Political Economy

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The conditions in which children experience nature is in large part an

artifact of political economy, which Michael M’Gonigle defines as

“the study of society’s way of organizing both economic production

and political processes that affect it and are affected by it” (1999a,

125). Beginning with Adam Smith and later Karl Marx, the study of

political economy has aimed “to uncover and explain what might be

called the ‘system dynamics’ of a society’s processes of economic and

political self-maintenance” (ibid., 126). The political economy of the

modern world, in this view, is organized around the pursuit of economic

growth, a science presumed to be value neutral, and the institutions

of the state and corporation. Its ideology is “high modernist,”

which according to political scientist James C. Scott means “a musclebound

version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical

progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of

human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and,

above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the

scientific understanding of natural laws” (1998, 4).

The main features of modern political economy are well known,

even if their effects on childhood are not. The first and most obvious

feature of contemporary political economy is the belief in the importance

of economic growth and material accumulation. One day the

major political fault line in the twentieth century about whether

growth was to be organized by markets or governments will be seen

as a minor doctrinal quibble. Regardless of specifics, economic growth

has become the central goal for virtually every national government.

Election outcomes are now more than ever an artifact of short-term

economic performance. A second feature of modern political economy

is the centrality of the global corporation. We are now provisioned

with food, energy, materials, entertainment, health, livelihood,

information, shelter, and transport by global corporations that operate

with little oversight. The economic scale of the largest corporations

dwarfs all but the largest national economies. As a result, corporations

dominate national politics and policy and, through relentless advertising,

the modern worldview as well. A third component of contemporary

political economy is a particular kind of science rooted in the

thinking of Descartes, Galileo, Bacon, and Newton. That science presumes

a separation of subject from object, humankind from nature,

and fact from value. Its power derives from its ability to reduce the

objects of inquiry to their component parts. Its great weakness has

been its inability to associate the knowledge so gained into its larger

ecological, social, cultural, and normative context.

Political economy organized on these three pillars has many collateral

effects on children. First, a society organized around economic

growth is one that is in constant turmoil. Austrian economist Joseph

Schumpeter (1978, 21–26) described the process by which physical

capital is rendered obsolete as “creative destruction.” Economic

growth, then, means that the old and familiar is continually being replaced

with something new and more profitable to the owners of capital.

Similarly, the growth economy and the continual battle for market

share among corporations is driven by and in turn drives a process

of incessant technological change aiming for greater efficiency and

speed. Creative destruction and technological dynamism, in turn, increase

the velocity of lived experience. Not only is rapid change regarded

as good, but rapid movement is as well. Corporations not only

sell things, they sell sensation, movement, and speed, and these, too,

are integral to the growth economy.

Little attention has been given to the effects of creative destruction,

technological change, and increased velocity on the development

of children, but they cannot be insignificant. For one thing, familiar

surroundings and places where the child’s psyche is formed are

subject to continual modification, called “development,” but to the

child this is a kind of obliteration. But these places, regarded as real es-

tate to the capitalist mind, are the places where children form their

initial impressions of the world. Such places are, as Paul Shepard

(1976) noted, the substrate for the adult mind. Some part of otherwise

inexplicable teenage behavior in recent decades may be a kind of

submerged grieving over the loss of familiar places rendered into

housing tracts or shopping malls (Windle 1994). The effects of technological

change and the consequent increase in the speed of lived experience

on children is largely unknown, but it is reasonable to think

that the healthy pace of human maturation is much slower than the

frenetic speed of a technological society. The problem of speed is, I

think, pervasive. At one level exposure to television (averaging more

than four hours per person per day) with constantly changing images

effects the neural organization of the mind in ways we do not understand.

At another level, the decline in time spent with children means

that parenting is compressed into smaller and smaller chunks of time.

In either case, the child’s sense of time is bent to fit technological and

economic imperatives.

A second collateral effect arises from rampant materialism inherent

in the growth economy. Childhood lived in more austere times

was no doubt experienced differently from one lived in seemingly

endless abundance. From birth on, children in an affluent culture

marinate in a surfeit of things as well as the desire for things not yet

possessed. Love in the growth economy is increasingly expressed by

giving gifts, not by spending time with a child. Again, we have little

idea of the long-term effects of excessive materialism on children, but

it is reasonable to think that its hallmarks are satiation and shallowness

and the loss of deeper feelings having to do with a secure and stable

identity rooted in the self, relationships, and place. The important

fact is not simply the effects of materialism but the more complex effects

of the worldview conveyed in relentless advertising that hawks

the message of instant gratification in a world of endless abundance.

Whatever its other effects on the child, nature in a culture so lived

can only recede in importance. Time once spent doing farm chores,

exploring nearby places, fishing, or simply playing in a vacant lot has

been replaced by the desire to possess or to experience some bought

thing. It is, again, not far-fetched to think that one consequence is a

loosening of ancient ties to place and an acquaintance with wildness.

Nor is it unreasonable to suppose that the effect of several decades of

glorifying money and things is now apparent in polls showing that the

young increasingly want to get rich rather than live a life of deeper


A third collateral effect of contemporary political economy is

that the world is increasingly rendered into commodities to be sold.

Indeed, this is the purpose of the growth economy. Having saturated

the market for automobiles and washing machines, it proceeded to

sell us televisions and stereo equipment. Having saturated those markets,

it moved on to sell us computers and cell phones. Eventually, it

will sell us its version of reality that will be aimed to supplant more

than most of us care to admit. Commodification, too, has its effects on

the ecology of childhood. Those things that people once did for

themselves as competent citizens or as self-reliant communities are

now conveniently purchased. What’s good for the gross national

product, however, is often detrimental to communities. Real community

can only be formed around mutual need, cooperation, sharing,

and the daily exercise of practical competence. The effect of the

growth economy and corporate dominance is to undermine the practical

basis for community and with it the lineaments of trust. The absence

of these qualities cannot be seen and so cannot be easily measured.

