the values of the future. It recognizes that wealth cannot come at the expense of human dignity and the environment. A resilient economy pivots us away from the flawed notion of homo economicus — the rational, independent, purely selfish human — and toward the more reality-based human relations the interdependent human family bound by connections and commitment to each other. It reflects the dynamic of a family.

By focusing on building relational wealth, we put more value on the connections that make us human and narrow the distances among us. We know, for example, that when communities invest in businesses they lower the business risk, because people are committed to supporting each other. For another example, Americans villainize each other politically over social media, where the relational bonds are weak, but do so less in real-world social settings where they are strong. We build relational wealth by learning about each other, listening to each other and hearing each other’s perspectives.

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I believe this new economic framework centered around relational wealth will contribute to a healthier economy. Research demonstrates that giving Indigenous people power to protect their lands produces better results than government or market intervention. Investing in renewable sources instead of fossil fuel could generate over 500,000 jobs annually, not to mention reducing energy costs and boosting economic independence. Providing community child care, transportation and the educational opportunities necessary for low-income families to pursue pathways to material wealth would reduce economic striation and build educated workforces that spur economic growth. The list goes on: Contrary to conventional wisdom, social justice can be an engine of economic growth, not a hindrance.

Relational wealth becomes ever more important in an era of climate change because the destruction new weather patterns cause can only be rehabilitated by a united and collective response. And because we will need as many ideas as possible, we will need to listen to all voices, include all perspectives and form connections with all people, even those we might currently see as adversaries.

Creating relational wealth is not just about doing good. It is about doing better.


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