The False US Economy Versus Nature’s Expansion-Contraction Cycle

While tending berry vines on my small farm this fall and winter, I’ve observed the sharp decline of the US’s artificial economy. Nature has a seasonal cycle of expansion and contraction. Now contracting, the US’s manufactured economy has been built on a growth-always fiction.

My main work for the last fifteen years has been on the organic Kokopelli Farm in Northern California. Watching the US economy descend, while caring for boysenberry vines, apple trees, and chickens, I’ve noticed a sharp contrast between nature’s ways of a real economy and the US’s false economy. Nature guides my farming, with permaculture being one system that I employ.

The US economy, unfortunately, is not nature-based. In fact, it conflicts harshly with nature’s rhythms and is now paying the price. The chickens are coming home to roost, unhappy with the all-growth pressure, wanting to take a break and rest.

“Things change,” the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared some 2500 years ago. They go up; they come back down. The US has had its ups; it’s now on a down cycle. Pump, pump, pump go the corporations, their media and governments, trying to inflate it back up. I don’t think so. The well is running dry.

Even a military budget larger than those of all the other nations in the world combined cannot protect our fortress. We are besieged, but more internally by our threatening practices than by terrorists or anything external.

Oh, our rulers may stimulate it back up a little, for a while. Throwing money at something can have a short-term impact. But it will come back down, and may all fall down. Gravity is a basic law of physics. Things go up, then they come back down, sooner or eventually. Sometimes it feels like a crash, unless one is aware of the inevitable downturn. Once things fall apart, they can re-assemble, often in an improved form.

All things carry their opposites, Heraclitus taught. Death is inherent to life. Transitions and impermanence prevail. This is not bad news; it just is. Birth/growth/contraction/death is nature’s way. All living things follow this natural cycle. Everything that lives perishes.

The growth-based US economy is contracting. Media economists are alarmed, even panicky. They describe this as a “recession” and wring their hands with woe. They should have expected this downturn and we should accept it. Lets see what will happen. Maybe the Earth will benefit from the declining US economy? Perhaps its pollution and other threats to the global climate and environment will lessen?

There are too many variables to accurately predict what will happen, or when. But I am planning for a radically different future. It is time to “powerdown,” to use the word that Richard Heinberg employs in the title of one of his books on Peak Oil. We should expect some chaos. The manufactured US economy is failing.

President Bush has proposed yet another “growth package” of $145 billion to boost the flagging economy by giving each taxpayer up to $800 each. Supported by many Democrats, the plan is to spend our way out of this mess. Go shopping. What a fantasy. This may worsen things, digging the hole deeper, rather than stepping out of it.

The government’s so-called “economic stimulus” is a false solution, attempting to further prop up the false economy. Giving people more money to spend — many of whom are already spending beyond their means — will not solve what is becoming our most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Trying to avoid the economic fall seems futile. A better approach would be to roll with the punches and figure out how to even thrive during this transition from a no longer to a not yet. Those who do can even benefit from the changing reality.

The US economy has expanded for the last seven years. It’s time to contract, in spite of the wailing of economists. Economic growth slowed to barely 1% in the final three months of 2007 — a big drop from 4.9% in the third quarter. Growth may now be dipping into negative territory, according to a Jan. 17 Associated Press article.

Mainstream economists do not want to publicly utter words like “depression” or “collapse,” which may happen, if the contraction deepens. This will bring great changes, including inconveniences and difficulties. But that is inevitable, as opposed to bad.

As the US goes down, it can be a time for others to be up in the sun. A gracious fall is better than a bitter, ballistic, hostile one. The flexibility of bamboo would be a better model for our fall than rigid, fossilized bones likely to break and shatter. Then we may come back up, though hopefully in a different, more mature way.

The indigenous University of Hawai’i at Hilo professor Manu Meyer, who hails from an ancient culture, describes the US as “adolescent.” Since setbacks often help a person mature, perhaps this economic fall will help the US evolve.

Reinventing Collapse titles a provocative book by Dmitry Orlov, a Russian living in the US, scheduled by New Society Publishers to appear in April. He compares the evolving US collapse to that of the Soviet Union. Parts of this new book have been posted at and elsewhere. The book’s final three chapters are “Collapse Mitigation,” “Adaptation,” and “Career Opportunities.” Orlov draws on his experiences observing the Soviet collapse to help people manage what might happen here in the only remaining superpower.

