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Fri

16

Nov

2007

U.S. Economy — Recession, Depression, or Collapse?
Friday, 16 November 2007 17:01
by Shepherd Bliss
“For Consumers, the Hits Keep Coming”
...a recent banner headline in a New York Times-owned daily newspaper here in Northern California reports. The article misses the main points. If we continue to understand ourselves as primarily passive consumers, rather than as active citizens, the US economy will enter at least a recession, probably a depression, and possibly a collapse. Even our republic is at risk.

Rampant consumption, our addiction to growth, and our failure to accept limits to growth damage us. The headline beneath the banner — “Cleanup Response Criticized” — reveals one of the saddest results. We are not adequately cleaning up the San Francisco Bay after a recent oil spill. Many other aspects of our environment need cleaning up. Without a healthy natural environment and climate conducive to humans, no economy can endure. Over-consumption drives the increasingly extreme and chaotic climate.

We have contaminated our air and waterways, clear-cut our forests, and our inner cities are dying. The pollution of such natural resources often preceeds economic and societal collapses.

I appreciate the Press Democrat for recently reporting the emerging economic trends in numerous articles. What I miss is more analysis, connecting the dots and providing context. The shrinking dollar, soaring gas prices, housing slump and stock market fall, though inconvenient, are not the biggest threats to the economy. These are symptoms caused by deeper systemic problems. We need to learn from these events and discover how to build more sustainable societies. Otherwise, these “hits” are likely to increase and spread.

We need to quickly evolve from our destructive individual consumption patterns that damage not only the economy but the Earth itself. We need to consider their many negative impacts and work together as active citizens concerned with the whole economy and the environment on which it is dependent.

Look around. Things are falling down and apart in the US, including cities like New Orleans, the Minneapolis bridge, and the Twin Towers. An increasing number of high-level government officials — like Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales — have been forced out of office. The cuts are likely to go deeper. One can try to ignore, deny, or seek revenge for these events, all of which invite more disasters. Prudent planning would be a better alternative. These are not isolated events but point to systemic causes.

These are more than the “economic cycle of advance and retreat” that the Nov. 10 article reports. It is not just “things (that) have come together in the last 10 days.” The US’s false economy has been de-stabilizing for years and is now reaching a more degraded stage. We have become vulnerable to a variety of “hits” and should expect even more. Our economy has been described by some as a “house of cards,” which is likely to fall. An unraveling is occurring, creating a time of great uncertainty and fear.

Many major American institutions are in crisis, including healthcare, religion, transportation, political systems, energy, and education.

The Iron Curtain came down and the Berlin Wall seemed to suddenly fall, as did the Soviet Union. The US economy may suddenly fail.

Protecting markets and “consumers” from the truth of how bad our economic reality is will backfire. We do not need to “panic.” But citizens do need accurate news and analysis to get ready for the potential of a radically diminished economy. We are living in a time of unprecedented planetary crisis. People need to prepare physically and psychologically for massive changes.

It is not enough to write about a “silver lining” and report the perilous optimism of an economist wishing that “hopefully this week is not a microcosm of where we will be a year from now.” We need more than false hope to get us through the coming hard times.

Most of the US population continues destructive, over-consuming behaviors that harm all of us. We are not merely victims of the problems; we cause them. We cannot merely blame outside “terrorists.”

Among the facts left out of recent articles in the mainstream press on the declining US economy is the Iraq War. With so many resources dedicated to war-making, dealing with events like Katrina and cleaning up oil spills are more difficult.

“The Hidden Costs of the Iraq War” is a congressional report recently released. It states that the economic costs to the US of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are already around $1.5 trillion. For the average U.S. family of four that is more than $20,000.

We are experiencing more than what headlines describe as a “slowdown.” It could be a “meltdown.” We might be approaching what James Howard Kunstler describes in his book “The Long Emergency” as “catastrophe.”

Santa Rosa author Richard Heinberg’s “Peak Everything” describes our situation well. “Waking Up to the Century of Decline” he sub-titles this new book. This sounds like bad news, but when we face changes early enough, we have more opportunities to cope with them and transform them into opportunities.

Helpful responses include reducing our consumption, accepting that we are contracting, and understanding ourselves as citizens able to take action, rather than as merely passive consumers who can only react. Citizen activism is what me most need at this point in history.

Humans can be far more than objects whose purpose is to buy, shop, spend, and grow the economy. We are threatened more by our own behavior than by any outside terrorists.

That which Heinberg and other Peak Oil theorists have been predicting for years seems to be entering its next stage. With the supply of petroleum and other fossil fuels diminishing and the demand for them increasing — especially from rapidly industrializing China and India — we are moving toward a radically worsened US economy.

When the mainstream press fails to report news and offer analyses that a large number of people are aware of, we can turn to citizen journalists on the web. The mainstream press is loosing readers because it no longer adequately investigates and reports some of the important stories. Fortunately, we now have other places to go to be informed and educated.

“Closing the ‘Collapse Gap’: The USSR Was Better Prepared for Collapse than the US” was published by the authoritative www.energybulletin.net. A Russian, Dmitry Orlov, who now lives in the US, wrote, “The US economy is poised to perform something like a disappearing act.” Orlov compares the “two 20th century superpowers.” An extended version of his analysis will be published as the book “Reinventing Collapse” in May by New Society Publishers.

Orlov examines the arms race, the space race, the jails race, and the “Hated Evil Empire Race.” He concludes that “many of the problems that sunk the Soviet Union are now endangering the US.” So we should “expect shortages of fuel, food, medicine, and countless consumer items, outages of electricity, gas, and water.” If we plan for such possibilities now, we will be better able to deal with them.

Though Orlov details the threats to the US economy, he and his editors at EnergyBulletin remain optimistic. Orlov writes about the possibilities for an expansion of “enlightenment, fulfillment, and freedom” during times of collapse. Russia, after all, did recover. It may be more difficult for the US.

Helpful responses include strengthening local economies, being less dependent upon globalization, outside corporations and things distant, and knowing and preserving the sources of the basics — such as food and water. “There are many things we can do to navigate down and around” our problems, Heinberg writes, “so as to enhance human sanity and security and happiness.”

Canada is one of the many countries whose citizens are ahead of the US in prudent planning for pending crises caused by extreme climate, Peak Oil, and related matters. The Vancouver City Planning Commission has posted a report on a 2006 seminar on collapse at www.plancanada.com. Videos of such ongoing seminars to get ready are available at www.peakmoment.org.

Too many Americans selfishly believe that they have a God-given right to consume whatever their wealth can purchase, without regard to the consequences to other people and the Earth. They take, rather than give, even the natural resources of other peoples. As a farmer, I know that you reap what you sow and that chickens come home to roost.

Our economy is paying and will continue to pay the consequences of over-consumption and the over-purchasing of people reaching beyond their resources that characterized the housing market. We have been greedy. There are limits to growth and those limits are crashing in on us.

Yet many piles of rubble have been rebuilt — often more beautiful than before they fell. Phoenixes have risen from the ashes before. Yet our future is uncertain, without guarantees.

It is time to think and write about more than the probability of a recession and consider the real possibility of a depression or even collapse. Then people can get ready, be active citizens, and prepare their personal, social, and political responses. We must do this together.

Shepherd Bliss, sbliss@hawaii.edu, teaches at Sonoma State University and has run am organic farm for most of the last 15 years.
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