Monday, October 27, 2008

An Idealistic Hedonist

I'm self-identifying here. This is how I think of myself and how I contextualize my life and world view. You see, I'm all about hope and joy and pleasure, which is a big part of why these phases of doom and gloom get me so off kilter.

I just attended my 20 year high school reunion this past weekend. It was a surreal experience that has resulted in a surprising amount of reflectiveness. On the longish drive up and back, I had that rarity: uninterrupted quiet time to think. And think I did. I thought about the person I was back in high school: angry and cynical and wounded. I was also pretty lost, searching for something to believe in, into which I could pour the energy and passion I contained; in short, I was a rebel without a cause. Ha... I and how many more, I'm sure, though I was probably just as often Tom Petty's rebel without a clue.

What I have become, however, as a mother, as an activist for peaceful parenting and alternative education and now, to an extent, for organic farming and self-sufficiency, is an idealist grounded in causes that provide meaning and import to my thoughts and actions. To a huge extent my children have given me reason to hope, reason to be the change I hope to see, reason to make this world a better place.

This is what I see in Barack Obama. He speaks to the idealism, the audacity of hope if you will, that says this world—and by extension ourselves—can be better, can be all that we long in our patriotic hearts for it to be. I recognize both the incredible potential and the frightening pitfalls in that kind of passionate idealism. Like the flip side of a coin, it's the kind of pathos that turns a country toward a Roosevelt or a Hitler in difficult times, and I think that encapsulates what we're facing in this election. I also think that's the kind of pathos both campaigns are trying to play to different ends, as the recent "socialism" charges demonstrate. I have a really hard time, however, seeing the kinds of public works projects that Obama speaks to in any light other than Roosevelt's New Deal to bring Americans out of depression and despair.

I wrote to a friend recently that I believe Obama is our last great hope for navigating this perfect storm of peak oil and economic crisis. We don't have lots of cheap and abundant oil to pull ourselves out of the next great depression, or whatever name we want to put to it: the great unwinding, the great deleveraging, the long emergency, etc. What we do have is a power of the people, a power of hope, and a power of idealism and belief in a better world, and we must tap that power if we are to weather the storm.

Here in America, we have entire generations who have grown up without ever having to give back to their community, without ever being asked by their leaders to do anything other than shop. We've grown up labeled as the "me" generation, but the ennui that characterizes Gen X and beyond reveals the psychic and spiritual emptiness of that kind of thinking. Barack Obama taps into the latent power of idealism and offers Americans the chance to pull ourselves out of this mess we're heading into not through cheap oil but simply by looking inside ourselves and believing, deep down, that each of us can make a difference and then by acting on that belief.

Why is idealism so often associated with youth, wishful thinking, even naivete? Why is it so cavalierly dismissed by the cynicism of age? Idealism is the foundation of principled living, the foundation of hope, of optimism, of the belief in life itself. Idealism has the power to be an infinite resource if properly nurtured. And by tapping into that belief we have a window, however small, to put in place the infrastructure that can potentially take us into the 21st century with alternative energies and a reduction of the greenhouse gasses that threaten not just our country but our entire planet.

As part of his message, Obama seeks to rekindle the idealism behind the notion that I am my brother's keeper, and I think that's worth parsing a bit because it goes back to my earlier comparison: what makes the difference between a country turning to a Roosevelt or a Hitler during trying times? I think it's an interesting question and a fine line to walk, and I think in many ways it encapsulates the concern many conservatives feel when confronted by phrases like "spreading the wealth." Folks fear the idea of a liberal nanny state, and I find that a very legitimate fear. I certainly don't want anyone telling me how to live, but Democrats surely don't have a corner on that market, and I find Palin to be the most fascist candidate out there. Honestly, she scares the hell out of me, and we had brief glimpses at her rallies of the kind of emotion and fervor she generates, nurturing the worst of America.

What we need now is a compassionate state, one that provides opportunity for all Americans rather than just a privileged few. We have been given this economic crisis as a moment to take our country in a new direction, to rebuild its infrastructure while simultaneously putting people to work, to make good and wise use of our dwindling oil supplies to potentially usher in a new era of sustainable energy and sustainable human habitation of our planet. Of course this change requires a massive paradigm shift, but crises have a funny way of creating the context for just such rapid shifts.

Folks all across Main Street, Republican and Democrat alike, are up in arms about the federal deficit and the legacy of debt we're leaving to our children and grandchildren, but very few are taking a close look at global warming or greenhouse gasses and asking the same questions about the legacy our choices will leave for generations to come. Rightfully, we should be far more concerned about our planet than what's happening on Wall Street or Main Street because global warming has such far reaching implications. Some of the world's top scientists have suggested that we need a 70 to 90% reduction in greenhouse gasses in order to reverse the effects of global warming. Mantras like "Drill baby, drill" aren't going to get us anywhere close to those reductions.

We stand now at a cross roads where our choices mean the difference between sneaking through a rapidly closing window, transitioning somewhat gracefully into a more sustainable way of life, or standing idly by and watching that window close for good, leaving future generations a world at war for ever-dwindling resources and an increasingly uninhabitable planet.

