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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bubble, bubble

[posted by risa]

I have been shelving, in the library where I work, because my student workers are not back for fall term yet, and it's ironic to me, the titles I'm putting away at the moment -- weighty tomes, authored on Wall Street, concerning the world's financial statistics. Volumes for 2004, 2005, 2006 -- my job is to get them into the right order, so that those who need them can find them. But I'm feeling mildly panicked about that. Who's gonna need this stuff? It's mumbo jumbo from a kind of a religion, one that has just imploded.

What I think -- and I've said this before, here -- is that you cannot run a country or a world any differently than you run a household.

The charging of interest on money lent to others is not based on any kind of real-world productivity. Whether you are paying interest on principal or receiving interest on principal, you're participating in a flight of fancy -- and from time to time, reality bites that fancy in its fancy keister.

We're in one of those times.

Let's review some facts.

Suppose the world were made entirely out of oil, coal and methane (I'm not the first to use this notion, but let's keep going here).

And we burn the stuff:

To keep warm.

To get around.

To see by at night.

To make clothing.

To fertilize fields.

To grow and ship food.

To make and move practically everything.

We will still, even though the planet is made entirely out of the stuff, eventually use up half of it and see demand exceed supply.

And by then, have nothing much to breathe worth breathing.

So, some of us say we're at about that point now (which I find relatively easy to believe) and some scoff at it.

But, remember, we're on a platform made mostly of rock, not coal, methane, and oil. So what's to scoff? We're only some 7,000 miles in diameter.

And note that the scoffers tend to be the same crowd who cast aspersions on evolution and before that were casting aspersions on the roundness of the earth, and are now bringing us the spectacular failures of Wall Street.

This crowd's attitude toward the planet's carbon resources seems to me to very much resemble its attitude toward economic resources. The resources are treated as infinite; and they are no such thing. You cannot treat equity as an inexhaustible resource, just as you cannot treat buried hydrocarbons as an inexhaustible resource. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

Not that I'm about scarcity; I believe in abundance, but what I see as abundant is mostly sunshine and human ingenuity. That's maybe another post.

So, back to the well-managed household for a moment.

The householder sees resources (in the form of food, fuel, construction materials and the like, or the equivalent in the form of a shorthand mode of exchange called currency or money) flowing in two directions: out and in, against a general background of the second law of thermodynamics, that is, you cannot get something for nothing, and even your something will diminish over time all by itself.

So, to prosper, a household must see its income exceed its outgo, even just to stay even.

So you may accumulate resources by means of income, from hunting and gathering through agriculture to industry, and you must, to break even, accumulate at a rate that can handle consumption and maintenance. To prosper, your income must exceed consumption and maintenance both, and it is axiomatic that participating in a bubble may be about something but it is not about income.

(For those interested in pertinent Levitical proscriptions [as opposed to any about lobsters or gay people], we pause at this point to offer the reader a link to this one: Lev. 25:36. )

The good householder will accumulate such goods as are good, i.e., healthful to the body, spirit, and mind of each member of the household, and to those of the neighbor as well. The self and one's family, because self-interest is a necessity, otherwise one is subject to unchecked abuses, which is neither good for the abuser nor the abusee; but also for the neighbor, because there is a commons, beginning with the air, the water, and the green earth, upon which are all the living things together. For income must exceed outgo, but only to the extent of this healthful maintenance level. Let's call this program stewardship

A householder bent upon buying a McMansion, filling it with plasma TVs and driving to and from it in a Yukon to buy "food" raised mostly in CAFOs is not doing good stewardship. No nation has been cruising so single-mindedly toward a collision with this truth than the United States, but it is becoming a worldwide trend, just in time perhaps, for everyone's idea of an apocalypse.

So now, let's think of the household account as a checkbook. This is a real-world checkbook, but it works just like a monetary one.

You may make deposits: a sack of potatoes, gasoline, roll roofing, a sweater. You may write checks: eating potatoes, driving to see Grandma, roofing the house (and subjecting the roofing to wear and eventual loss through rain and shine), wearing out the sweater or perhaps losing it on a bus. If you spend more in checks than you can deposit your checks will bounce.

You know this.

I know this.

It's kindergarten-level knowledge, really.

But oil company executives and Wall Street and the current administration of the United States (and perhaps many other countries) do not seem to know this. Nor do most media, especially Talk Radio.

Welcome to Modern Times.

We might blame it on the current U.S. administration and its financial, military and industrial sycophants, but in a nation, or in a world, dominated by greed, the greediest are only relatively more blameworthy than the rest of us if we have been living upon their promises rather than the simple promises of the earth, the air the water, and the green things, without which we are nothing, and upon the well-being of which rests our all.

It's not as if we had not been warned.

So: what to do now, with the Great(er) Depression near upon us?

I suppose there will be resource wars as some attempt to balance their checkbooks by reaching for those of others. Perhaps some, I among them, will not die a peaceful death. It's not like that hasn't been a pretty common response to similar situations. If the violent come, defend yourself if you can, and if you cannot, reflect that no one will live forever on this green earth, the violent included.

In the mean time, those of us with any remaining shred of rationality might consider modeling good stewardship.

That the world may go mad and abandon civilized behavior does not require of us that we do the same; and the best hope lies in the modeling of good stewardship. Do what is right so that others, seeing this, may do the same.

Observe your self-interest and your family's interest and your neighbor's interest by not living upon interest; live by the work of your hands and make, and do, good things.

