Monday, January 16, 2012

The system is broken and can’t be fixed

Apparently, I’m not the only person who’s broke.
Late with the rent, I called in a panic to a client who usually pays on time but was about one week tardy with my latest submission.
“Hey, I was wondering if you sent out my check yet. It usually goes out the Friday after my column gets published.”
It had been two Fridays, which made it harder for me to be on time with my rent. I’d already had a couple of conversations with my roommate, who wondered when I’d have the rest of this month’s rent.
“Maybe it’s the postal service,” he suggested kindly when I told him my check hadn’t arrived yet. “We haven’t been getting much of our mail lately. Have you?”
“Well, no. Certainly, no check,” I said, bewildered but doubting that the postal service was at fault.
“Well, they’ve done this before, where they put all of our mail at the right address, but on the wrong street,” he said. “I called the post office today to see if our mail is missing for some reason.”
“What did they say?”
“There shouldn’t be any problem. We should be getting our mail. Will you go down the street, and check the address there, and see if our mail got dropped off there somehow?” He pointed the place out from where we sat on the balcony.
“You know what,” I said, “I’ll call about my check first and see if it’s even gotten into the mail yet.”
I went downstairs to make the call. The check hadn’t gone out, I discovered, held because of a tight cash flow.
“You’re kidding!” I said, surprised that such a reliable client would be having trouble. “It’s that bad, huh?”
“It seems no one can pay their bills,” she said.
I’ve been feeling bad about my lateness, which has been more of a problem in the last three years of economic downturn. I haven’t been able to pay my bills in full for at least that long.
My debts are not off the charts but they’re enough to raise one’s eyebrows.
The sad part, I guess, is the “loser” tag that comes with getting behind on everything: medical bills, auto repairs, new clothes, a trip to the barber, the rent.
“Why don’t you just get a job?” someone has asked more than once.
“Well, I’ve got two jobs and I’m working on a third.” They’re not glam jobs by any measure, and I probably would do better by applying for a position at Home Depot, as recommended, but I like working in the blueberry patch, and I like getting paid to write from home.
My daughter, who recently graduated from college, says I should go back to school. “If you can’t find a job, dad, you could at least learn something new.”
It’s worth considering. Maybe a degree in horticulture? An apprenticeship in permaculture, or in some other related technology that will move us into the future? I’d like to stay as close to the farm as possible. 
I’m convinced that our future rests in local, organically grown produce, in economies built on a smaller, more communal scale, a return to the village lifestyle. It may seem a quaint notion now but not so much when food becomes scarce or beyond the reach of most pocketbooks.
I’m also convinced it will be a very long time before we see the level of prosperity Americans made for themselves in the boom years after World War II, when every gear and factory in the country was cranking away, building the largest middle class the world has ever seen.
Those days are gone, and so are the factories and the middle class. We’ve entered into a new phase of living. What happens next is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, though, we’ll never see such a lavish lifestyle again, not any time soon, and definitely not until we find an alternative source of energy that can power a global economy the way cheap oil has.
The days of cheap oil are over too. 
Oil is becoming more scarce; by most reliable accounts, we’ve gone past the halfway point of what once was thought of as an endless supply, and entered into the era of depletion, which means costlier and riskier extraction. BP’s oil desecration of the Gulf of Mexico is proof of that. 
It seems so many Americans fail to understand this; and if they do understand, they haven’t figured out what to do next, aside from buying a hybrid car, or screwing in a few energy saving light bulbs. Better solutions are out there, and much more needs to be done. But nothing’s going to happen if we dont admit that the system is broken and can’t be fixed.
The economy, government, corporate America—they’re broken and can’t be fixed. Try fixing them, if you want, but they will never be the same; they will never support you the way they supported your parents and grandparents.
I’m done with thinking the federal government or the corporate world can do anything to help me, or that the state or chamber of commerce will do much to advance the interests of the poor. I don’t need a half-trillion dollar military to protect me. I can protect myself.
I’m looking for people and organizations that build their communities out of mutual trust in supporting one another’s interests. If you live in my village and need some food, and I’m a grower, I might be able to help you. That’s the way it’s going to be.
Forget about outside help. It’s time to get neighborly and smart, such as putting a premium value on small local farms, craftsmen, tinkerers, and people who know how to build, collaborate and get things done.
So many people seem worried about what’s going to happen when they run out of money. Well, we may actually have to find something else besides money to get things done. We may have to barter, share and give something back. We might have to reduce our consumer demands.
In my own reduced circumstances, I feel like the canary living on the edge of danger, the precipice of change, seeking a pathway to safety. My wings are in flight mode, my brain is in a panic. I sense changes ahead that will place a great deal more emphasis on living simply.
The takeaway economy appears to be declining, leaving behind a mess of bankruptcies and foreclosures, broken homes and looted bank accounts. Out of this mess, somehow, we have to rebuild.
The oil economy, with all of its riches and destructive force and power, is coming to an end soon. 
The breakdown in oil-driven systems has already begun to occur. You can see it in the increase of poverty, the rising cost of goods and services, the nation’s crumbling infrastructures, the threats of war. The fundamental breakdown, however, the one that will get everyone’s attention, will be the failure of the system that delivers our food.
We might put more of our attention on that than worry about a full economic “recovery,” or where our next barrel of oil is going to come from. 
Until we develop reliable alternative sources of energy, and perhaps even after we’ve learned (or start to learn) how to power our lives without oil, I doubt we’ll ever see an economy such as the one in which I and other Boomers grew up. 
Meanwhile, I keep hearing tales of woe to come from the progressive left, namely from writers like Chris Hedges, who envision a horrible end to our rich lives as we once knew them. We’re already victims to the wiles of corporate barbarism and it will only get worse, they say, warning of a repressive state security system run by the very same money madmen who run the corporations.
Because the system is broken and can’t be fixed, I see something entirely different: Out of necessity, or out of simple communal interest in survival, the emergence of strong local economies based on barter, not just money; a renewed interest in protecting local fisheries and agricultural land; and a new approach to building homes that produce rather than consume energy.
As I transition from the old way of life into something smaller and newer, I’m discovering literally what it’s like to be hungry again, a sensation that can do wonders for the imagination.
I can live with hunger. It’s a motivator. What’s hard is the feeling that this experience of lack must be a solo virtue, which implies I’m the only one who is suffering, and getting what is deserved. If I wasn’t such a slacker, everything would be better. 
But I’m beginning to see that others who are not slackers may also be slipping through the cracks, letting a few bills go past due, fighting to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table.
After my call to inquire about my missing paycheck, I learned that there are a lot of people besides me who also can’t seem to pay to their bills.
At first, it alarmed me: “If others can’t pay their bills, how will I ever pay mine?” Then, I realized I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who’s broke. There’s hope yet. There’s security in numbers. 
As more of the impoverished begin to voice their concerns, we might be more likely to find each other and to search for innovative ways to rebuild from the ground up, to place our treasures closer to home, out of reach from the grinding impacts of a failing global economy run by corrupt businessmen protected by an equally corrupt government.

