Thursday, July 17, 2008

Preparing for the future I

Unless you live in the third world or a migrant from those regions, nearly all of us have grown up with a more or less constantly improving way of life. Our collective existence has been generally very stable economically, politically, environmentally, socially. Aside from a small and rapidly dwindling number, we have not faced economic depression or wartime hardship. This means there is very little historical memory and reference to a different sort of life. Our wars are fought on the far side of oceans, there is food on our shelves, and any disasters that befall us (eg. ice storms) are confined to a limited area and addressed, with comparative ease, by the state. Even events that hit closer to home, such as Hurricane Katrina, seem distant and mostly affect very poor minorities. They quickly disappear from our thoughts after the initial media sensation dissolves. That the state utterly failed to ensure the welfare of its citizens in that instance has not resonated in our own experience. Nor did the fact that it hit without significant warning other than the notion that it might happen. Criticisms about the capacity of the dyke system and emergency response capacity were known, but nothing was done. One day there was a hurricane and that was that.

What our acculturation and lack of alternative experience mean to a certain way of living, is that we are, I think, unlikely to pursue any course of action that deviates far from the current course. We are aware of rising oil prices and have been aware of peak oil since the 1970s. Major car makers are now hemorrhaging jobs, and I am sure many consumers are changing driving habits. However, this has not resulted in much other than calls for measures to lower the price gas, calls for tax-payer bailouts of starving corporations, and pressure from unions to preserve jobs.

It's the same story with the current financial crisis. The discussion I've heard and read so far revolves around our memories of past experience and whether we should return to a Keynesian economy or not. In reality, the neoliberals are still in charge and even though their model of economic globalisation has just been torpedoed and the bulkheads are collapsing, they will likely still try to keep the old ship afloat.

We do not, at an institutional level, attempt to envision solutions which deviate too far from post-WW2/post-Keynesian model. While there is opportunity in this crisis to reorganise ourselves in a much more sustainable fashion, I am not convinced we will attempt to do so until we're gulping seawater.

Today, the immediacy of the global financial crisis trumps the long-term resource and climate problems in terms of direct impact on our lives. If the predictions of some are true, and we do enter a global depression, things will become very difficult for all of us. Much will be determined by the actions of macro institutions such as government and markets. However, if this results in depression horrors like massive jobloss and inflation, it will have profound effects on individual lives and the big picture stuff will cease to have immediate relevance.

Now, I think, is the time to start thinking about what steps we as individuals, families and communities, might take to adapt to a new way of living. The big picture stuff will describe the machinations of the changes taking place, but this will not guarantee a benefit to you. The next posts in this series will explore a bit of what you can do. I will not say "do this and that and you'll be fine", but I can suggest ways of looking things that might be helpful.

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