02/22/2009 11:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Further Thoughts on "Our Crisis Is Not Economic"

By Stephen C. Rose

The original is in blockquotes.

The best way to understand the current economic crisis is to see that it is not economic. It is political, but even that designation is inadequate. It is a seismic evolutionary fissure that has yet to be fully identified. This post, and links to a few other exploratory posts on this blog, will seek to outline what I believe to be the prominent features of our situation and the likely avenues for a move into the future.

Though this was written first a year ago, it remains true. Virtually no one, including the experts, claim to know the future. Some sense of the future is necessary for any confidence to take root.

We are watching the Dow continue to sink. I believe it is partly due to the probability that many businesses are unable to determine whether the products they produce are relevant to a future they cannot grasp.

Any influential text on economics, philosophy or history has claimed that it understands what a crisis is and what the way out is. The premise of this post and of the Pattern Language posts I am writing and of this blog generally is that the age of oil is ending. This is hardly an original thought. But I also assume that the age of the automobile is ending. This means that the entire structure of global development, which emulates the United States, is doomed if it continues this emulation. And that we in the US are economically doomed if we assume that we can build an economy on growth, on the continuation of an automobile economy and on the premise that people in the future are going to wish to purchase separate dwellings at prices approaching the values they had when the prices started free falling.

In the broadest sense the evolutionary change now taking place represents a battle between the predatory instincts that Veblen flagged with such prescience more than a century ago and the workmanlike instincts that he so admired. It is odd to me that people will read Baudrillard who builds on Veblen and never turn a page of the original texts which can be found, happily now, online.

The reason the current crisis is not economic is that our economy is by any measure unsustainable.

If this is true, then the sort of economics 101 thinking of Rachel Maddow and everyone else who believes we can spend our way out of this is either a palliative or a desperately erroneous assumption. Sustainability is a nice green code word to which many give lip service. But at root it is an invitation to a scaled back way of life and that is hardly what people want. Our crisis involves reckoning with our human battle between lassitude and the proactive responsibility needed to deal with real and significant change in the way we live. Sustainability means we build and design in such a way that our goal is anti-growth. Of rather that our idea of growth has morphed from an emphasis on the acquisition of more and more to the conscious making do with less and less. Not that we do not grow as human beings or as communities or spiritually. All these nice realities are enhanced by the change we are going through.

Consider a simple example. We build houses now that are hugely expensive and even more so when we consider all the things we put in them. What if we were to concentrate on producing customized spaces which would be our own rooms and which would not require us to purchase beds, couches, chairs, desks and such, because they would be built in. What sort of disruption would this cause in a company that is entirely devoted to creating household objects that would become obsolete through such an understanding?

Do you see the problem that is facing businesses? What do they make if the whole world of growth is melting before their eyes? And it is.

We cannot survive by hallowing indebtedness ad infinitum, both as a government panacea and an individual or family lifestyle or as a prominent feature of much business. A culture of indebtedness is not sustainable.

This raises an entirely different but related issue. We hear that our entire economy depends on debt. That banks have functioned by enlarging their risk to many times the funds they possess and that wealth itself is dependent on this legerdemain. We have apparently lived through a time when this shaky premise was raised to the fifth or tenth power by wildly greedy and deluded financial dealers. And now it seems we are trying to vaporize the resulting paper debt with real paper which we call money.

Does this not have the feel of confronting one fiction with another, in the hope that we will somehow restart the economy?

But wait. The economy cannot be made to work because it is built not only on untenable debt but on untenable notions that a growth economy can continue to function in our world.

It will function only if we translate capitalism and growth into a concerted effort to make sustainability the value we build in to everything.

We cannot survive by palliative tweaks to our current structures under the label of "green." Current advertisements for companies that claim to be going green may lull us into believing that we can survive by moving, this way and that, among existing options such as various fuels.

The current and likely future of the green economy, fueled by modest but significant investments, will be to try to shore up the structures of our metrosprawl, commuter, debt-based society. This will not do anything more than create a false sense of security while wasting time before the ultimate decision is made -- to end the dominance of the private car, to end the dictatorship of debt, and to begin creating human settlements that have the elements needed to enhance life and sustain it safely and creatively.

