Weathering the Storm, Then Changing Course
| September 25, 2008
An economic storm is descending, and for many, the storm will be bad. While the Bush Administration and Congress wrestle with how to bail out Wall Street, and argue about how softly CEOs of failed financial institutions should be allowed to land, average citizens must leap into the new reality without benefit of 24-karat parachutes.
Certainly, there isn’t any golden or even silver lining to losing your job, your savings, your home. But for those of us not hit with catastrophic losses, an economic downturn might force us into painful, but ultimately useful, adjustments to our priorities. Should we be fortunate enough to hold onto both nest and nest egg though the storm, we might eventually come out the other side with clearer skies and a clear sense of what’s important.
Our economy in recent decades has been propped up by an alarming degree by profligate consumer spending and wasting of resources prompted by an avaricious credit industry. Even before the crisis, it was obvious that the traditional American Dream of comfort and security had been displaced by a “more is better” focus that promotes not quality of life, but rather the unbridled production and consumption of stuff. There was never any chance that could continue indefinitely.
Recently, the Global Footprint Network issued a report stating that by September 23rd this week, humanity had consumed all the new resources the planet will produce for the year. For the rest of 2008, we are in the ecological equivalent of deficit spending, drawing down our resource stocks—in essence, borrowing from the future. Sound familiar? We can’t hope to keep to our economic budget if we can’t keep to our ecological budget.
Some years ago—just as the Bush Administration was settling into office and, as it has turned out, contemplating how best to thwart any meaningful efforts to address climate change—my organization, New American Dream, commissioned two globe-trotting amateur videographers to document how American consumer demands affected the lives of people in parts of the globe American consumers are unlikely ever to see. The short films came back to us filled with images of environmental and social ills stemming in large part from a global trade system designed to shield end consumers from seeing the true consequences of consumer choices.
The filmmakers visited coffee farmers, banana pickers, and lobster divers. Factory workers in so-called “free trade zones” told stories of how free trade wasn’t working out so well for them. Along the coasts of Central and South America, shrimp pens displaced local fishing communities and obliterated natural mangrove forests. In the Amazon, logging trucks rumbled through roads carved into formerly pristine rainforests.
Several of the films touched also on U.S. energy policy—specifically, how our thirst for oil affects local communities both in places where oil is extracted and places where greenhouse gas emissions contribute to altering the local climate. In Ecuador, the filmmakers met indigenous Huaorani people whose health and way of life have been severely compromised by oil drilling on their lands. In sub-Saharan Africa, they documented what happens to once-thriving farming communities when the rain doesn’t fall.
Those films addressing climate change most clearly highlighted the special burden faced by women. One video showed women and girls making 5 to 10 kilometer treks to gather firewood for use as cooking fuel. It showed how, during the dry months, women arose at four in the morning to wait in long lines around depleted community wells for basins of sandy water. Water rationing was so intense during those times that most clothes washing is suspended until the first rainfall.
The “more is better” version of the American dream is unsustainable environmentally, fueling a level of resource consumption that the planet cannot keep up with. It is personally unsustainable, drawing American families into a work-and-spend treadmill that depletes savings and clutters lives. And now we see it is unsustainable economically, as well.
Whatever economy emerges from this crisis will need to put less emphasis on “more” stuff and greater emphasis on more of what matters—like healthy communities, a healthy planet and a higher quality of life. In righting the economic ship, the end game shouldn’t be to plug up a broken vessel, but to move to something more seaworthy—one that sails within both personal and ecological limits.