With the new budget forecasts coming out of the Obama administration showing deficits until the cows come home, it's time to face a troubling truth that we tried to forget in the prolonged sigh of relief of his presidential victory. There is no money for universal "conventional" health care, no money for moon voyages, no money to maintain highway infrastructure. We reside within an entrenched economic system that only values growth at a time when that growth is no longer a possibility.
Deficits that used to only appear during epochal times like World War II are now the norm. We have, in effect, already spent the money and energy for almost any future possible advance that might have come our way in the past few decades of heady suburban consumerism. Two massive and unstoppable trends are just getting geared up for their decades-long run, and if we try to maintain our current notions of economic growth as ever expanding material opulence, we are setting ourselves up for an economic system that is dead in every sense of the word, but somehow manages to keep stumbling forward due to the deviousness of our status as financial hegemon (specifically, the dollar's role as world reserve currency and our control of globalized financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank). We are entering the time of the economic living dead, the permanent zombie economy.
The first trend is the aging of the baby boomer generation. This represents a demographic shift that will mean increasing social security and medicare obligations on the part of existing workers already struggling to find jobs, while the retiring generation withdraws whatever funds might have been available for investing in a transition to a regenerative economy and spends them on second homes in far away lands and cruises around the Mediterranean. This amounts to a massive drawdown of accumulated wealth, and given the mindset of permanent adolescence that has forever characterized the Baby Boomer generation, there's little hope that they'll wise-up and use their accumulated funds in leaving the world a better place for their children.
The second is the peak in fossil fuel availability, especially in oil, as even sober-minded heads of oil companies are now admitting is at or past peak. This high-water mark in the availability of oil coincides with increasing population throughout the world, especially in developing countries. While oil prices rose over the last five years as production plateau-ed, oil consumption has been dramatically increasing in oil-producer nations as their higher income has translated into, guess what, higher demand for energy. This means that available exports of oil will decline much faster that worldwide oil production does, so that even if we can maintain the worldwide production plateau indefinitely, we Americans will see our slice of the oil pie dwindle year by year.
All this means we have an economic system -- whose only purpose is growth -- stuck in a shrinking vise of money and energy, inhabiting the hollowed-out body of a debt-bloated carcass that continues to stumble forward, only to be bonked on the head or shot in the stomach every few years by never-ending financial crises that are the product of attempting to achieve infinite growth in a finite world. This would all be depressing if our civilization and economic system had any correlation with our well-being and happiness. Fortunately, after we're housed and fed, it doesn't. Happiness results from autonomous individuals working together to make their homes and communities better places to live on a sustained basis, something that has absolutely nothing to do with neoclassical globalized zombie economics. Until we have the wherewithal to remove our current collective zombie economic brain and immolate it, we'll be stuck in the land of the economic undead, giving our hard-won earnings to zombie banks and the ridiculously-compensated zombie CEOs that control them (and us). Fortunately, resistance and change are possible if we have the courage to stand up for ourselves.
Stephen and Rebekah Hren are the authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit from Chelsea Green. For more information about green living, the Hrens, or their book, visit thecarbonfreehome.com.
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