Thursday, June 19, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Analysis, June, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Remember that line? The Clinton for President campaign in 1992 came up with it in their victorious race against George H. W. Bush. Simple minded as it was, it seemed to have worked.

Here we are now with the largest one-day increase in oil prices in history, $10.75, and the highest closing price in history, $138.54/barrel. Also today we have reports of the highest monthly unemployment increase in 22 years and the Stock Market dropping more, 394 points, than on any other day in the last 15 months. To recast the slogan, "It's the stupid economy." Something in the economy seems to have not worked. Not only that, the whole construct makes no sense.

"How many times do I have to tell you," scolded the ecology teacher, "society's economy is based on nature's, not vice versa."

Capitalism has been based on the delusional notion that infinite growth in a limited environment is healthy, that prosperity can and should mean maximum consumption everlasting, world without end. But the world does end in the sense of having limits and ignoring that rather simple and gigantic fact could well be its end. Environmentalism is or should be - certainly ecology is without question - based on the idea of balances that get adjusted pretty quickly and severely when contradicted for long. Infinite growth in a limited environment is a clear formula for massive collapse if not suicide when growth suddenly hits the wall of finite limits.

This is not a capitalist vs. socialist issue in the slightest. Both have enshrined infinitely growing industrial production and "the people's" infinitely growing consumption as both goal and standard operating procedure. Both are - excuse me my common language for it - stupid. They are stupid economic constructs because they are based on a fantasy cooked up in the bubble of human conceit that we are better than anything else in the universe, gloriously our wonderful selves. Which isn't to say we are not in fact pretty damn wonderful, but not that wonderful! There are wonders in nature we are economically dependent upon, and that's a hard and fast rule based on minerals du jour and forever, scintillating protoplasm pulsing about us everywhere in this thin bubble of life called the biosphere and starlight, locally called sunshine, pouring down energizing everything. Ignore all that and the rules of their interrelationships at your own peril.

Our cops and firefighters are all Communists

Capitalism vs. socialism and vice versa has always been a phony issue, exploited by politicians and people hungry for influence and power in both camps. In the capitalist society, are the police, fire department, and road and street builders working on government money actually socialist infiltrators scheming to take over? Are the bureaucrats in charge of the distribution for the "common good" really enemy agents? No. Paying taxes and spending for the common good is a good idea. Period. In the Communist counties are people working for their families' savings and reinvesting in their own future while doing business producing a product or service their neighbors want - are they, when you put them under the microscope of paranoia, really capitalist plants from a malevolent alien planet called Wall Street or Wal-Mart? No. They are being responsible to their own preservation and happy survival of those they love best. Nothing wrong with that at all, plus in their exchange with others is a large element of the collective good.

But some of those who recognize the power of the competition script to heat people's blood and secure votes and other forms of political power, and who have noticed not everybody has time for fact-checking, that is, can be rather easily lied too, have exploited the competitive half of the competition/cooperation balance. Never mind if they claimed to be cooperative and sharing in some ultimate sense, as did the Soviet Communists. The weakness of the species, especially the males of the species, for proving themselves as individuals in sports, games, business, and fighting has been exploited and societies' investments in these activities, self-named capitalist and socialist societies alike, make investments in coming to know and work with the natural economy look miniscule indeed. The competition script, like that of the Star Wars movies, is that war and violence, the ultimate expression of extreme competition, permeates the entire universe and all time... "in a distant galaxy long, long ago."

Well competition probably does permeate the universe, but if so, so does cooperation. Where competition comes to its ultimate expressions as war and murder, for whatever excuse political or personal, some of us - take Christ, Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. for example - say that there really is another dimension to the whole picture. Said Gandhi, "Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of Mankind. It is the supreme law. By it alone can Mankind be saved." Without claiming - it would be a false claim in any case - that it is cooperation, sharing and friendly hugs that is our real natural character as human beings, we could still work peacefully with a dynamic balance of competition and cooperation together, as nature works.

Buy high, sell low - and what is actually needed

Right now, due to high fuel prices after civilization built up a massively large physical infrastructure of cities and machines and population of people who see themselves more as consumers than producers or even creators, we are seeing whole countries approaching bankruptcy. They have been buying oil products, especially gasoline and diesel fuel, at ever increasing prices while setting low prices to keep the machines - and the people - humming obliviously along while debt was accumulating in a most spectacular way. Now if there was ever a third holy writ of capitalism besides it's rule of maximum growth and dogmatic antipathy toward "socialism" meaning cooperation and sharing, it is that one always buys low and sells high. The only businessman to write his business model on the formula of buy high, sell low would be dead in the water metaphorically or literally, on the sidewalk under a tall building near Wall Street, October 1929 style. Oddly, though establishment economists hoe to the line of infinite growth and denial of fundamental cooperation, they have diverted dramatically from the buy low, sell high rule when it comes to the biggest challenge of all in their world - keeping nation states stable, without which financial structures tumble in tandem. For whole nations to go bankrupt is more than a little risky for all of civilization.

What is actually needed is an honest confrontation with inordinately high human populations - get real, religions! - and building our civilization to run lean, not fat. The formulas of ecocity development are the full employment way to powerdown to a different and genuinely sane economics. How we come to understand how to do that, to invest in rails and just plan let the airlines go, to make walkable cities and just let the cars go the way of those other dinosaurs that went out with the last great extinction event, I don't know for sure. But some thoughts on the subject follow in any case.