Now let me root this analysis in two quite different sources: the farming author Wendell Berry and the humorous gardener Chance, played by Peter Sellers in the classic 1979 film “Being There.”

For over 50 years now Berry has been publishing farm-based essays, poetry, and fiction. Since at least his 1977 book The Unsettling of America, published by the Sierra Club, he has been writing about the US economy. His field-based analysis is outside the box — based on farm-fresh wisdom rather than merely book learning or crunching numbers.

“The human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature,” Berry writes in his essay “The Total Economy.” Humans tend to look to nature as “merely a supply of ‘raw materials,’” Berry bemoans. The results are what he describes as “economic oversimplification” and “the folly” of a “foolish economy.” We fail to see the larger picture that one can sometimes see when they lift their eyes up from working in a field to see the sky and clouds above, as well as the expanse between the ground and our majestic blue covering.

“The global economy,” Berry asserts, “is based upon cheap long-distance transportation, without which it is not possible to move goods from the point of cheapest origin to the point of highest sale.” Now that the price for crude oil has surpassed the $100 a barrel ceiling, we are becoming increasingly aware of the decline of cheap oil and the rising price of this black gold that fuels industrialism’s food, plastics, transportation, war-making, and much of modern life.

We need what Berry describes as a “real economy,” rather than this house of cards (the cover of Heinberg’s new Peak Everything book) under which we live. Berry suggests that we work “to preserve things other than money” and advances “the idea of a local economy” based on “neighborhood and subsistence.”

“Did you see that old Peter Sellers film ‘Being There?’” a farm hand recently asked while we lay wool around the base of berry vines as mulch to suppress the weeds and stimulate activity in the soil. While working with our hands Jeff Snook and I had been talking about the litany of economic woes for banks, housing, the dollar, unemployment, retail sales, consumer confidence, etc.

Farmers sometimes talk about such things in fields and elsewhere. My Uncle Dale on his farm in Iowa in the early l950s, before electricity had reached parts of the rural Mid-West, used to talk about the economy. Since I have already lived without electricity — we had an icebox, root cellar, and gaslights — I can imagine doing it again. Instead of TV, we had night-time stories and day-time farm animals to entertain us. It was a good life, even without all the modern conveniences, some of which we may soon have to do without as we powerdown and make a forced transition with less available energy.

Many signs of contraction were visible as Jeff and I recently worked — leaves falling from nearby valley oaks, boysenberry vines shriveling, and beautiful chickens taking their annual break from egg-laying. These things are predictable and happen every year. I plan my yearly cycle accordingly, as do the wise birds and squirrels, putting acorns away.

“Chance in “Being There” is a simple-minded gardener who observed nature’s cycles and acted accordingly,” Jeff noted. “He knew that things should be planted in the spring and will then grow and die — a basic, natural rhythm.”

A fictional US president in the film comes to visit a financial advisor and meets Chance. The president is proposing a temporary economic growth plan. “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well in the garden,” Chance responds. “Some things must whither,” he adds. The “president” wisely takes Chance’s simple advice, which our current real president is unlikely to do. He accepts the seasonal, Earth-based wisdom, realizing that a long-term solution is needed, rather than a band-aid.

Our economy, in fact, has been “severed” from its “roots,” the Earth itself. We need a down-to-the-Earth approach to the economy, rather than the sugar pill “economic growth stimulus” that Bush is proposing with his tax break.

We need to get back to basics in the US. Our expectations of being permanently on top, always in control, forever the dominating ruler and evermore the superpower have been excessive. We need to do more than try to shore up a failing economy that requires so much war-making and destruction to keep it growing artificially, at the expense of the environment and other humans, animals, plants, and the elements such as clean water and air that sustain life. We need to accept the natural limits to growth.

Less than 2% of US citizens now farm. This number must increase, if we are to survive. Farming can be fun and educational, as well as put food on our tables and build communities. Agriculture, after all, is a basis of culture. May ours continue to prosper, but not by being based on a false, foolish economy, like the one that is now falling. R.I.P.

We need to re-align the US economy more around nature’s economy.

Shepherd Bliss ( is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. greybeard said on January 21st, 2008 at 1:05pm #

    Well said!! The adolescent American electorate will scream however, when deprived of their i-Pods, cell phones, and plastic bags. Who will do the vast re-educational project necessary to re-align expectations with Reality?

  2. Don Hawkins said on January 21st, 2008 at 4:13pm #

    These cold temperatures in Russia and snow in Baghdad etc. What do you think.

