Saturday, September 20, 2008

Thinking about the Future

I've just read the reports of Bernanke and Paulson's talk to the US congress (h/t CC and Red) and thought maybe it's time to revisit something I've meant to post on for a while.

Virtually no-one is predicting a coherent and painless way out of the current financial mess. It hasn't impacted the vast majority of Canadians yet, but if it gets as bad as some predict, it most definitely will and in ways few now have experienced. While the worst would mean validation of more than a few theses on the sustainability of capitalism, it also means a lot of real suffering for the indefinite future as economic collapse means massive jobloss and insecurity.

I don't think we can predict with any certainty how things will go, we may as yet ride this out in a relatively harmless terms but I wouldn't bet on things one way or the other. The question we need to start asking ourselves NOW, is how we're going to manage should things really go pear-shaped.

We can start by asking ourselves how exposed each of us is. Things like:
  • What happens if I lose my job?
  • How long can I go before I need help?
From these questions come others such as:

  • Do I own my home?
  • Do I have friends or family that can turn to?
  • Who can I network with?
  • What other skills and resources do I have that might be useful (eg. do I have space for others in my home? can I grow or preserve food?)
  • What abilities am I lacking? Who do I know that can provide these?
From there we can start talking to friends, family, and neighbours about scenarios and resources that we can share. This is where the entrepreneurial and creative types are valuable as out of the box thinkers can find solutions to problems that escape most of us.

Academics have been studying community responses to change (an active interest of mine) for and the critical features that emerge in situations where people have adapted and overcome their problems are high levels of positive social capital and the ability to mobilise resources (if you google terms such as "social capital", "resource mobilisation", and "collective action", you'll find a host of information). In lay terms, this means strong community and being able to find novel ways of solving problems are the way to go. Contrary to myth, running to the hills with a .30-06 and crates of baked beans will only leave you alone and fart-ridden.

Don't assume government won't be able to help, but don't assume they will either. For example, I was involved in the military efforts during the 1998 Ice Storm. The people who were worst off went reclusive and paranoid and failed to seek help or talk to their neighbours, or just figured the government would sort it out quickly and so failed to seek help or talked to their neighbours. While an economic depression scenario provokes different challenges, it still takes a significant amount of time for a large institution like government to implement rescue measures. The Great Depression lasted years, and some of the government response included unpleasantness like labour camps.

The key thing in all this is putting yourself in the sort of headspace where you can think about this stuff without panicking. It is scary and daunting, for sure, but that doesn't mean that it is not survivable. In wilderness survival training (I did a month long course in the Yukon as a teen), you are taught not assume rescue will come, and therefore you settle in as though you'll be there for indefinitely. A depression is different only in context; the principle is the same.

So, in the meantime, it might be worthwhile to start talking to friends, neighbours and family about this stuff. Host a potluck and discuss it. Read books and articles on similar things. I have some stylistic reservations about JH Kunstler but his books "The Long Emergency" and "World Made by Hand" are good in that they explore a economically poorer future and the sorts of changes in lifestyle it might entail, thereby giving you a starting point in your thinking.

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