Now that I’d been vaccinated, I was back at my favorite bar. With disinterest, I glanced up at the game that was playing on the large TV suspended above the bar’s mirror. Through the long mirror I saw that there were a few people scattered around at the tables, but the bar was empty.
My phone buzzed. I looked down at the message that had just arrived. It was a quotation from David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist, television commentator, and author who’s famous for his skills at helping audiences understand scientific and environmental issues.
"The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources. . . we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus, is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective."
I glanced back up, meeting my gaze in the mirror. The image that stared back at me raised his mug. “Here’s to looking at the world with new eyes, new perceptions.” He smiled. It was my oldest friend— Juan.
“Wow. Great to see you again, Juan. You read my thoughts.” I took a sip of beer and watched him do the same. “Seems like perspective – perception – is everything.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I was just pondering the same. Our perceptions create reality. There’s no Mexico, no United States, no religion, no culture, no corporations – until enough of us accept them and then take the actions to turn the perceptions into reality.”
Juan tended to wax poetic when he began drinking. “Are you a philosopher or something?”
He laughed, somewhat bitterly. “Just a person scared about this world we live in — the world our 13-year-old grandson is going to inherit.”
“What’s your fear this time?” He stared intently at me as he explained. “China. You know, it’s taking over Latin America. It’s beat out the US and Europe as the number 1 trading partner in both Africa and Latin America. It’s making huge investments in electric, transportation, and communications systems and building lots of mines and exploiting resources everywhere.”
I was curious as to what that guy in the mirror was getting at. “Why’s this happening?”
“What do you mean?”
He patiently explained. “Until the late 1970s China was living in the Dark Ages. Since then, it’s pulled 800 million people out of poverty and become the second most powerful economy in the world. That’s an impressive perspective.”
“We’ve done pretty well in the US too.”
Juan cocked his head. “I just saw the statistics that the average worker in the US has the same real wages today as in 1970. When you take into account inflation, the American worker earns the same now as way back then. During this same period, the number of American millionaires increased from less than half a million to 11 million and China raised hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty into its middle class.” (1)
I could now see what Juan was explaining, but I felt indignant. “What about the appalling conditions in Chinese detention camps and the crimes against the Uighurs and other minorities? What about China’s imperialistic actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and elsewhere?” I paused, trying to suppress my anger. “China has shown itself as a repressive, autocratic regime that tramples on human rights and uses brutality to enforce its will.”
His expression was calm. “Exactly. That’s what scares me.”
“China’s sending out a message to the world that it’s the hope for the future. It’s building what it calls the New Silk Road to connect all the countries of the world in a trade network. It tells countries in Latin America and Africa that they will all be connected with each other in a magnificent commercial system that will benefit everyone. It has shown that it can bring people out of poverty and it has enjoyed what seems like impossible economic growth. Its model looks good.”
“Looks are deceiving,” I said, narrowing my eyes.
“That’s my point. It’s a terribly dangerous deception. China’s on the march to empire-building. It’s why I’m worried.”
“So, what’s to be done?”
“History shows when countries that once opposed each other unite against a common enemy, things happen. Like other times, right now we all need to unite against a common enemy.”
“Surely with all the books you’ve written, you know.” Through the long mirror behind the bar, I watched him start to roll his eyes at the ceiling. My gaze matched his.
All I saw up there was a fly buzzing near a light. “UFOs? Aliens from outer space?” I looked back at the mirror.
He raised his beer to the mirror and smiled. “Yes. We need to recognize that we are the aliens.”
“Of course. We humans. Today, the United States and China – the entire world – share a common enemy. It’s the very thing you write about: a human-created degenerative economic system that’s causing climate change, income inequality, resource depletion, species extinctions, ecological collapse, and just about all our other crises.”
“Ah.” This was indeed food for thought. I washed it down with a swig of beer and watched him imitate me in the mirror.
“You see,” he continued, “the hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and other once-in-one-hundred-year events that now happen every year or so have taught us that we are all vulnerable to this common enemy. COVID-19 has taught us that we can change. History has taught us that to fight this common enemy, China and the United States – everyone – must come together to create a regenerative Life Economy.”
“You mean. . .”
Juan could tell he was winning me over. “I mean that the very survival of life as we know it on this beautiful planet depends on all of us making a change in perspective – embracing a new perception of what it means to be successful. No more growth in this sick economic system. Lots more growth in activities that end poverty, promote quality of life for all humans, and protect and rejuvenate nature.”
“Are you suggesting that we become a monoculture? No more China, America, Brazil. . .”
“Of course not. Russia was the US’s ally during WWII. Did it change its language? Culture?”
“No, but I wish it had.”
He laughed again at the mirror. “My point precisely. The US joined with Russia, the UK and other European countries to defeat a common enemy.”
“Germany. Now our friend.”
“You see? And Russia is our enemy.” He paused. “Got to change that whole ‘enemy’ thing.”
“A new perception – about aliens. We are the aliens.”
“As long as we see ourselves as a part from, rather than a part of, nature, it is true that we are the aliens.”
“You raise interesting ideas. But I imagine lots of people think you’re crazy.”
He gave me a knowing smile. “They thought that about Copernicus too when he said the world is round.”
“I wonder what he’d think about the world now?”
“He’d know it’s got to change. We aliens have to land, touch the earth, get grounded, and embrace new perceptions.”
It was a lot to think about. I glanced at my watch. “Got to go.” I finished off my beer, reached into my pocket, and watched him hand my money to the bartender.
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