Please choose wisely.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Welcome to the "Real Economy"

I know, I promised no more doom and gloom, but heck, it's how I'm feelin' these days. (Sorry, been watchin' too much Sarah Palin on the news. Ei-yei-yei.)

The "real economy" is about to bite us all in the ass no matter whether credit markets are beginning to crack. The real economy is where we all dwell, and things are starting to get ugly just in time for the holidays. Job losses will be very, very real and hurt very real people, and the pervasive fear of potential job loss will cause consumers to guard their cash dearly, creating a negative spiral downward.

How is the economy affecting you? Have you all started to feel the pinch? Are you circling the wagons in the expectation of a pinch? Or is it shopping as usual?

For us, we're already facing tough decisions. The "real economy" has meant dwindling resources for my mother, and it looks like we will be combining households within the next few months. There's a very good chance that she'll be joining the ranks of mortgage defaults, as the likelihood of her home selling is pretty slim. Certainly we're in no financial position to maintain two households, and so the real economy comes crashing through our doors. These transitions will not be easy for any of us, and I'm working to wrap my brain around the change and come to a place of open acceptance, trying to prepare myself to take the high ground of empathy over selfishness. And I know we're not alone.

Most moments I feel so incredibly grateful for all that we have. We're lucky that Jim's job is very secure. I look around at my beautiful children, and thank our lucky stars for our health. I look around at the bounty on my land, and I'm humbled by the abundance. Most moments I trust how very insulated we have made ourselves, but there are those other moments when I recognize my own sense of attachment to that insulation and feel the lurking specter of fear that goes hand in hand with that attachment and understand that my real job right now is practicing non-attachment even as I continue to prepare.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And Life Goes On...

An old REM song keeps popping into my head with greater frequency these days, and I find myself crooning, "The world is collapsing ... around our ears..." to my cow, for instance, as I go about milking.

No doubt this financial crisis is worming its way into more American (and beyond!) psyches than just mine. We're poised on the brink of a reckoning, without a doubt, and regardless of how it all shakes out, the unknown is difficult to handle. There's simply nothing out there yet to wrap our brains around, no solid challenge to tackle head on. Just lurking shadows of history and chimeras of fear that keep us all on edge each time we round a corner.

Add to that the perfect storm of peak oil, population, and global instability and we live in very interesting times, indeed.

I vacillate between panic and paralysis in my own head, and who really needs to read about my private neuroses? So, I've been pretty quiet here lately, preferring to go insular and spend much of my time, mouth agape, watching the train wreck in front of my eyes, searching for small hints and signs of direction and best action.

I admit I'm filled with doom and gloom these days. I think there's a very good chance that we're headed into a global depression as the culture of credit and consumption catches up with all of us whether we're complicit personally or not. (Though I'd argue that it's impossible to live in the developed world without being complicit.) The direct infusion of cash into banks worldwide is enough to momentarily shore up the financial systems, but simply printing more money is not a long term answer. Far from it—it is instead a short-term band-aid that arises out of the same profligate mentality that got us into this global crisis in the first place.

We humans are unsustainable. That is the most basic inconvenient truth of our lives and one we're now forced to face. What we're seeing is a mad dash to deny that truth, or at the very least to keep the man behind the curtain for just a little while longer and continue the deception for the masses.

Our culture is unsustainable. Our sense of comfort and convenience and the entitlement to both are unsustainable. Our hubris and push toward immortality are unsustainable.

Our governments and financial leaders keep telling us that the central problem to the crisis is that credit is locked up. No. The central problem to this crisis is that the cash to lend no longer exists. Not that it ever did, of course, but now the house of cards has collapsed, and the Ponzi scheme of endless credit is revealed. Banks are holding onto their cash to try to cover their own asses. But that doesn't change the fact that there's nothing real, nothing hard behind the paper, and if we continue to try simply to print our way out of this mess, we're in for a world of hurt down the line. Pain now or pain later. Or both.

The point is that our economy is contracting, and this contraction back toward some semblance of sustainability will be painful. Jobs. Homes. Food. These are the basic things that we'll see falter. As the economy contracts, more and more jobs will be lost, affecting folks' ability to pay mortgage or rent, which means more people will lose their homes. Not just people who were overextended, but perfectly solvent and responsible people who depended upon their job to pay for food and shelter. Pretty basic stuff since most of us fall into that category.

How secure is your income? How adaptable are you? How self-sufficient? These are the questions I'm asking myself and I think everyone should be asking.

Can we pay off a 30 year mortgage in the next year? No way. Is our income secure enough to rest assured that we'll keep our home? I hope. Do we have ways of creating income should our current one fail? I don't know because history tells me that even if I can produce goods for sale, there's no guarantee anyone will be able to buy them in a depressed society.

Aren't you glad I'm back? I promise I'll go light on the gloom and doom and heavy on the self-sufficient stuff in the coming days.