    I sent that e-mail to one of the best people in the World on climate his answer.

    Weather is NOT climate. The natural variability between seasons at a site is typically larger than the global warming that has happened so far, so that while many more record highs than lows are being set, record lows do occasionally happen still. The 1 degree or so of global warming is scientifically unequivocal but still not highly evident unless you’re paying attention; the changes coming under business as usual are much bigger, and will be evident to everyone.

    And who will do the vast re-educational project necessary to re-align expectations with Reality? The Earth

  3. Dbob said on January 21st, 2008 at 6:08pm #

    sooner or later there will not be fuel required to sustain growth. the real discussion should be “How do we survive the landing?”
    “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. ” – Kenneth Boulding

  4. Cawdor said on January 21st, 2008 at 8:50pm #

    Natural cycle of economics = the free market

    The socialization of the economy by the Federal Government and the unregulated, unaudited, and illegal Federal Reserve has caused 2 bubbles in 10 years …… This artificial management of the economy must cease

    The free market is natural in that competition withers out the weak and creates new niches for new businesses to be created and so forth.

    This socialization which prevents businesses to fail when they need to stifles innovation, motivation , competition, and profitability.

    We cannot keep propping an economy that will not let the bloated auto manufacturers, airlines, financial service providers fail.

    They get more money from subsidies our tax dollars provide then the profits of actually managing a business.

    The removal of government interference is like removing a strangling weed off the tree of the free market

    This will allow that tree to grow and to let the cycle of failure, and rebirth to begin again.

    Things come and go but there has always been a need for a market to provide the best product at the lowest prices.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on January 23rd, 2008 at 4:40am #

    What a euphonious appellation Shepherd! Bliss, the very nearly most divine word in the English language. How nice to hear you utilise permaculture, Australia’s greatest ever gift to humanity (after Don Bradman) created by that lovable scalliwag and righteous curmudgeon Bill Mollison. My garden is dying, as this neck of the woods dries out. It seems the tropics are expanding, driving warm water further south, which is pushing our rain bearing westerly changes to the south of the continent. Such a shame. The great red-gums are dropping branches and many are dying. The change is not, alas, temporary. This is not the eternal rhythm of the seasons, nor even the recurring ebb and flow of ice ages. This is human stupidity and hubris, bringing a dreadful Nemesis. It will, so I read, take hundreds of millenia, if not longer, to reverse the damage of a couple of hundred years. We are forcing the sixth mass extinction, possibly including ourselves, on the rest of creation. How sad your sage reflections are followed by Cawdor’s Market Fundamentalist lunacy. Forgive me Cawdor, but arguing that we should ‘leave it to the Market’ ,in our current predicament, is rather like putting Dracula in charge of the bloodbank while there is a shortage of blood. The Market knows only one language, that of gain, and only one modus operandi, continual, carcinogenic,metastatic growth, which as we all know, equates to certain death on a finite planet.

  6. Don Hawkins said on January 23rd, 2008 at 6:00am #

    Mulga thank you. A perfect example of leave it to the market is what is happening now. Hard choices, no fools gold. In Washington the policy makers are now working together to save the economy. The thing they can’t face is the hard choices needed to slow climate change and work together on that one. Why well maybe it’s to big. Bigger than them.

  7. George Kinde said on January 23rd, 2008 at 7:27am #

    Greybeard said, “Who will do the vast re-educational project necessary to re-align expectations with Reality?”

    Don Hawkins responded with, ” And who will do the vast re-educational project necessary to re-align expectations with Reality? The Earth”

    I must agree that Mother Earth (or Mother Nature) is a great teacher. However, she can take a long time to reach her students. I have always thought of myself as a naturalist and have had a great interest in nature even as a kid. Growing up in the city, I enjoyed academic “book learning”, would visit the family farm and go “up north” quite frequently. But until I moved to a swampy, wooded, 40 acre lot near a federal forest, and lived there for about five years, did Nature’s lessons really sink in. At a certain point my eyes truly opened and I could finally “see the forest”. After ten years I can now ever “hear” it and better understand the language (which is like body or sign language if you will). In addition, the economy in this area is quite poor and is mostly based on tourism which follows the seasons. I’ve had lessons learned there as well. I plan on talking more with our Amish neighbors to help complete my education. Perhaps I was slower to learn than most and some folks might get it in less time than I did.