Nonetheless, by many accounts there is a marked decline in

community strength and social trust that cannot leave childhood unaffected

(Putnam 2000). I suspect that these are mostly manifest in a

decline in the imagination of a world of rich social possibilities that

can only be lived out in real communities by people who have learned

to live in interaction, not isolation. Instead, the young are socialized

into an increasingly atomized world of extreme individualism governed

by the assertion of freedoms without responsibilities. As such

they are being trained to become reliable, even exuberant, consumers,

but inept citizens and community members.

Much of the same can be said about the effects of economic

growth on child care and the evolution of emotionally grounded intelligence

in children. Economic necessity often forces both parents

to work, leaving less time with their children. In psychiatrist Stanley

Greenspan’s words, one result of these social adaptations to economic

forces is that “our nation has . . . launched a vast social experiment . . .

and the early data are not encouraging” (1997, 179). What’s at risk, he

believes, are the “relationships on which developmental patterns rest”

in a society in which “intimate personal interaction is declining and

impersonality is increasing” (ibid., 169) These relationships, however,

are crucial for the development of emotionally grounded intelligence.

Fourth, contemporary political economy is rooted in the tacit acceptance

of high levels of risk that both jeopardizes the lives of children

and colors their worldview. The growth economy creates mountains

of waste, much of it toxic and some of it radioactive. This waste

has been the driving force behind biotic impoverishment and the loss

of biological diversity. Its further expansion now threatens climatic

stability. Risks from technology and the scale of the economy are now

pervasive, global, and permanent (Beck 1992). But the response of

mainstream science, reflected in the practices of cost-benefit analysis

or risk analysis, is rooted in the same kind of thinking that created the

problems in the first place (O’Brien 2000).We have no way to know

the full range of biophysical effects on children, nor can we say with

certainty how they perceive the tapestry of risk that shrouds their future.

But again, it is reasonable to think that these risks contribute to

an undertone of despair and hopelessness.

Finally, the role of science in this larger political economy resembles

more and more what Wendell Berry calls “modern superstition,”

in which “legitimate faith in scientific methodology seems to veer off

into a kind of religious faith in the power of science to know all things

and solve all problems” (2000, 18). Increasingly children grow up in a

thoroughly secular culture, often without awareness that life is both

gift and mystery. They are, in other words, spiritually impoverished.

Because humans cannot live without meaning, the result is that their

search for meaning, bereft of the possibility for authentic expression,

can take ever more bizarre and futile forms.

It is certainly true that the situation of some children has improved

vastly over what it was in the early years of capitalism when

child labor was common. A full reading of the evidence, however,

suggests caution in extrapolating too much. Improved living circumstances

for some children fortunate enough to be raised in middle-

or upper-class homes is a reality, with all of the caveats noted

above. But little in contemporary political economy mandates that incomes

will be fairly distributed or that children in other cultures will

not be exploited to produce cheap sneakers and designer jeans for

those living in affluence. Nor does this political economy afford adequate

protection for any child living in the future from pollution,

reproductive disorders, overexploitation of resources, climatic

change, or loss of species.

Relative to their relation to nature, the reigning political economy

has shifted the lives and prospects of children from:

• direct contact with nature to an increasingly abstract and

symbolic nature

• routine and daily contact with animals to contact with

man-made things

• immersion in community to isolated individualism

• less violence to more (much of it vicarious)

• direct exposure to reality to abstraction/virtual reality

• relatively slow to fast.

There are certainly exceptions. The Amish, for example, are notable

because they are exceptions. On balance children in modern society

are heavily shaped by a contemporary political economy that stresses

materialism, economic growth, human domination of nature, and

is tolerant of large-scale ecological risks with irreversible consequences.

Their view of nature is increasingly distant, abstract, and

utilitarian. However affluent, their lives are impoverished by diminishing

contact with nature. Their imaginations, simulated by television

and computers, are being impoverished ecologically, socially,

and spiritually. The young, in Neil Postman’s words, have been rendered

into an “economic category . . . an economic creature, whose

sense of worth is to be founded entirely on his or her capacity to secure

material benefits, and whose purpose is to fuel a market economy”

(Postman 2000, 125–126). This is not happening according to

any plan; it is, rather, the logical outcome of the regnant system of

political economy.

We have, in other words, created a global system of political

economy in which it is not possible to be faithful or effective stewards

of our children’s future. It is a system that, by its nature, clogs many of

its children’s arteries with fast food. It is a system that, by its nature,

poisons all of its children, albeit unevenly, with chemicals and heavy

metals. It is a system that, by its nature, must saturate most of their

minds with television advertisements and electronic trash. It is a system

that, by its nature, must impoverish ecosystems and change climate.

It is a system that, by its nature, undermines communities and

family ties. It is a system, run by people who love their children,

which will measure risks to them with great precision but is incapable,

as it is, of implementing alternatives to those risks. It is a system

that must remove most children from direct contact with unmanaged

nature. And it is a system that encourages people to see the problems

that arise from its very nature as anomalies, not as parts of a larger and

deeply embedded pattern.We have unwittingly created a global political

economy that prizes economic growth and accumulation of

things above the well-being of children.

The important issues for our children are not narrowly scientific.

They have little to do with symptoms and everything to do with systems.

What kind of changes in the system of political economy would

be necessary to protect the rights and dignity of children now and in

the future?