Now, you've heard all this before, but let's just go down the checklist yet again:

First, consider the automobile. What's the mileage? Carry more gas (petrol to some of us) at a time, to prevent evaporation loss, get regular tune-ups, check the tire inflation. Trade down in size to better mileage: there are vehicles that do fifty miles per gallon, and this is more significant to your kids' future than the prestige that big one gets you. Get more passengers, and carpool. Be a passenger. Leave the car home and ride the bus, the train, the subway, the ferry, the monorail, the light rail, the taxi, or the bicycle. Walk. No light rail? No bike lanes? No sidewalk, no trail? Write and call the local planners and city administrators; lobby relentlessly. Push hybrid; push electric. Sell the $*#!!! thing. Or give it to the GoodWill or St. Vincents. While you're at it, sell the motor home, the motorboat, the plane, the skimobile, the jet ski, the go cart, and the dirt bike. You don't need them; if you do find you need one once in a while, don't buy, rent. Telecommute. Lobby for a shorter work week, then spend the long weekends, the holidays, and the vacations at home (working in the garden!).

Second, consider the home. Why have a big one when a well-planned small one will do? Insulate, turn the heat down a bit, put on a sweater and a lap blanket, get rid of the air conditioner and plant shade trees on the south side and a windbreak on the north side. Make things out of rocks or used bricks instead of concrete. Use hand tools. No time? Turn off the television, you'll have more time. Look for low-wattage entertainment. Try romance. Romance can be cheap; instead of diamonds and skyview restaurant dinners, try being a good listener. Lean an acoustic instrument. Sing. Read. For lighting, go with sunlight through a skylight, or low-wattage fluorescent. Paint the walls white; you won't need as many watts. Replace the hot water heater, refrigerator and the freezer if they predate the energy-saving models. Install a ground cloth in the crawl space. Sort, reuse, sew, mend, repair, recycle, compost. For the furnishings, when possible make your own or buy locally made. Tear up the lawn and put in cover crops, fruit and nut trees, and fruiting perennials, on a schedule that will prevent your having to buy a new gasoline lawnmower when the present one gives out.

Third, consider the food. Cigarettes? I won't even tell you, you know better. Drink less alcohol and more water (from the well or the tap). Eat less meat and more fiber. Eat less prepared food and more fresh produce. Cook less, check out raw. Use double boilers and steamers and avoid frying. Don't send out for pizza; pizza sends for you, and what it wants from your arteries you should want to keep. Audrey Hepburn said the most effective diet is to share your food with the poor. Clean out the cabinets and put the stuff in the food drive bin. Find out who's offering organic produce in your area. Find out if what they're offering is really organic. Find out what "organic" is first, if you don't know, and don't depend on the television to tell you. Patronize local organic cooperatives, merchants and farmers. Raise your own food. Avoid those patented hybrid seeds from large corporations; patronize farmers, merchants and cooperatives providing heirloom varieties. Use hand tools. Garden organically. Plant vegetables and fruit and nut trees. Even, if need be, in a windowbox or containers on the balcony. Preserve your own produce. No time? We already talked about that.

Fourth, look at your clothes. Buy less frequently, go for longer lasting, and think cotton and wool and natural dyes. Most clothing now comes directly from the planetary checking account, and "polyester" should become an embarrassing word in your wardrobe. When possible, make your own or buy locally made.

Fifth, think about your work. Are you working to get your kids out of planetary debt or deeper into it? What are your living expenses? If you're a couple, consider cutting those expenses until only one of you has to work or both of you can work half time. Give the earned time to increased quality of life for the children, or, if you've wisely refrained from contributing to the disastrous population curve, to your friends and neighbors. If you're in the mining, manufacture, distribution, transportation, sales, advertising, or application of depletionary items, from autos to herbicides, re-career as soon as you feasibly can. Think small. We're not talking communism here, just common accountability -- ok, communalism; there's a big difference and we need not go into hysterics. It's all tribes. Even when it's Wall Steet, it's a tribe. Deal.

Sixth, and I'll stop here for now, what about that vote? If you don't have the vote, be careful who might be reading this over your shoulder, and start working on what it will take to get the vote. For this, your life will not be too cheap a sacrifice for your childrens' future. If you have the vote, think about what you're allowed to vote on. Is it just big political party versus big political party? Or nuclear versus solar? Roads versus light rail? Agribusiness versus sustainable farming? Clear cuts versus forest maintenance? Or to put it more simply, corporate greed versus life? If your vote can't access reality, if it isn't patching the holes in the planetary checking account, change that. Campaign finance reform will be the least of your worries. Get the vote, keep the vote, use the vote; get the real issues up for a vote; inform the electorate. And do what it takes to make sure your vote is counted. Perhaps you won't see results on this in your lifetime. But consider the alternative.

Whew! OK, I know, I haven't done maybe a hundredth of that stuff. But I chip away at it here and there.

I'm aware, particularly and painfully, of the cost of the infrastructure that maintains the glorified suburb that in my neighborhood passes for country. It takes six times as much of the planetary checking account to establish a rural home as it does for a comparable urban row house. I've elected to be a creature of privilege, and I don't care to look too deeply into what the mirror says about that. But in some things I can give back something of what I have taken. One way is to learn from the past, to gain pre-fossil-fuels skills, and to apply them, redesigning this acre of the landscape to produce food, shade, and windbreak in ways that do more good and less harm than was done here previously, and to share the knowledge gained, as best I can, with others who also care to learn.

Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders.



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