Surviving in the new economy – How did we get here?

Published by rudy Date posted on May 1, 2011

We find ourselves in a catastrophic predicament. All of us. Do not blame governments, presidents, scientists, economists, or political parties. Do not panic. Remain calm and sensible. We must take responsibility for ourselves, wherever we live – and band together as never before if we are to survive.

We may not necessarily agree on the causes of global warming, or when peak oil will occur, or how our money should be regulated. These issues are highly debatable and very much out of individual control. Let us take charge, however, of what is actually within reach.

There has been a change in the wind. The future we took for granted has been altered. The new economy, whatever it may be – and whether it was inevitable, is past debate. It is already here. Welcome to the new economy.

Most of you did not live through the last Great Depression, nor experience first-hand the boom and birth of suburban consumer culture in the post-WWII era, when oil was dirt cheap and products of convenience were eagerly acquired in the electronic revolution. The thrill of your first washing machine, dishwasher, gas range, or refrigerator belongs to a generation gone by. Remind yourself that talking movies, radio, and television have only been around since the 1920’s. Not that long ago.

Some of us are old enough to recall our first handheld calculator, learning how to operate a microwave oven, or teaching our grandparents how to program a VCR. This would be the current baby-boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964.

But now, all generations on the planet are more or less technologically savvy, completely plugged in to internet culture and never more than a cell phone call away from anyone else, and we take it for granted that the same technology will solve any situation, crisis, or doomsday scenario that befalls us.

And with the exception of cancer, aids, and the common cold – it has. Between medical science, genetic engineering, quantum physics and semiconductor technology we live in a world full of artificial gadgetry and non-natural pleasures. Human ingenuity is definitive of our living experience in the new millennium.

It is interesting indeed to contrast these human comfort zones with the simplicity and elegance of natural selection and evolution, the very processes that brought us into this world. The rise and fall of ancient and modern civilizations has been an ongoing trend ever since the first hunter-gatherers ceased their nomadic ways and established permanent settlements.

Tribal communities live close to the land with good reason. Their existence completely depends upon finding enough meat, protein, and nourishment to get them from one day to the next. There is no cash among primitive people. Their economy is based on collective sharing, bartering, and trading.

Among these ancient people there were very limited means for storing surplus commodities. The tribe’s labor expenditure was all-consuming and left no time at the end of the day for recreational activities or the pursuit of art, music, or higher culture. Even written language took a back seat and came much later. Thousands of years later.

People were fear driven and distrustful of the unknown, which was all around them. This mindset permeated all cultures right up until the Age of Enlightenment of the 1600-1700s which began with Descartes’ ‘Discourse on the Method’ (1637) when superstition, pagan religion and folklore gave way to scientific reasoning.

Shortly afterwards, humankind harnessed the horsepower of natural energy to drive primitive machines and turbines. First with wood and water powered mills, and then progressing to steam and coal engines. Ultimately there was cheap, abundant oil to power ‘horseless carriages’ and auto-mobiles until the breakthrough of atomic power at the height of WWII in 1942.

Cheap oil is responsible for the dramatic growth and prosperity enjoyed in the United States during the automobile age right up to the timeline of suburbia and the baby-boomers. Tract housing, improved transportation and road/railway infrastructure, efficient manufacturing techniques, and automation paved the way for surplus income, resulting in increased leisure time for the masses. Did you know that the price of oil basically remained the same from 1878 to 1971 at approximately $20 per barrel?

An entire industry of consumer culture sprang up in the oil-driven economy, centered on convenient labor saving devices and appliances, and the pursuit of music, movies, and television. Proud breadwinners provided their families with swimming pools, holidays in the mountains, recreational vehicles, a car for the wife, college for their children, and a second mortgage to pay for it all.

Life was good. It was all about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ as the middle class rose up out of the ashes of the industrial revolution. Quantum leaps in technology, the arts, literature, philosophy, and international relations brought the world closer together.

The Cold War between the Russia and the United States (1945-1991) actually fostered competition in space travel, transportation, communication, and the development of military weaponry which spilled over favorably into the private sector, affording exciting breakthroughs which brought even more convenience into the lives of the masses.

The hairline trigger represented by the world’s dependence on oil first trembled in 1971 with the Middle East energy crisis. It flared up again in 2008 when oil hit an all-time high of $147.27 during trading on July 11, 2008, fueled by investor speculation. As expected, although there was no actual shortage of oil as there was back in 1971, many people and businesses suffered.

This combination of oil and commodities speculation, coupled with fraudulent banking practices, and burst of the housing/credit bubble has touched off the present crisis.Why this crisis is irreversible will be explained shortly. The point is that this time, there is no going back.

History has repeated itself, and a long term pattern of steady growth and sudden decay in the modern world civilization is currently in the throes of completing a final cycle for the simple reason that it has become ultimately unsustainable.

To put it in very simple terms, we are out of cheap energy and have used up our own resources without replenishing them.

The writing is on the wall; has been for some time. People are starting to wake up to the larger picture and realize that change is imminent, foreseeable, and imperative for survival. Who’s survival? In a nutshell: yours. From a global perspective: humankind’s. –Ted Ollikkala

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