Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Missing Connection

The failing economy and our devastated environment - from a distance, it appears that these two problems are separate, but when we look closer, the connection becomes unmistakable." The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones

Some friends invited us over for dinner to watch a recorded segment from the Oprah Winfrey Show they thought we should see. It was about how ordinary middle-class people across the country are changing their lives in order to adjust to the difficult economic pressures most of the population are feeling.

It was an upbeat show obviously meant to be informative and empowering. The role environmental crises is playing in our current economic challenges was not mentioned. Instead the expert guest suggested that we as American consumers are responsible for our current economic problems because the banking system has be structured to respond to our demands. Thus, he claimed, we as consumers can solve the nation's economic problem by getting out of debt and not consuming as much.

The remainder of the show featured steps various individuals are taking to cut expenses. Two friends, for example, were swapping couches instead of buying new ones. A family was camping out in their back yard rather than taking a vacation. A mother was borrowing DVD's from the library for her children instead of buying the newest release each week. Another woman was making a full-time job of clipping coupons to save on food costs and advising others on how to do it. Another family was no longer going out for dinner. Others were only buying sale items or shopping at second-hand stores. And so on ....

All commendable efforts to be sure, but missing from the discussion was the irony that consumers were being blamed for our economic crises when consuming is the very basis of our economy. Consumer spending accounts for 70% of the US economy. As you may recall, after the 911 terrorist attacks, President Bush urged that the best way Americans could help the country was to "keep spending."

The way our economy is structured, each cut these individuals on the show are making to ease their financial woes causes greater financial woe for someone else who depends on them to spend. The restaurants owners and staff, store owners and staff, the innkeepers, the songwriters, artists, production house workers, growers, and so many more are losing their businesses, their careers, and their jobs as maxed out, financially stressed consumers cut back. In other words, your self-sufficiency is their loss of income.

These folks may seem like nameless, faceless statistics, but in reality they are neither. They are us. All of us. Our families, our neighbors, our friends and their families, neighbors and friends.

So what's the solution suggested in the headline article in the Los Angeles Times Business section this week? "Government Seeks Ways to Spur Lending." The nation is desperate for us to get back to lending and spending again. But lending and spending is how we got into this fix. We've been living beyond our means.

American consumers owe nearly $2.6 trillion in non-mortgage debt, or about $8,460 for every man, woman, and child. Credit card debt alone is approaching $1trillion. Most state governments are in debt and, as of this minute, the national debt has topped $10 and a half trillion. That's $34,521.63 per person or $3.88 billion per day since September 28, 2007. And it's not just our personal and national debt that's over taxed. The entire planet is over-taxed.

This is the missing connection. Discussion like those on Oprah and so many other evening news segments and life section features I've seen lately fail to point out that neither the planet nor our economy can continue to support the current level of consumption and resulting debt needed to keep our economy growing. We've hit the wall on growth. We've not only outgrown our budgets; we've out-grown the Earth.

The changes featured on Oprah clearly demonstrated that we don't need most of what we spend. That means most of the jobs from which we are trying to pay for what we buy aren't really needed either. So, what can we do to extricate ourselves and the planet from these mountainous deficits? Certainly not gear up for more lending and spending. We need to restructure and reprioritize our economy to recognize that our own well-being and that of all others, including the environment, is all connected.

The way out is not so much about focusing on what we spend or don't spend. It's about what we produce for ourselves and for each other.

It's about getting back as individuals, as local communities, and as a country to producing the basics we need without going into debt to do it. Right now 22% of our economy consists, not of providing such basics, but of shuffling money around within the financial sector. Or into building and maintaining 22.2 square feet of commercial shopping space per American so we can shop. This compares to only 2 or 3 square feet per person of shopps in other 1st world countries.

So we're not short of places to shop. It's the basics we're struggling to provide for. In the last 12 years mortgage payments have risen 46%, utilities 43%, and property taxes 66%. Health insurance costs have more than doubled and family food budgets are stretched to the limit.

Fortunately we don't need to wait for the Congress, the Federal Reserve, or the next US President to restructure the economy for us. Few believe that's going to happen anytime soon. As Oprah was implying, we can begin to restructure the economy ourselves, not by focusing on what we buy, but on what we can offer that's actually needed and how to rely on that to support us in having what we truly need.

We can begin right now by asking ourselves two key questions. What do I and my family actually need? And, do people actually need what I doing now to earn a living? Would people be just fine without what I'm doing? Then here's three steps we can take to be sure we can both provide something needed and provide for our needs in the process:

(1) We can develop an independent career or secure a position that serves a basic need for the people in our own communities, something they can't usually provide for themselves, i.e. health care, education, and production of other necessities. Such a career will be far less vulnerable to market fluctuations and the whims of multi-national corporations looking for the lowest labor costs and highest profits where ever around the world they can find them.

(2) Then we can begin doing as many things for ourselves as we possibly can. Without the necessity of spending 8-10+ hours a day getting to and from and working jobs that don't produce what we people actually need, we will have time to provide for many of the things we need ourselves, like growing our own fruits and vegetables, mending our clothes, repairing household items, and so forth.

