The Coming Economic Contraction

Published on Dissident Voice, by James Keye, May 25, 2011.

Economic contraction, the lowering of material wealth standards especially for the middle classes, is more complex than the simple redistribution of tiny increments of wealth from the multitude to the aggressively rich. There is a more serious process in play. It is that those peoples and nations using more than an average of about 2.5 hectares per capita of the earth’s productive capacity must bring down their use (1 hectare = 100 meters by 100 meters = 2.47 acres): this can be done with some equity and social justice or it can be done in dynamic struggle to keep present levels, increase use on the old pattern, if possible, and push want and despair off onto others. (search “Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010” and “2010 NFA data tables” for most resent data).  

Put another way, this can be done with some serious efforts at fairness or it can be done catastrophically. Our opening efforts, while not irrevocable, seem pointed toward catastrophe. At present the need to reduce average consumption is occurring at the same time as the world’s wealthiest people are increasingly using their power advantage to gather up (steal from other humans and the rest of the living world) and control as much real wealth as possible.

Much of the analysis, in the developed countries, of our changing life styles, living standards and material well-being has been done with the unstated, underlying assumption that any reduction in personal wealth is an unnecessary, dreadful and unacceptable loss – this is a very dangerous foundational belief, and suffers from a variety of errors of thinking and living.

The biggest danger is that the rich use this way of thinking to justify what are, from any reasonable point of view, excesses that do violence to other humans and the living space. The other major and nearly equal danger is that those living beyond the earth’s productive capacity, though not rich, not only use this argument, but are encouraged in it by all that find it appealing, and thus make it impossible to have the serious consideration of our future that is needed.

The belief that the value of one’s life is dependent on material measures is at once too easy and too deeply incorrect to be satisfactory, but the ease has trumped the inaccuracy. The great distance that our human lives have moved from the forming and effective experiences of our origins have left a vacuum of meaning and purpose to be filled. The shame is that we have filled that need with garbage – if not true garbage to begin with… all the ‘stuff’ ends up as discarded in the end… //

…While these matters have general importance, it is the personal response to them that ultimately counts. Human action is never more than the summation of the actions of many individuals; and activity of the most vital importance is no action at all unless actually preformed in numbers sufficient to produce the necessary effect.

Individuals may move others to take actions, but acting only by themselves accomplishes only the smallest part. And so it is in the movements of the many that some change occurs. Margaret Mead was not wrong though: change does rise from the small and committed group, but by that group’s influence on the many, by engaging them in the imagination created, formalized and spread from a concentrated and incipient source.

This is where you come in; and me. We must begin to make adjustments. Fight the crimes of economic and power elites to be sure, but realize that we are not fighting to restore an unsustainable and profligate consumption: we cannot be about taking from the rich so that we can be rich; that is how we got into trouble in the first place. Our struggle must be for equity in our social lives and the humanity of specieshood in our personal lives. We can rediscover what is just barely hidden from us, ready on a moment’s notice to reappear. We can rediscover the capacity to help others and to receive help, the pleasures of making do in the company of others making do. We can rediscover meaning and purpose in life more fulfilling of our biology, history and human capacities.

There is much to learn that we already know, but have been made too frightened to approach. Some of you must become leaders in that risking, learning and doing. (full long text).

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