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As it winds from President Obama’s desk out through the bureaucratic hinterlands and into anxiously waiting state capitals, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act carries the spores, seeds and eggs for our next growth cycle. One hundred billion in emergency aid for education elicited grandstanding against the stimulus from the same folks who voted to spend eight billion per month in Iraq; had we allocated that trillion dollars for green energy seven years ago, we’d have it by now. The point is, whether using a stimulus bill or a war, we are building the future. Will it be sustainable? How would we know?

Decisions today are all about opportunity costs tomorrow. Ours is an economy disconnected from its resource base. Isolated suburbs have stretched our society thin at its weakest points – an existence in which we are stranded each night, far from work, school and shopping, and connected only by an imported commodity. So, what keeps it all going, then? The U.S. has become a service economy; the dearth of shovel-ready projects for the stimulus only underscores the fact that we build few things anyone wants anymore. This, too, however, will change.

The global economy of which everyone has been so enamored over the last decade is premised on there being a next scale. So, evidently talks are already underway to begin colonization of the tropopause, setting the stage for literal, stratospheric expansion. The only way economies can grow is by adding property and resources, so other than being faith-based, when we talk about things getting back to normal, that global-scale investor-oriented hustle should not be the goal. The stock market has revealed itself as a belief system that cannot work unless suspension of disbelief (“too big to fail,” a “self-regulating market”) is mandatory and confirmed.

We’re left with little choice but to downsize, which will be difficult, as we refit old paradigms with new constraints. Except that the constraints are not new. Is it a contradiction to grow down? People have been writing on this and being ignored for the better part of 30 years. Howard and Elisabeth Odum’s book A Prosperous Way Down discusses the dilemma for human society in the context of ecosystems: people will adapt because of foresight or by the force of declining resources. 

Meanwhile, as we debate the wisdom of the former, the fires of our Rome have been set as the fiddlers tune up. A colleague joked that if we could print energy, there might be a way out of this. But I think he may be onto something. With scale and re-localized systems in mind, we must begin to assemble basic elements like iron, carbon and silicon into things people want. When we figure out (again) how to capture energy and grow food on a reasonable scale, then we can set about plowing under the business schools and seeding them with Socratic paradoxes and mysticism. 

As for now, the popular uprising behind greener, more regional economies remains a marketing idea, snug in its gesture phase. We may prefer this because anything else might otherwise seem like panic, which no one really wants.

Perhaps this fear of panic is holding back the phenomenon from becoming the full-blown existential crisis that it threatens, from which its hopes actually arise if the full scenario is to make any sense whatsoever. Economic depression and related climate cataclysms might be enough to sober some, but again, our capacity for self-reassurance permits us to move on. There is a dissonance about conditions being severe enough to act, though not just yet. 

We have been here before, however, and in the heights of the Cold War we were also able to foster that remove from ever-encroaching oblivion. It didn’t prevent us from lining up for nuclear bomb drills in school, but we went on making long term plans just the same, maybe factoring in the odds of annihilation, maybe not, but living with the specter all the same. Maybe we just haven’t gotten comfortable with the idea of resource scarcity yet; I even have trouble writing about it because everything sounds like such doom-saying when all we’re really talking about are big, big changes.

I’ve always loved how Albert Camus explained that Communism was a sickness, a system predicated on the elimination of absurdity in our daily lives. He knew that wasn’t possible, and in so many ways, we’ve returned there, struggling to explain and justify some of the absurdities we’ve been living with and on. We can change what we call them, tweak the edges and continue to tell ourselves certain things. But many of the fundamental ingredients to the way we live can’t just be explained away. They are there. And we simply must change them, or they will change us.


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