Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Furcations: time to contemplate unemployment

If you haven’t heard this “word” yet, you soon will. It’s the latest in a string of ridiculous terms cranked out by spin machines to convince wage earners to resume spending despite their defunct 401Ks and pink slips.

While I expect travel companies to try to stay afloat by wooing furloughed and jobless clients into spending their dwindling savings on furcations, and bars and restaurants have every reason to try to save themselves by recasting happy hours as "furlough Fridays”, the unemployed or nearly unemployed must resist the temptation to fool themselves.

As my father often says, “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken sh _ _.” A furcation is only the next best thing to getting fired and the economy is still one step away from careening into an abyss. If only the pundits, Mr. Bernanke, Mr. Geithner and others with access to the airwaves would acknowledge this, the nation just might begin discussing alternatives that don’t involve sustaining the unsustainable economy we have concocted over the past 30 years.

So, let’s forgo the furcations until such time that they are called vacations again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Low-tech tomorrow

The convergence of the global financial meltdown, climate change, Peak Oil, and myriad other challenges raises serious concerns about the viability of civilization in its current form. It is likely that the next decade will be at least as volatile as the present one, which has been marked by unprecedented disasters, including the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the presently unfolding economic catastrophe, which can only be compared with the decade-long Great Depression. Already, trillions have been erased from retirement accounts, millions of homes are in foreclosure, and the national unemployment rate will almost certainly reach double digits by year’s end[1].

As if this were not bad enough, many economists believe we are in the midst of a vast transformation of the economy that will render many of government’s traditional coping mechanisms inadequate. In the recessions since the Great Depression, before jobs lost from dying industries could be replaced with jobs being created by emerging ones, the government reacted by issuing unemployment insurance checks to buy time until economic growth resumed. But with job losses so vast over such a short period of time – roughly six million since the recession began in December 2007[2] – this may not suffice, particularly when manufacturers and financial services firms are eliminating whole sectors of their businesses and closing down operations altogether.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C, said, “These jobs aren’t coming back.... A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations.”[3]

It is important not to forget that this economic turmoil comes on the heels of international energy and food crises that greatly stressed the pocketbooks of low and middle income wage earners in the U.S. and around the world. And, while oil and gas prices have declined precipitously sense their record highs last summer, it is likely that we are only enjoying a brief reprieve; because of the Peak Oil phenomena and supply threats from Islamic fundamentalist regimes and terrorist groups, prices for these precious commodities are almost certain to rise considerably in the years ahead. During a recession or depression, $100-per-barrel would almost certainly make the current American way of life untenable for a large percentage of the population, which will suddenly find it must live much more locally again.[4]

The shock of shifting from an urban/suburban existence where the average head of lettuce travels more than 3,000 miles to reach our plates, to a local one where people must once again produce at least a portion of their own food, will stress most communities to the breaking point or beyond. Add to this the likelihood of increased climate variability due to climate change[5], and we have a recipe for hungry times; countless studies show that climate change will increase the variability of rainfall, commonly leading to fewer, more severe events, thereby increasing risks to agriculture. While no definitive connection can be drawn as of yet, the three-year drought in the Southeast appears to be evidence of this. It is worth mentioning that if crops begin to fail and droughts carry on for years, the resource wars that began with oil will expand to include fresh water. Already many nations are positioning themselves to control freshwater resources in anticipation of reduced supplies in the near future.

In this context, it is imperative that we fundamentally rebuild many aspects of our cities, towns and even many rural areas. Individuals, neighborhoods, federal, state and local governments must place greater emphasis on re-learning practical skills, such as permaculture/sustainable farming, small livestock husbandry, natural building with locally available materials and rainwater harvesting, that will allow people to make positive contributions to their communities while establishing the foundation of a new local economy.

Finally, while there is no doubt that the current crisis is hurting many millions of Americans, it is also clear that it presents us with an opportunity to re-imagine our collective future and rebuild it in a way that not only puts people back to work, but that enhances our communities and makes them more resilient to whatever else the future may hold. The goal of this blog is to raise awareness about critical but poorly publicized issues, and to facilitate the transition to a sustainable tomorrow by highlighting examples of communities, companies and individuals that are leading the way....

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[1] At the time of writing, four states already have unemployment rates of over 10%: California (10.1%), Michigan (11.6%), Rhode Island (10.3%), and South Carolina (10.4%). Unfortunately, at 9.7%, North Carolina seems bound to join them soon.
[2] Employment Situation Summary, Friday, May 8, 2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
[3] “Job Losses Hint at Vast Remaking of Economy”, New York Times, March 7, 2009.
[4] Worse yet, there is ample evidence that without a cheap supply of oil, which is fundamental to agriculture production and the transportation of crops and food stuff to markets, the Earth will be unable to sustain its current population of 6.5 billion. Even if it largely plays out abroad, the chaos resulting from widespread famine will negatively impact the U.S. in many ways.
[5] Fourteen states experienced a severe drought from 1930 to 1936 (and 1940 in some places), which obviously exacerbated, and probably prolonged, the suffering of the Great Depression.