In recent years, Thanksgiving in the United States has taken on a distinctive chiaroscuro (blending of light and dark). Replacing, or at least balancing, the heartwarming scenes of smiling, homogenous faces at a dinner table awash in extravagant abundance and good will, is a new awareness — a questioning of what exactly we Americans should be thankful for.
For some, this new wakefulness extends deep into our history — as far back as 1492, when Columbus first visited the “New World”.
In his landmark essay, The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez offers a graphic re-contextualization of the “path of discovery” that opened up a “land of opportunity” for what later became known as the “realization of the American Dream”:
“In the name of distant and abstract powers, the Spanish began an appropriation of the place, a seizure of its people, its elements, whatever could be carried off.… This incursion, this harmful road into the “New World,” quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, in which an end to it — the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores, and, later, arable land, coal, oil, and iron ore — was never visible, in which an end to it had no meaning.”
Later in his essay, Lopez asserts that the early explorers’ “experience was to amass wealth and go home. Those of us who have stayed, who delight in the litanies of this landscape and who can imagine no deeper pleasure than the fullness of our residency here, look with horror on that imperial framework in North America — the physical destruction of a local landscape to increase the wealth of people that don’t live there, or to supply materials to buyers in distant places who will never know the destruction that process leaves behind.”
Seventeen generations after Columbus, thirteen generations after the Mayflower landed on the shores of my state of Massachusetts, and eight generations after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, we are wrestling with the foundational assumptions that have formed “our story”, the common understanding of where we come from and where we are going. How, for example, can we assimilate, how can we reconcile, the conspicuously American battle-cry of “freedom!” and state mottos like those of New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”) and Vermont (“Freedom and Unity”) with the reality that only in 67 of the last 402 years (less than 17%) of American history have we been free from slavery and segregation?
The facts, if one looks at them with clear, unromanticized eyes, are that there is much in our history, our common story, that we should — far from being thankful for — be horrified by.
Thankfully, thankfully, this recent reckoning is giving a new shape and constitution to that story. It is communicated in hashtags — such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #Climate. In protests that fill city streets. In the visages of child-warriors speaking truth to power. And, in the economic sphere, it is being delivered by a range of actors — entrepreneurs in innovation hubs, investors and philanthropists, scholars and students in business schools, among others.
Put in this historical context, we can call this collective work the building of an impact economy.
I would suggest that the impact economy is not simply a noteworthy set of incremental changes to the institution of capitalism — but the most significant transformation of our economic narrative of the past 529 years. An authentic story for a truly new world. A story not simply for a renewed America, but one shared at the deepest levels with the rest of the world. A story of interdependence rather than independence. A story of resilience resting on a circular rather than linear supposition. A story of the integrative and restorative replacing the separative and extractive. A story of justice and sustainability.
This is what we can legitimately be thankful for on this day of thanksgiving. As we sit down to a dinner of abundance, let us first bow our heads and, for a moment, picture in our mind’s eye a permanent place where we are blessed with the ability, at any given moment, to, in Barry Lopez’s words, “delight in the litanies of [our] landscape and… imagine no deeper pleasure than the fullness of our residency”.
This new world is ours to create and sustain. And for that opportunity we give thanks.