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Reading this interview with Tomas Sedlacek I suddenly saw an important thing: we are trashing our world and our species with well-meant but dangerous philanthropy. Adam Smith believed that if we all looked out for our own best interests, the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market would efficiently distribute the proceeds to all areas. If I maximise the profits of my business and spend them with other businesses employing other people, the markets will ensure we all end up with an appropriate share in an optimised prosperity. This, like Darwin’s work, has been used in a simplistic – perhaps even cynical – way to justify red-in-tooth-and-claw opportunism, greed, ruthlessness and much of the consequent damage and injustice. Of course Adam Smith had actually produced a much more nuanced and sympathtic assessment of the human economic condition. The outcome, however, has been less than ideal.

What Sedlacek helped me to see, though, is that there is also a flip-side to the Invisible Hand – the back of the same coin. I will therefore call it The Visible Foot. There are philanthropists, NGOs, foundations, volunteers and other wonderful people doing all sorts of great things to alleviate pain and prevent social and environmental problems. They are a tiny minority, however, in a culture that has mostly come to believe that greed and unenlightened short-term self interest is not only good but necessary and even inevitable. What these people are inadvertently doing is to create a situation where everyone one else is getting on with being part of the problem in the mistaken belief that the guys in the white hats have got it all covered.

In fact we need more or less everyone being part of the solution if we’re going to get out of this alive. Just as I need all the organs in my body supporting the whole-system-that-is-me to enable me to remain healthy, we need all of society doing the same in the interests of society itself and thus of all its parts. If one organ isn’t doing its job, the organism is going down and that means the end of all the organs. So if we let ourselves believe that there is just this one little societal organ making sure the whole organism is healthy – especially if that organ is being starved of nutrients just as the organism is getting quite unwell – we are going down.

We need the public, private and third sectors – and all parties – to pull together in unprecedentedly creative and innovative partnerships to attend to some very big cross-party issues. And we need it now. Or it will be too late. The Visible Foot could be the thing that causes us to be crushed.

 

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