Even if we could prop up the current system, it would not accomplish the best purpose of an economic system, which is to make it possible for all within it to achieve a measure of relief from poverty, illness and ignorance.

Elsewhere I have argued that our global system is one of benign genocide, fuelled by the partnership of capitalism and philanthropy. The beginning arguments for this position can be found by searching out the relevant keywords on this blog. The point here is that all talk of Millennium goals and of reducing global poverty, ignorance and disease depends on a stiff-arm NO of all the world to a metrosprawl future. Monte Python was right in The Life of Brian to portray hell as a parking lot.

At its best, our global system can be described as an amalgamation of capitalism (widely understood) and philanthropy, defined as the sum total of activities we engage in under the label not-for-profit,. Including educational and medical institutions as well as the plethora of associations and NGOs and governmentl agencies that are non-profit (sic).

Our current system is a faltering machine whose product is benign genocide -- which I define as the sum total of global deaths that result from the way the system is set up. Any honest redoing of our global economy must at least recognize why the current mechanisms fail. Or else we shall be condemned to self-delusion. believing than incremental tweaks are a real solution and celebrating achievements whose celebration is in itself a cause for tears.

The answer to the conundrum created by acknowledging that our present economic system is unsustainable, is an integral politics which is providentially the potential of an Obama candidacy.

Such a politics can communicate that the solution to our problems is not merely a matter of moving beyond religious, racial, gender and cultural barriers, but by creating a culture of integral communication of the elements needed to conquer problems and of integral projects which exemplify such behavior in action.

If Barack Obama is elected, he will be a leader fit for these times. He will, I believe, propose not that we compete to bring our economy back but that we move to a post-oil, post capitalist-philanthropic, post-debt-enslaved, post-consumer culture based on a reclamation of key values that have been sliced and diced in our Balkanized intellectual environment.

The primacy of the individual. This is not conservative or liberal, it is simply the truth.

The primacy of public space as a measure of cultural attainment.

The creation of new human settlements based on a wedding of high technology and values implicit in Christopher Alexander's pattern language. These I envision as experimental nodes where groups live independent of the need to drive cars.

The understanding that being green involves doing so on a scale that requires what the New Testament calls new wine skins. In other words, it makes sense to build something green and integral from bottom to top that can be home and workplace and cultural space for from five to ten-thousand.

Green yes. Beyond green and integral. Absolutely. Changing the world. Understood.

A concluding thought: The actual material elements needed to create the sort of settlement I envision, car-free, eco-sufficient and integral would create a blue-print for a completely revived business and even a changed business culture, if that is possible.

Elements would be all of the new products needed to create a completely workable matrix for a settlement one mile in diameter -- including

1. All the elements needed to enable recycling for the entire community, power from all sources for the entire community, and security for the entire community.

2. All of the forms and materials to make the forms of the lego blocks needed to enable the creation of customized spaces that are transportable as containers are today and which can be assembled onsite within the matrix. This is virtually fifty new industries.

3. All of the work needed to transform all existing institutions so that they can reconstitute themselves as nodes within new human settlements. This means the creation of new models for a dispersed education, a dispersed health, a dispersed corporation and so forth model.

Need I go further? All one has to do is to think beyond the dominance of the car and to the need for integral and eco-sufficient communities to begin to imagine a way to reconstitute capitalism not as an engine of infinite growth of the sort we have known, but as the engine of sustainable societies.

I will go this far. Paul Krugman won a Nobel for his acuity in economics. In a recent NY Times column, he suggests that the economy will rebound when housing and cars become more marketable. I am saying that that day will not come. It may come in some partial and even artificial way. But Krugman is wrong not because there might not be some recovery, but because he still believes that the future belongs to housing of the sort we have in our metrosprawl and to automobiles of any sort. Anders Nygren long ago wrote a salient essay on the role of the self-evident in history. It is self-evident today that automobiles and detached houses no longer have the capacity to drive an economy. But for this very reason it is completely ignored. It is self evident that, like ponzis, growth economies are unsustainable. But no one seems to pay it any mind.