Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Place in Space

As the House and Senate come to an agreement on their respective stimulus plans, and Obama prepares to get his signing pen out, it's instructive to at least consider the possibility that our economy is not just faltering, it is dead.

Everything has a life, bugs live a few days, dogs are lucky to live a dozen years, and humans get to live 7 dog lives if they are lucky. Larger living systems, like nations and civilizations live much longer , sometimes a thousand years, but they do die. Rome lived for 600 or 700 hundred years, depending on how you figure it, and the Egyptian world lasted four times longer than that.

So, it should be no surprise that an economy could actually pass away.

Thanks to friend and reader JG, here's part of a piece by James Howard Kunstler that begins to make the point:

"Venturing out each day into this land of strip malls, freeways, office parks, and McHousing pods, one can't help but be impressed at how America looks the same as it did a few years ago, while seemingly overnight we have become another country.

All the old mechanisms that enabled our way of life are broken, especially endless revolving credit, at every level, from household to business to the banks to the US Treasury.Peak energy has combined with the diminishing returns of over-investments in complexity to pull the "kill switch" on our vaunted "way of life" -- the set of arrangements that we won't apologize for or negotiate.

So, the big question before the nation is: do we try to re-start the whole smoking, creaking hopeless, futureless machine?

Or do we start behaving differently?

The attempted re-start of revolving debt consumerism is an exercise in futility. We've reached the limit of being able to create additional debt at any level without causing further damage, additional distortions, and new perversities of economy (and of society, too).

We can't raise credit card ceilings for people with no ability to make monthly payments. We can't promote more mortgages for people with no income. We can't crank up a home-building industry with our massive inventory of unsold, and over-priced houses built in the wrong places. We can't ramp back up the blue light special shopping fiesta. We can't return to the heyday of Happy Motoring, no matter how many bridges we fix or how many additional ring highways we build around our already-overblown and over-sprawled metroplexes.

Mostly, we can't return to the now-complete "growth" cycle of "economic expansion." clip

If this nation wants to survive without an intense political convulsion, there's a lot we can do, but none of it is being voiced in any corner of Washington at this time.

We have to get off of petro-agriculture and grow our food locally, at a smaller scale, with more people working on it and fewer machines. This is an enormous project, which implies change in everything from property allocation to farming methods to new social relations.

But if we don't focus on it right away, a lot of Americans will end up starving, and rather soon. We have to rebuild the railroad system in the US, and electrify it, and make it every bit as good as the system we once had that was the envy of the world. (clip)

The political theater of the moment in Washington is not focused on any of this, but on the illusion that we can find new ways of keeping the old ways going.

Kunstler finishes with this:

Nobody in either party -- including supposed independents such as Bernie Sanders or John McCain, not to mention President Obama -- has a position for directing public resources and effort at any of the things I mentioned above: future food security, future travel-and-transport security, or the future security of livable, walkable dwelling places based on local networks of economic interdependency.

This striking poverty of imagination may lead to change that will tear the nation to pieces."

Curiously, Kunstler is showing his own poverty of imagination here. He fails to forward imagine what we can do, and must do to face the critical issues that are before us. And he fails to imagine a humankind that can quickly leap well beyond its present embodiment.

If the world economy and the capitalist model is truly on the way to the coroner, we'll all know soon enough.

Funerals have their value.

They force you to move on

in ways you never imagined.

And we will move on towards a new model,

with our advanced tools of communication,

with a richness of imagination,

and a refined knowledge of ourselves,

in our place in space.

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