Lake Pontchartrain.

Share This

Louisiana: The Front Lines of Hope in the Face of Four New Global Realities

Two weeks ago in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Carnival parades began their march toward the great Mardi Gras day itself. Now that the final week has taken root (what people are starting to term, “Deep Gras”), the nightly ritual of throwing on some new combination of brightly colored fabrics, stirring fresh ice into your to-go cup, and hurtling out onto the streets with friends and strangers alike to laugh, dance, and, of course, reach your hands up into the sky toward the bright lights of giant floats, and yell “Throw me somethin’, Mister!” is in full force. As everyone in New Orleans knows, a bead only carries value for the half second it is suspended between the hand that tosses it and the hand that lurches upward to clutch it. That is, the value is in participating with all the other revelers in the ebullient sea of Carnival revelry—not connecting with a piece of one-cent plastic that serves as a hilarious parody of obsolete royal currency but connecting with the community through which it flies. Once caught, it is passed to a nearby child, clumped away into a bag, or strung around someone’s neck as temporary flair to simply announce the time for which we’ve been waiting the other eleven and a half months—living out our communal identity through celebration and participation.

Unfortunately, there is a mirror ritual that has ingrained itself in the economic history of our beloved state: Louisiana stretching its hands for what it can’t reach and thereby failing to see what it is already knee deep in—the new global currency, which is connectivity.

We find ourselves at a moment in the global economy when “the paramount factor in determining the importance of a state [economy] is . . . its connectedness,” according to Parag Khanna, an author and global strategy advisor.[1] Rather than a global and local economy composed of competing superpowers, economic success is measured in our ability to participate in totally new forms of partnerships. Khanna posits that “power derives from leverage exercised by connective reach.”[2] Nicco Mele, an author and lecturer who addresses the influence of technology on media, politics, and public policy, observes that “Radical connectivity is altering the exercise of power faster than we can understand it.”[3]

One thing is certain: radical connectivity is toxic to conventional power structures. Today, before our eyes, the top down nation-state model as we have known it is collapsing. Traditional sources of information like broadcast and print media are in decline. Aircraft carriers and other military hardware that for decades underpinned geopolitical power are obsolete and highly vulnerable, while organized violence remains a growing threat. Competitive hierarchies within industries are disappearing. Traditional cultural authorities are fading. Everything we depend on to preserve both social stability and cherished values, including the rule of law civil liberties, and free markets, is coming unraveled.[4]

Across the globe, the transition to a new paradigm of connectivity can be seen in four “new realities” that are universal, interwoven, and critical to effective long-term solutions: escalating sociopolitical tension from historic inequity, climate change, exponential technology revolution, and, as discussed above, new patterns in globalization. This is exemplified in the state of Louisiana, which can be seen in its current realities and its future potential. In each, what we may see as death is actually the birth of something new that offers us a freshly inclusive and flourishing world more aligned with American values and our own hopes for our children and grandchildren.

The truth is, Louisiana has never enjoyed a fully healthy economic system. As with all the former slave states, our economy was built on foundations corrupted by the most base injustice. The failure of justice here does not simply mean “unfair” or “cruel”—it also means that it was built upon a teetering, top-heavy, and unsustainable system that had to collapse for the good of humanity. And when it did, when the new economic system resisted proper, just, and wise adaptation, it ordained itself to a shameful economy of continued exploitation and inequity of people, land, and resources.

In 2018, the divide between rich and poor in Louisiana was the highest it has ever been, ranking fourth in the country for income inequality.[5] Louisiana has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation at 27.84%, with African American children poorer than white children by 30 points.[6] Racial and gender disparity remains entrenched. In 2015, black Louisianans were 2.5 times as likely as whites to live in poverty (32.2% vs. 13.2%), and one in three African Americans live below the federal poverty line.[7] Nearly half of black children live in poverty (46.4%), while the average white worker makes more than twice as much money as the average black worker ($56,093 vs. $27,537).[8] The Latino poverty rate is 24.1% and for Indigenous peoples it is 22.7%.[9] Finally, Louisiana is the most unequal state in the country in relation to the gender pay gap, whereby in 2019 women earn 69 cents for every dollar men make.[10] Black women are paid less than half—47 cents on the dollar—of what white men make.[11]

Louisiana is famously vulnerable to climate change. Every 90 minutes, it loses a football-size field of coastal land to saltwater intrusion thanks to a century of coastal erosion that will only accelerate with rising seas.[12] The first Coastal Master Plan drafted in 2007 laid out a foundational blueprint to restore the coast to what it was before oil and gas exploration began carving it up in the early twentieth century. By the 2017 update, full restoration was not even an option on the table, replaced instead by mitigation and deceleration.[13] In the meantime, the federal government allocated $48 million to relocate the entire (and largely Native American) community of Isle de Jean Charles making it the US’s first “Climate Refugees.”[14] Louisiana is the canary in the coal mine of climate change.

