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Blog item: What We Can And Cannot Afford

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6 comments, last: Feb-20-2010   Add a comment   Author:  Wavehunter (Jan-17-2010)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Philosophical & Quality of Life, Political

Plastic garbage continues to accumulate... a sign of our economic and cultural priorities title=It was around twenty years ago that the Soviet system collapsed. I remember the Western journalists poking around Russia's towns and reporting on what they found. They found factories producing substandard goods nobody wanted, while basic needs went unmet. The journalists found a broken system. They wondered why it hadn't collapsed sooner.

The flaws in the Soviet system seemed obvious to the Westerners, but to those who had been working at its centre they were less clear. The factories were producing according to plans laid down from on high. The plans had a logic to them. If everyone did their bit then the whole country ought to prosper. Sure there were problems at a local level, but it didn't do to ask questions. It wasn't for any individual factory boss to second guess the system when she or he could only see a small part of it.

Today, our system is broken. Most of us, however, are either blind to it or in denial.

The political system is broken. Billions of people looked to their leaders to shake on a deal in Copenhagen, yet all the politicians could deliver was a weak, non-binding declaration made by between a handful of countries. Some say Barack Obama wanted to do more for climate change. If so, he wasn't blocked by the American people, but by the American Senate. Opinion polls tell us the American people, the British people and the Afghan people all want NATO to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Instead, the war is scaled up.

The economic system is broken. All around us there are jobs that need doing. Clearing the floating plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre – that's a huge job. Where I live, in Mexico, practically every house ought to have a solar water heater – building them and installing them could keep a lot of people busy. There are trees that need planting and wind turbines that need erecting and solar panels that need dusting down. Old people need visiting, the sick need nursing and the hungry need feeding. And in Haiti, today, the needs are huge.

A working economic system would match resources to needs. Our system leaves important jobs undone while millions remain out of work.

Those in power tell us we cannot afford to do these things. They say the United States cannot afford a high speed rail network or a world-class public healthcare system; they say the United Kingdom cannot afford to replace more than a fraction of its inefficient water heaters; they say Germany cannot afford to rein in its car industry, which exports gas guzzlers to every corner of the globe. They are wrong.

They say the US state of California is bankrupt. I've never been to California, but I've seen one or two pictures. There's some poverty there, of course, but there are also huge mansions, glass skyscrapers and oversized cars. California is not bankrupt. If California can afford all these things but must close state parks and eliminate welfare and health programmes, then California simply has topsy-turvy priorities. They are the priorities of the political-economic system, all at odds with society and the environment.

We can afford to move towards a fully employed, environmentally sustainable, caring society. Indeed, we cannot afford not to. What we cannot afford is war, McDonald's, SUVs, multiple foreign holidays, plasma televisions, Las Vegas, and institutionalised greed.

We cannot afford our broken system. The question is, do we wait for the system to collapse or do we start building a new one now.

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Feb-20-2010)   Web site
The situation we are in is a bit like the change from classical physics to the Einstienian understanding of the universe. Until we were able and had to confront inexplicable facts about the universe, the classical understanding was adequate and correct. Now we understand that the universe is not put together the way it appeared to be in the 19th century.

Similarly, the economy and environment and energy have not needed to be understood differently until now. Until now, we could exploit capitalistic impulses, extract resources and dump garbage, and burn the stored energy of hundreds of millions of years.

Now a new understanding is needed (and debatably should have been in effect 50 years ago as well). If we do not transition to the new understanding, the changed reality we live in as things Peak, will make us understand them whether we want to or not.

It is better to learn from the signs all around us before hitting the bottom and probably doing permanent damage.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Feb-11-2010)   Web site

Joe Brown may be right, AG, but it strikes me this thought is not particularly new. Capitalism has always been tempered in some way, more in some countries than others. The state intervenes with subsidies and taxes and border controls. The debate has long been between those who think these interventions are the problem and those who believe they should be stronger.

Adam Smith came up with the theory of capitalism. It would work as a system of production, he reckoned, but at such a cost to society that it should never be tried. Unfortunately his fans ignored that bit, just as many of them continue to ignore its cost to the environment.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Feb-10-2010)   

"Joe Brown" on Joe Bageant's page :

"Lastly and most importantly, I think the Tea Baggers are really our canary in the mine that we are entering our late empire period. Crisis and decline in such situations does not lead to discrediting the failed ideologies that caused the given crisis, but rather the belief that we are failing because we were not faithfull enough to those ideals. (Think of the crisis in Islamic world and the rise of fundamentalism.)"
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Feb-10-2010)   Web site

Yep. Yet the chance of getting a high enough percent of political "leaders" to think clearly enough and deal with this properly, and not recoil in terror of disturbing their corporate sponsorhips, is sadly quite small.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Feb-9-2010)   

One of the paradigms about our current consumption is that when we make the decision to purchase, we don't actually see the real cost of the items. The costs of war, government, property protection, ownership, exploitation, erosion, climate change, pollution, and social support are not included in the price. They are taken from our paychecks before we even see them or they are simply put off into the future with debt promises. The income tax code is right up there with the Federal Reserve as one of the Big Diversions of all time.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-18-2010)   Web site

Brilliant, William.

Taking California as a case in point, this is a state with great natural resources, rich farm land, and at one time, and seemingly today, ample development of businesses and industry.

What kind of economy is it that then that finds there is no money? Where did the money go? Articles on this type of economic crisis always say there is no money, but the hidden assumption is always that government and the economic system is optimized. Yet that assumption must be wrong.

I am in New York, the opposite end of the country, and so I do not hear many of the details about the California disaster... but perhaps some other reader can point to how such a resource-rich state can be close to failing, at least on the books. If no answers come forward, I may need to do some research and write more about it.

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About author/contributor Member: Wavehunter (William Coffin) Wavehunter (William Coffin)
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Member: Wavehunter (William Coffin) I lived in Britain for many years, where I studied politics and international relations and worked in the charity sector. Now I live in Mexico and juggle my time between bringing up a young son, writing science fiction, teaching English and engaging with the global community on-line. I want to learn more about the enormous changes we all face so we might make a peaceful transition to what is bound to be a very different society.

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