In moments of turmoil or change, I've often turned inward and gone back to places of comfort and knowledge. These places include physical locations like Vermont, where I grew up; philosophical places like existential questions ("what is it all for"); and places or ideas constructed by others. In returning to known places recently, one of the books that came to mind in the midst of COVID is Immoderate Greatness by William Ophuls due to its focus on moderating exponential growth, adapting to entropy, and learning from the resulting challenges that societies have faced (or been ruined by) throughout history.
As I've come to learn, historical context is the most important factor to developing a lens capable of prioritizing approaches that reverse the negative effects of historical systems. It's through a basic understanding of history and an in depth understanding of the financial system that we seek to reverse course at Community Credit Lab by providing regenerative 0% interest loans when lending to underserved communities.
In times of bull markets and economic growth just a few weeks ago, this discount seemed absurd to many, but respected by those whom we seek to serve. Now, in a time of crisis, this discount is becoming increasingly commonplace and almost intuitive - waiving interest makes sense when we are designing for people first and foremost. As a community lender focused on 0% interest regenerative lending, we joined a movement of other affordable community lenders and seek to continue listening to social movement organizations that have called for increased affordable lending for decades. We're now excited to see more products rolled out that provide affordable lending programs. However, we also encourage people to look beneath the hood of these products and ask basic questions to understand the full terms, design, and motivations of these loans – what do they prioritize?
Although difficult, it's worth recognizing that at some point (hopefully soon), this period will be historic. It will be historic for many of its enormous negative ramifications, but it will also be historic for positive actions, community responses, and collective changes. At present, we must determine whether detrimental ramifications will outweigh our positive actions or vice versa. According to Ophuls, the only way to lean towards the latter is to look inward first:
"In the end, mastering the historical process would require human beings to master themselves."
We must look inward to reflect on our own nature and innate desire to prioritize each other, recognize that the whole of our civilization is the sum of its parts and the nature of our society is the sum of our individual actions. Historically, our collective aspirations have been set on exponential economic growth as the primary indicator of success - the precedent at the top has been that our collective nature should be to grow in perpetuity. Again, according to Ophuls, this has always been the case:
"For it is in the nature of civilizations to wax greater."
Perhaps now is the time to imagine a better way. Calls for COVID as a catalyst for change have been resounding and expedited changes have been coming steadily and deliberately in response lately. Let us keep in mind the purpose of this expedition: prioritizing humanity. Decisions are being made on a daily basis that weigh economic outcomes against health outcomes as if they are separate, siloed trajectories. Instead, now is the time to recognize the intrinsic intersections between these objectives, between geographies, and between each other. If we remain focused on prioritizing humanity, we inherently prioritize both economic and health outcomes across all communities.
In order to do this, something in society will need to change: we must turn to moderation before we turn back to expansion and through moderation at the top, expansion will come for those who need it most at the bottom. This approach has recently been dubbed Solidarity Economics and is summed up nicely by Ophuls:
"Wisdom consists in consciously renouncing immoderate greatness."
It is important to recognize that renouncing immoderate greatness does not mean we are lesser off -- yes, at the individual level, we may initially feel that way because many have been told there is a singular path where all roads end in greatness, but at a societal level, we may come to feel whole in ways that we did not foresee as possible. Just as COVID has forced us inward, to ourselves and our loved ones, it may also force us outwards to expand our conception of what it means to share life and resources with others. By turning inwards to reflect and outwards to support each other, we will lift our collective morale, a necessary ingredient per Ophuls:
"Maintaining a civilization takes a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, and the latter is actually the most important."
The above rings true in our current state: morale is a tremendous factor in where we go from here. From recent experience, morale waivers significantly day to day, as anxiety looms and uncertainty unfolds. But, morale is also peeking her head out from behind the curtain like a child playing hide and seek, impatient with our stubborn searching. Morale is sparked through human interconnectedness: whether via a virtual hour with friends, a video call with colleagues, a dinner with family or a call to parents to check in. Morale also stems from action in the face of paralysis - deliberate and collective action towards a shared goal. For some, this goal may be survival in a time of crisis; for others, this goal may involve deeper personal reflection, per Ophul's guidance:
"Envision an alternative to civilization as it is currently conceived and constituted. This alternative, which could not be imposed but would have to emerge slowly and organically, should allow humanity to thrive. It would require a fundamental change in the ethos of civilization - to wit, the deliberate renunciation of greatness in favor of simplicity, frugality, and fraternity.”
Regardless of where we go from here, let us not forget the actions we took in a moment of crisis: whether they were small acts of kindness or large acts of policy, let us remember that these acts matter and will matter, not just to the people they directly benefitted, but to our collective societal trajectory. As we act in solidarity with others, let’s also remember the importance of listening to and elevating solutions that come from communities most impacted.
While we seek to prioritize humanity in a time of crisis, we must also remember that crisis has been commonplace for many throughout their lives. Our board member reminded me lately that there are many people in our society who have shown resilience since the day they were born and will continue to do so in the face of COVID. While resilience may be new to some, it is commonplace for many others.
When we look back on this moment, let us reflect on the fact that we stood together in support of those who were already resilient – those who have been focused on Ophul's principles of simplicity, frugality and fraternity by necessity. Let us take comfort in the fact that we prioritized humanity together. If we are capable of this, our collective morale will reach unprecedented levels and we will not fear the unknown because we will belong in solidarity together.
“Whether human beings are capable of such sagacity is a question only the future can answer."
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Ref: William Ophuls, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, CreateSpace, 2012.