The seers of trends, and the seers of what isn't there yet

George Herbert Leigh Mallory who maybe was the first to climb Everest, then again maybe not, said he wanted to climb the mountain "because it is there." Creative types, in a kind of reverse version of the same impulse want to make something "because it is not there." This is an interesting way to look at views of the future and the possibilities for the economy changing in some substantial way, maybe even to become harmonious with natures economy. Don't expect the insights to come clear when playing video games, watching a football or scanning endlessly the stock quotes for an opening. You have to actually study nature's economy, that is, ecology. We need an "eco-economy," perhaps "ecoconomy" and have to put serious attention upon it and investment in it. See? We don't even have a word for it yet! Here's my point: you can't get there by projecting trends, even projecting them well. (This may also mean that the usual habit of well-meaning planners, politicians and bureaucrats writing projections, targets and time tables may be way off target too, but that's a longer discussion.)

I have an argument with my Peak Oil friends who believe it is hopeless to change the way we build cities because it is a big, ponderous proposition that takes time and it is already too late to start out on that path. We just don't literally have enough energy left and too much ignorance of the overall picture to hope we can alert, educate and launch serious investment and leadership for a "Plan B," in Lester Browns terms, to avert the catastrophe and reshape virtually everything via reshaping cities. I do not argue that it is not in fact late in the game. I even think, given the record of society's blindness and a willingness to ignore crucial issues until too late, doom prognosticators are very likely right in their assessment. To date, the economy has proven to be stupid. The Peak Oil alarmists (we need the wake up call to get started - so this is not an insulting term here) are the seers of the future via projecting the trends and definitely not in the same base camp with Mallory and the creatives who know how to dream what hasn't been done before and do it, who know they can build something that isn't there.

A funny little story. Before I was swept away by the sense or responsibility I got when I really "got it" about the importance of ecological cities in the early 1970s, not long after meeting Paolo Soleri, I was making sculpture. Not just any sculpture but for the sense of touch. I loved exploring the unknown in my own little store front in Venice, California. My sculpture for the sense of touch involved work with steel welding, carving stone and wood, upholstering with foam rubber and fur, velvet and silk, and installing all kinds of machines for making heat and cold, moisture and dryness, vibration and dead calm, air flow and fog clouds - and all this integral to the form and texture normal sculpture exhibits. I was at a party one night and when someone asked me, "What do you do," I said just that. He said, "You can't do that!" I replied, "Not only can I do that, that's exactly what I do. I do it every day. I'm a tactile artist." The guy insistently denied anyone could be doing that. He had never heard of such a thing. Even after I described a number of such sculpture pieces I had built he still maintained that he didn't believe me, it couldn't be done.

Some people like myself live as much in the future as in the past and present. Some of us are clear sighted trend projectors like Richard Heinberg, author of "Peak Oil" books. Jan Lundberg, my friend who used to be a major petroleum industry analyst is now a doomsday predictor waiting for a time after the economic collapse and die off. Then maybe we will have learned something, by God!, and will have a chance at reorganization of society. He believes it is impossible to reorganize before the collapse of civilization. Then we'll be sorry. Then we will finally be ready to come up with a better script for humanity. By following and projecting the trends, even with the best understanding of how things are going wrong, you do see a pretty bleak future for humanity. You see it in the collapse of the airlines taking place right before our eyes right now. You see it in food prices going through the ceiling while a UN conference on the subject in Rome, this same week of record oil price advance and highest value ever per barrel, proclaims that this is the year when one billion people are at risk of extreme hunger or even starvation because farmers can't pay enough to keep their tractors going, buy fertilizer and insecticides and all those other miracles of the Green Revolution that pumped our population up so gloriously and gluttonously.

But those are the perspectives of that kind of seer that sees what's been happening and projects it forward, maybe with real clarity and skill, within those limits. The kind of seer that is seeking to build what isn't there, is another animal entirely, which is where ecocity design comes in. When speaking to audiences around the world about ecocities, after showing many drawings and describing a future that looks pretty exciting and healthy to me and most of the other people in the room, I usually get the question, "But don't the negative forces and trends you talk about mean we really can't build an ecocity civilization?"

The fire hose of the money we still have left

I usually say something like this: There is a powerful fountain of money shooting like a powerful stream of water through a hose and we hold the nozzle in our hands. We currently are aiming that fire hose of money at road building, sprawl development, efforts to create more cheap energy, all of which are obviously in a rapidly growing crisis. The developers, business people, unions and just plain folks who bought into it all - the city structure that isn't working, the cars that express who we are supposed to be, the mind set of consuming, the heart set of desire for more of the same - don't have to keep building the same thing. Instead of trying to make the anachronistic car that kills so many of us outright run even more dangerously silent on dreams of cheap electricity, why not just admit solar electricity is going to be more expensive? We can run trains and streetcars on it. Cities can be designed to run on one tenth the energy they now demand if built for people instead of cars. Why not aim that hose of money pouring forth at billions per second toward retooling and retraining for building a lean and healthy, instead of fat and collapsing economy that recognizes that limits exist, cooperation exists, balances can be struck, and new things really can come into existence that are better than current habits that oh so definitely are not working. Before we get too close to the spectacular end, we need to begin something else that in its own right could be stunningly beautiful: the enterprise of building an ecocity civilization.

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