I’d like to look past the horror-filled scenarios drawn by alarmists who see the current economic malaise as the beginning of the end of civil society, a collapse into total anarchy and violence.
Maybe it’s the beginning of the end of greed. I’d like to think so. If not, we’ll all be broke soon. §


  1. Hmmm it seems that we all come to various conclusions.. some see it coming 30 years ago... some it takes a few years and others they dont see it until its passed. Some want it to be fixed, others are welcoming the unraveling and the great turning since theres an understanding that it cant keep continuing the way it has been... but we are in transition. perhaps we came here at this time to BE the transition, to become the transition, to become the solutionaries that are already discontent with what has been and changing it with imagination and creativity to not only survive but to thrive. I was watching a film called "Bonsai People" about the ingenuity of Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Bank, loaning money to the poorest of the poor. He was told they would never pay him back.. But they did.. 98% of the people paid him back because they want to live and thrive and they are... mostly women.. the men are still dead beats.. and it seems that way throughout the world where women get things done. Perhaps its because they are better at this community thing, where they know people, they can connect and interconnect... they can be good neighbors, what is essential in times of crises and transition.

    Seven years ago or more I published a special issue on peak oil. I was shocked that all my fruits became spoiled. No one was paying attention... and then Transition Towns came onto the floor of the good news platform and a few people listened... some gardens were built, some city council people listened. In cities like Portland they created entire committees to study how peak oil would affect their communities. Other cities jumped on it as well. In Los Osos, just down the street from Cayucos they (the Los Osos transition folks) are gathering meetings to talk about resiliency in neighborhoods. Folks reading this ought to meet up with them. Films have been documented about this. Solutions abound. Last year was the greatest in community gardens the US ever has witnessed, like an entire floodgate has opened. Who would have imagined Occupy would have become a global force 6 months ago? And now look where it is moving? Groups are joining with other community groups and talking and doing things, occupying foreclosed properties like in Santa Cruz and turning the home into an eco-center so people can learn how to live not only simply but with dignity and with creativity and a thriving mentality that nature exudes with its constant fecundation!!!

    During the Depression (1929 style) 200 local currencies came into existence to keep people working and contributing and eating. They were not going to allow a staunch and tyrannical system of a monopolistic version of money dominate their lives. They got creative, they bartered, they lost weight, they started producing eggs from their chickens and using it as a source of revenue and barter and cash... In the film about the Argentina crash we saw people rtaking over the factories when the owners skipped town. When the police came to evict the workers, neighbors came around the police cars and told them to leave. The police left. Workers ran the factories. Farmers who had their land confiscated now were growing veggies in the cities. The middle class woke up to the fact that their "affluence" separated themselves from their neighbors and each other.

    it looks like this is too long so will separate them.... see for part 2...

  2. Part 2: These are ripe times, important times, crises times.. and when crisis happens we change or die. Often times we wont change until there is a crisis.. so rather than fight the deep winds of change lets welcome them, clean up where we are still separating ourselves from our neighbors, or still clinging to our addictions of consumption or pleasure or whats known.. and welcome to the Mystery of our lives with gratitude and acceptance of what is and prepare not out of fear and loathesomness and an arrogant demanding for it to be taken care of by the authorities and fix it now.... Let reality unveil itself and walk out our door and invite people into your life, gather our resources, create an inventory of whos growing what.. and where our water is... and read the books and watch the films by pioneers and bioneers who have seen this coming and work it out... Thanks Stacey for posting your thoughts.. that triggered my own... ahh the value of writing and the process of waking up!!!!