(3) We can begin supporting the enterprises of our local neighbors and nearby fellow citizens by doing as much of our shopping as we can locally and using equitable personal and community exchanges and local currencies when possible.

Life in such an economy, might not be as convenient as what we're accustomed to, but living within our means will be simpler and make our lives more secure. Such an economy will also take the pressure off our overly stressed environment, allowing eco-systems we depend upon to recover and reducing the threats of climate change and depletion of water, energy, and other valuable natural resources.

Additionally such an economy will mean in support ourselves we will be simultaneously supporting the well-being of others, instead of compounding their problems by leaving them without a means of support.

Did you see this particular Ophra show? If so, what did you think? Leave a comment.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008


Sarah Edwards said...

A reader comment:

Although I admire some of Oprah’s work and particularly her collaboration with Eckhart Tolle this past year to address the human ego and the need to transcend it as a fundamental, ground floor step in transforming human consciousness, she has often proven herself to be part of the problem, as it appears this show demonstrates. It sounds like the show, in typical American fashion, focuses on “my needs”, “my home”, “my job”, “my bank account”, “my consumption patterns” while ignoring the larger planetary perspective.

Here’s the real deal: Until humans understand the Terminal Triangle, as I have named it in recent years, climate change, Peak Oil, and global economic meltdown and how all three interface with each other, they will understand nothing and will keep trying to solve the problem on the level of the problem. I urgently appeal to readers to watch “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” several times and then consider that we cannot “save” the earth or even ourselves, but we can:

1) Understand that the world as we have known it is coming to an end with lightning speed—that 200 species a day are going extinct, and that climate change is now out of our control and has a life of its own;

2) Begin preparing ourselves and our families for massive shortages of food, energy, water, and the basic necessities of life that we have taken for granted for as long as we’ve been on the planet;

3) Begin organizing our local communities for the collapse of civilization by forming groups to look out for each other around heating, hunger, and healthcare; develop community currencies as alternatives to the worthless U.S. dollar;

4) If possible, buy gold and silver coins and take physical possession of them;

5) Talk, talk, talk, talk, and keep talking about our feelings about what is happening, with trusted others, and listen, listen, listen and keep listening to them as they share their feelings. Deep listening and truth-telling are two of the most important things we can be doing;

6) Examine our spiritual wellbeing and use every spiritual resource available to us to sustain our souls as we pass through these unprecedented times. Now is the time to look and listen with laser vision and hearing to our life’s purpose and ask ourselves daily: What did I come here to do? What is my REAL work which is greater than any profession or craft I’ve ever had or will have?

Perhaps some day Oprah can get to this level of exploration, and maybe she will if she keeps hanging out with Eckhart Tolle.

Carolyn Baker
Truth To Power

Sarah Edwards said...

MK's comment

Very interesting, Sarah - thanks! I agree with the article, even
though it's painful for an out of work artist who doesn't produce what is "needed" to read. Actually, my book theorizes that it's entitlement thinking that has gotten us into this over-consumption mess and until we embrace the fact that we're all interconnected, it will be very painful for many to move forward to a new model.

Actually, I believe that this probably began before the Industrial Revolution (and what it did to earth sure was revolting!), but the Industrial Revolution really sped the devastation
up. So much for "progress".

Part of my inner urge to own land was to be able to produce my own
food. Although I will have to wait until next spring to plant fruit trees, I do have a 12 x20 area of beds and am in the process of
digging another one (10 x 10), in addition to having a nice

I can tell you that its been a hundred times more challenging doing so out here in the country than it ever was in thecity, which has amazed me! My city gardens never had any pests to deal with. All I had to do was plant, water and weed and would have beautiful, organic veggies to eat. It has also given me a new respect for how much labor, time and energy go into making the organic, local produce I buy.

I am fighting off moles, voles, pocket gophers, rabbits, raccoons and, the last few days, a hungry great blue heron who has decided our koi pond should be his next free meal ticket.
I spent hours yesterday finding and placing bird netting over the pond and feel bad for this beautiful bird ......... Add to that a host of insects and, well, you can do the math!

As more and more people from the city move out here to the country to attempt a more sustainable life style, not all share my philosophy of living WITH the animals here rather than trapping and killing them as pests to their gardens.

That's not to say that I don't have hope for a better future that will include a more harmonious, symbiosis, but I think it will take time.

Sarah Edwards said...

I know what you mean that it can be uncomfortable looking at whether what one does is "needed." It's something most of us will need to be doing as our existing jobs become more vulnerable.

But I believe art will always be of value, as it has throughout all of history, though it not so often valued in the kind commercial sense that provides a secure income in our currenty system.

As we have the opportunity to move more toward an exchange-based and a less monetized way of life, doing more for ourselves and sharing what skills we have to offer with others, there will much more we're able to contribute to our communities.

Also I empathize with the learning curve involved in learning to grow our own food. It has become a "Lost Life Skill.' In our community we're organizing to hold
workshops and classes for people who want to learn to grow on their lots and how to can food they grow. Many people here are interested in learning.

Evidently the Mormon church has such courses in all parts of the country. We are exploring their courses here.