There is an unprecedented change in exponential technology that is starting to take place in robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and additive manufacturing, virtual and augmented reality, and so forth. The daily lives of our grandchildren will be unrecognizable compared to the daily lives of our grandparents. By 2030, more than half of the nearly two billion youth worldwide won’t have the skills or qualifications necessary to participate in the global workforce.[15] By 2041, 47% of US jobs that existed in 2016 are predicted to be lost to automation.[16] And by 2050, renewable energy will account for nearly half of the total world electricity generation.[17] As for Louisiana? It is tied for first place as the most vulnerable state in the United States to job loss due to automation, and yet it has made no comprehensive plan to prepare for these changes.[18]

However, for the state that has ranked fiftieth of fifty for the third year in a row regarding social and economic outcomes, the global economic paradigm shift to one of connectivity offers Louisiana the chance to become a beacon of hope. In terms of equity, we now recognize more than ever just how interwoven our economy is—across demographics and geography, race and class, and even across time in the way our future strength requires us to address here and now the inequity of the past. We are now in the best position to make changes to build a more equitable state before we discover how bad it can get.

Climate change makes it more evident than ever that our actions on one side of the planet, or in one sector, affect our environment everywhere and, especially in South Louisiana, we live with that reality on a daily basis. We are better positioned than anywhere to become global experts and leaders in the issues the rest of the world will face: climate land loss, water management, and catastrophe management. The richness of Louisiana land—especially the mud dragged down the Mississippi River for millions of years and pushed out into the Gulf to form the wetlands dozens of miles beyond the coastal shelf—is without parallel in the world. We have acted out of sync with the land on which we live and depend and assumed we could externalize the consequences of our actions out, onto the oceans, the air, and people distanced geographically. But climate change forces us to recognize our interdependence with each other and the environment. It forces us to re-examine our assumptions of what an economy is, that is, from an order of converting labor and land and resources into production into an order of labor, land, and resource stewardship. If we can figure out new ways to live in better cooperation with our environment, the environment will live in better cooperation with us. If Louisiana can be at the forefront, rather than in the back room, addressing energy, health, or the management of land and water, we can capture and lead an economic market the rest of the world is starting to demand. For example, Israel became the global economy’s leader on irrigation because they had a desperate need for water. Louisiana bears the opposite problem—too much water. In a world facing rising seas, we can become the global economy’s leader on water management, and how it can connect to a healthy economy. If we can create an economy that helps our particular local environment flourish, it can serve the globe.

If Louisiana is failing in its present economic infrastructure, that means it can build a new foundation more easily than those whose economies are still thriving on infrastructure that may soon be obsolete. The loss of present jobs to automation does not simply mean there will be less jobs—but that the jobs of the future will be different. Around the world, entrepreneurship is exploding, an engine of innovation driving the new economy. It also can serve as an instrument for low-income communities to build scalable economic strength at the ground floor and shift capital toward systemic transformation. Additionally, we are at the beginning of an unprecedented wave of new industries: cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, cloud computing, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, data, and cryptocurrencies, to name a few.[19] Louisiana can decide now to invest in industries of the future. Sweden,[20] the United Arab Emirates,[21] and Wales[22] all have created powerful government positions to ensure that decisions they make have a structural eye on the long-term future; Israel,[23] Hungary,[24] and Canada[25] have created commissions to give economic representation to future generations. Likewise, at a time in which everyone struggles to satisfy short-term demands, Louisiana could create cross-sector coalitions, positions, or commissions to structure future opportunities to what will otherwise feel like present losses. Exponential technology enables us to connect more rapidly and voluminously every day to each other and across the globe, offering Louisiana the opportunity to enhance and activate the historical, geographic, and cultural connectivity in which it is already steeped, between its own people and each other, and between its own people and the rest of the world.

What we are being offered is a moment of genuine reinvention. But we must recognize it and be deliberate and deliberative about it. We must decide that we are going to look for its opportunities. It won’t be easy, overnight work. But we are not alone, and there are models we can borrow from. Germany, Singapore, Japan, China—all of their global economic successes have been achieved because they went through the arduous process of developing a long-term vision and a strategy to get there that was both pragmatically implementable and flexible (iterative) for what changes may come. If we start right now, we can also be a global leader from a place of great vulnerability and become a guiding light to the world. We can recognize that what for which we are reaching—what New Orleanians celebrate at this time of year, with parades and dancing and community each night of this Mardi Gras week—is the time when we will connect with our larger world.


[1] Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (New York: Random House, 2016), 41.

[2] Khanna, Connectography, 41.

[3] Nicco Mele, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 6.

[4] Mele, The End of Big, 6.