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We have met the enemy and he is us

by Paul Saffo on April 24th, 02009

It has been half a year since the financial meltdown began in earnest, and everyone from Senators, to CEOs, to suffering homeowners is suffering from crisis fatigue. We face myriad perils ahead as we navigate our way out of this vast mess, but the greatest peril of all comes from our frightening adaptability. What still seemed shocking in January is quickly becoming the New Normal.

And with the New Normal comes a dangerous resignation to the facts of the current crisis, and an even more dangerous return to the reckless, shortsighted habits that led us into the meltdown. Investors looking for a quick kill in a fibrillating stock market, or speculating on precious metals in hopes it will be the next big thing. Insolvent homeowners passively hoping for a miracle, and bankers unwilling to modify loans because doing so might make their short-term numbers look bad. And worst of all, politicians falling back on tired old partisan habits, furiously pointing fingers at anyone who dares to cross doctrinal lines in search of common solutions.

As Walt Kelly’s swamp philosopher, Pogo observed on the second Earth Day 38 years ago today, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The enemy is our belief in the quick fix for problems that have grown over decades. The enemy is old behaviors, old animosities, old rivalries, and false certainties that blind us to the need for new solutions to the challenges we face.

The myth is that Pogo observed in the next frame that we are “surrounded by insurmountable opportunity.” Perhaps Walt never actually drew that frame, but even if Pogo didn’t say it, he should have, for we are surrounded by opportunity that is insurmountable only if we allow the New Normal to cloud our vision. We got into this mess because we created a society that sacrificed the long-term good for the many on the altar of short-term profits for the few. If we can just shake off the illusion of the quick fix, we may discover that more than the current financial crisis can be surmounted for the benefit of ourselves, our children, and our children’s children.

(Copyright restrictions prohibit the display of Walt Kelly’s famous image of Pogo uttering, “We have met the enemy and he is us” on this page, but you can see it here)