The economic news always leaves me struggling with emotional responses pulling in opposing directions. Many of the human beings living in the same country as me – my fellow citizens – are experiencing a significant disruption of their expectations. There is a great desire on the part of both those disrupted and those politically dependent on the them for “things to return to normal” or, to follow the Pollyannaish nature of politicians, “better than normal.” But normal doesn’t really mean actual normal, it often includes a serious bit of the wishful; what can be called TV normal, you know, a Range Rover and a restored vintage muscle car in every driveway – and a Gucci chicken in every piece of titanium cookware.
I have sympathy for the fears and dreads of my fellow citizens, but little for the detail of their aspirations and none for the unsocial actions that they are willing to take to make their expectations real.
One of the coded messages presented in many different forms especially by the Republicans translates into screwing over the other guy so that you can keep what you have– coded messages are especially a Republican thing since if their true agenda were honestly explained, they would get only about 5 to 10 percent of any election. Why anyone would believe such messages is unclear to me since when someone tells me something like that, I am quite confident that I am the one that they have in mind to screw over; but shortsighted greed has fueled con games for thousands of years. The whole ‘big government’ meme is a con to empower big business – when was the last time you had any say in the leadership of Bank of America – and to disenfranchise and disempower the working classes.
So here is middle class Joe Normal American; he wants a regular life (he learned to think this way from politicians!) and by ‘regular life’ he means having the goods and services associated with the top 20% of income (beginning at about $90,000 in 2005). He just wants to be like everybody else only a little better off: 4 thousand square feet of house (“everyone has 3 thousand!”), a little bigger SUV, a boat and jet skis and so on. He is told that this is both normal (that is his middle name) and “good for the country.” Both are also lies.
And here is the rub: what is recognized as good for Joe depends a great deal on Joe’s expectations and beliefs; what is good for the country, and by extension also good for Joe, must be evaluated by much broader and substantive standards.
Joe cannot be expected, nor should he expect of himself, to either fully understand or to fully respond to the major forces of the biophysical space, but he should be expected to know that such forces exist and are essential in how we, as inhabitants of a region, nation and planet, act in the world.
Such a recognition implies restraint and so is anathema to the greedy way of life. It is the ‘party of greed’s’ argument that Joe only needs to consider his own wishes, that by fully committing to self-aggrandizement he will be supporting the economic growth that will bring all good things to all people… unless, of course, he is materially poor, in which case he is to have no opinion or desire other than to bow to the wants and needs of his betters; restraint is essential for those who are not recipients of the invisible hand of greed.
But what is good for the country? Are we only to mean by that question the economic elite? Can we mean all of the nation’s people? Are we to include the biophysical structures and systems that support and sustain all of life? Is it other than shortsighted madness to leave out the people and the ecology from the question?
The last question above is, of course, rhetorical. Failing to consider all of the relevant and substantive sources of influence on us is something we train our children against, and a sign that a person is losing the compos of their mentis. So, by ‘what is good for the country?’ we must mean to include all of the people and the biophysical forms and functions of the physical space. This should be so obvious as to need no comment, but I fear it may not be and will add that the damage and destruction of the systems that sustain biological life, not the economic health of Goldman Sachs or Halliburton, ultimately determine the quality and possibility of human life. That which is good for the biosphere is finally what is good for the country.
Seen in this way, there are some changes that need to be made. In broad strokes: economic growth as currently configured would have to end; population would have to be reduced; total human consumption of earth’s productive capacity would have to be cut in half and then half again; the expectations and beliefs associated with a good human life would have to dramatically change. If a typical poorly informed manipulating-message repeater were to say, “you are trying to change our way of life,” they would be correct (if Joe Normal American only realized: ‘Our way of life’ is elite code for, “I am happy having incalculable power and wealth and have no intention of giving them up even if all of life on earth has to suffer.”).
If meaningful changes were to be made, how would Joe have to live? What would his life be like? First let us understand it is only consumption by the many that creates the wealth of the few, the more consumption the more wealth. All the immediate social drivers are for more rather than less use of the earth’s productivity. So even if Joe were to realize that he needed to use less,there would be great forces at work to get him to use more.
This would be the first condition of his life; confusion, pressure and the resulting anger. The physical conditions would not necessarily be ameliorative. No 4000 square foot houses, more like 400 sq. ft. for 2 or 3 people. No boats, ATVs, SUVs, more like bicycles and public transportation; most people would travel long distances rarely. Joe would need to grow some of his own food and would, therefore, have to learn the skills of gardening and animal husbandry. Most people would eventually live in villages of no more than a few hundred, these grouped into super-villages totaling a few thousand and these grouped into townships of several tens of thousands.
There would be a good bit of collective functioning as a way to reduce the consumption of major capital goods. This should not be an especially foreign idea since we do this now with things like libraries on the public side and factories on the private side. There would be a shifting of personal goals away from private consumption of material goods as a way to maximize the human experience (He who dies with the most toys wins) to maximizing the human experience with as few material goods as possible (getting the most pleasure and fulfillment from using as little of the earth’s productivity as possible). This is the ‘way of life’ of all other species, and is driven by natural biological incentives; we would need to reintroduce the incentives that result is sustaining adaptations.
Joe would be very very unhappy if he continued to believe, and if the society around him believed, that excess was the way to success. If Joe didn’t want to grow food; if he wanted to go where he wanted when he wanted by any means he wanted; if he continued to believe that his behavior was only his and no one else’s business, that he owed no compensation to the air to breathe it, to the wood in his chair or clothes on his back other than to pay the store a money price; then Joe would be a very unhappy camper indeed.
But if he began to discover the body pleasure of walking or biking; if he found satisfaction in preparing soil, planting seeds, protecting the growing crops, collecting and storing food for a season; if he began to realize the need and seek the methods for compensating the ecosystem that supplies him with the very conditions of life, and then find the pleasure in both the actions and connection of that compensating, then Joe could live with a fullness unavailable through excess.
And so my dilemma when I read and hear about our financial tribulations: There is a desperation to return to normal, return to a normal that is destructive of our environment, our humanity and our specieshood. Returning to normal often means today returning to the abnormal; like drug addicts, we create the new ‘normal’ of intoxication that we are driven powerfully to return to. There is the maddening fear of what is come if we have to give up our economic expectations, the big house, the hundreds of thousands ‘in the bank’ for ‘the future,’ the toys.
But what we are collectively experiencing now is only a very mild form of the changes that we will have to endure, and embrace, to get to a ‘way of life’ that will allow us to live not only on, but with, the earth and its total living process. There is anger at the elites for lying to us, for manipulating our information, for intentionally controlling our expectations. But we like today’s normal, as infantile and unhealthy as it is.
I want people to recover from their present fear, but I don’t want them to fall back into the lethargy of excess, yet that is exactly what they see as normal. The closer we are to what is called recovery, the farther we are from the path and the forces that can initiate and guide the changes essential for the human species to reconnect with the behaviors and beliefs that can let us move from now to the future without the major conflagration that certainly awaits us otherwise.
I want to yell out, “This is the future. See what you want of it. Make it work for you. Use the courage of your disrupted life to take on the elites – they are nothing without you; they know that, but will kill you to keep you from knowing it. These economic disruptions are a gift; it is only through them that the real structures of power and economic domination can be seen. Then you must act, act in defiance of the normal and in pursuit of a truly human life.”
But I am speechless. It all sounds so foolish to the modern ear when said out loud.